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Charlene Li: “Have empathy for their day to day struggles and create content that will help them”

Solve your audience’s problems. Have empathy for their day to day struggles and create content that will help them. Thought leadership is never about you — it’s always about them. It may feel awkward because you feel like you are talking about yourself, but you won’t be if you always focus on your audience’s needs. The minute […]


Solve your audience’s problems. Have empathy for their day to day struggles and create content that will help them. Thought leadership is never about you — it’s always about them. It may feel awkward because you feel like you are talking about yourself, but you won’t be if you always focus on your audience’s needs. The minute you lose sight of that and try to make it about you, you lose your credibility.


As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Charlene Li. Charlene is the author of six books including the New York Times bestseller, Open Leadership and co-author of the critically acclaimed book, Groundswell. Her latest book is The Disruption Mindset which was released this fall. She is the Founder and Senior Fellow at Altimeter, is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School, and was named one of the most creative people in business by Fast Company.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I was born and grew up in Detroit, Michigan, the daughter of immigrants from China. We were the only non-white family in my neighborhood so for many years I was the “only” in my circles. As a result, disruption was a part of my every day — my simply being was disruptive to the status quo. I think this prepared me to look at things from a different perspective. I was very lucky to become an analyst in 1999, covering the rise of online advertising, search marketing, and social media. I started blogging in 2004, wrote my first book in 2008, and started Altimeter that same year. It’s been a fun journey but despite the seismic changes we’ve witnessed over the past two decades, I think we’re just getting started!

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

I was one of the people who helped re-write the rules of what constitutes thought leadership when I started blogging in 2004. My expertise was really put to the test when I started Altimeter, a disruptive analyst firm. We gave away our thought leadership, gained a significant following, and developed a brand that rivaled much larger and more established players in the space. We developed a large and loyal following via social media and digital channels with no marketing budget and drove 100% of our revenues from inbound inquiries.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I was at a conference and approached the speaker after her talk. I introduced myself and the speaker suddenly threw her arms around me and said, “I’m so excited to meet you — I feel like I know you!” It was great but honestly, I was a bit taken aback. I knew that my writing was gaining traction but I didn’t realize how strong of a personal connection people were feeling with me. I realized then that the most effective thought leadership comes from a relationship that develops between you and your followers. By understanding and nurturing that relationship, by making that connection the focus of your work, you are doing the real work of thought leadership.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was in online newspaper publishing, we were editing in straight HTML because cascading style sheets (CSS) hadn’t been invented yet. (Yeah, it was that early and it was truly painful.) I was trying to be helpful and somehow deleted some really important script, completely crashing our site. Aghast, I ran to my editor who very quickly fixed the problem. The lesson I learned was to recognize the limits of my coding skills — and recognize when I needed to call in the pros.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

Authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner wrote in The Leadership Challenge that leadership is simply a relationship between people who aspire to create change and those who are inspired to follow them. In typical leadership, the authority to lead comes from a title and role that’s bestowed upon them. But a thought leader’s authority comes from the power of their words and ideas to move people to action. Those ideas change how someone thinks and feels, and galvanizes a different mindset. An influencer is similar to a thought leader but is more focused on changing the buying decision for a specific product or service and usually through their personal endorsement of that product or service. Influencers invest in building a following that they can influence and steer to a particular product — and are paid for their ability to drive preference and consideration. A thought leader can use their authority to sway opinion about a product or service, but they typically refrain from endorsements and get paid instead for their perspective and thoughts on a particular topic.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

The biggest benefit of being a thought leader is that you can develop a relationship with your followers who then come to depend on you for insight and direction in a particular area. If there’s a need for deeper, more personalized insight for a particular group or problem, you can be asked to engage as a speaker, advisor, consultant, or board member, each of which typically involves some kinds of payment. That investment can result in 100% inbound leads for your through leadership business services.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

I wrote a post about two years ago about the role of human resources in digital transformation. That post was seen by multiple people that has resulted in, among other things, an offer to create a course on LinkedIn learning, several speeches, and connections that were invaluable for writing the culture section of my upcoming book. In another example, I gave a free speech at meeting of the Stanford Alumni Association board about 10 years ago. I did it as a favor to someone, and also because I was serving on the Harvard Alumni Association and thought we could share some best practices. The connections from that one speech has generated a substantial amount of business for me over the past decade.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

Strategy #1: Solve your audience’s problems. Have empathy for their day to day struggles and create content that will help them. Thought leadership is never about you — it’s always about them. It may feel awkward because you feel like you are talking about yourself, but you won’t be if you always focus on your audience’s needs. The minute you lose sight of that and try to make it about you, you lose your credibility.

Strategy #2: Share your perspective. You may feel as if you don’t have anything unique to say. The reality is that it is unique because you are saying it, from your specific and unique perspective.

Strategy #3: Be consistent. Leaders show up consistently and thought leaders need to publish consistently. You don’t have to post multiple times a day, but be consistent about showing up, whether it’s once a month, every few weeks or once a day.

Strategy #4: Be specific. Name names, use data, give examples. Speaking in generalities will get you nowhere! Try to offer pragmatic solutions — again, in the spirit of helping address a problem and driving change and action.

Strategy #5: Tell a story. People remember stories and spread them. Share a story from your daily life and relate it to a particular problem or issue that you are seeing. Tell it clearly, succinctly, and make your point.

Bonus Strategy: Get an editor or at least someone who can review your writing and help you hone your craft.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

Sallie Krawcheck, the founder and CEO of Ellevate, a financial services company has done a fantastic job becoming a thought leader. She got on LinkedIn and developed a huge following as an LinkedIn Influencer. She’s constantly on Twitter. One of her trademark formats is a 60 second video that she records almost every day. She’ll do it on a walk, in a phone booth in a hotel lobby, in the corner of an office. She’s constantly sharing, giving, and encouraging her audience.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

I can’t think of many people who go around defining themselves as a “leader” because that is just one of the roles that they play. Thus, I don’t call myself a thought leader because it’s not how I define myself. Being a thought leader is the result of what I do and how I help — things like being an analyst, an author, a speaker who creates content around disruption strategies.

So, when I hear people say they want to be “a thought leader”, I ask them what it is that they really want to accomplish. What kind of impact or change do they want to create? How do they hope to accomplish that? From there, you can craft a strategy to create thought leadership content that will achieve their objective.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

I practice something called “time boxing” where I block out large blocks of my time to do work, think, and rest — and similar, large blocks of time to have meetings. Every leader needs to take time away from the grind of back-to-back meetings and an overflowing email inbox to regain perspective and reset priorities. One simple thing to do immediately — remove all notifications from your laptop and phone. Put all social media and news phone apps into a folder so that the time you spend with them is intentional and strategic.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m glad you asked! I’m passionate about creating a movement of disruptors, people who are intent on creating exponential change in their organizations, communities, and society. There are so many problems confronting us — we need more people who are confident in their ability to drive change and growth, but who also have the humility to know that they can’t do it by themselves.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” I drink my morning tea out of mug that has this on it and it’s a daily reminder to live at the very end of my comfort zone. I find those times when I’m teetering on the edge of chaos and failure the times when I feel the most alive. One of the hardest things I ever did was to decide to leave Forrester where I had happily been employed for almost a decade. I didn’t know what I was going to go and do but I knew that I couldn’t stay because I was no longer growing professionally. It was scariest thing I had ever done and by far, the best thing I’ve done professionally.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’ve always been a big fan of Richard Branson, someone who has a zest for live, loves and cares deeply, and has created massive new businesses. I’d love to get just a little dose of his energy!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find me on almost every social media channel by my name, charleneli. The exception is Facebook (long story) where I’m charleneliauthor.

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

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