Episode #12: Charlene Li

Episode 12

Charlene Li is a New York Times Bestselling author focused on disruption: What it is, how companies can become more disruptive and what that means for organizations and their culture. Charlene’s book, “The Disruption Mindset,” homes in on the topic and debunks some preconceived notions about what true disruption looks like.

Every company wants to be disruptive – but how can they turn their aspirations into action? Charlene talks with David about what makes a disruptive strategy, the importance of company culture when it comes to disruption and how bankers can incorporate innovation into their long-term strategies.

Charlene Li Headshot

Featured Guest: Charlene Li

For the past two decades, Charlene Li has been helping people see the future. She’s an expert on digital transformation, leadership, customer experience, and the future of work. She’s 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 bestseller The Disruption Mindset. She is the Founder and Senior Fellow at Altimeter, a disruptive analyst firm acquired in 2015 by Prophet. Named one of the most creative people in business by Fast Company, Charlene is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School.

David Reiling Headshot

David Reiling

David Reiling is an innovative social entrepreneur focused on empowering individuals through community banking and financial technology. David is the Chief Executive Officer of Sunrise Banks and has been in the community development banking industry for more than 25 years.

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Episode Transcript

David Reiling: [00:00:00] Welcome to the NextGen Banker podcast, where we explore what’s next in banking and talk with the innovators responsible for creating positive change in the financial sector. I’m your host, David Reiling, and I’m very excited to welcome Charlene Li as our guest today. Charlene, thank you for being on the NextGen Banker podcast.

Charlene Li: [00:00:17] Thank you so much for having me.

David Reiling: [00:00:19] Well, Charlene, I love the topic of disruption, um, in disrupting businesses, uh, you have such a positive outlook on it. And so, but before we dive into that big hairy topic of disruption need to give our global listeners just a little background on your bio. And so interesting background, in my opinion, started in the newspaper industry in the 1990s, helping with the transformation to online publishing.

You worked for Forrester Research as a principal analyst, covering interactive advertising, search marketing and the rise of social media during the early two thousands. And then you started your own company, the entrepreneurial thing, a Altimeter, a research and consulting company, helping businesses and leaders thrive through changes, problems and transformations.

You are a senior fellow at Altimeter today, which was acquired by Profit, a global consulting firm. Charlene has authored six books, including a New York times bestseller, Open Leadership. And most recently you published a book, Disruption Mindset. So disruption disruptors just don’t blow things up. They also create and build things that result in huge positive change.

I love the way that the book addresses that and how you address that. So let’s set the stage for our audience. Tell us more about what disruption and disruptors mean to you.

Charlene Li: [00:01:40] Well, it always has had a very negative thing that people don’t be a disruptor don’t disrupting, sit down, sit, you know, stand in line.

Like don’t do that. And as I, as you have said, good disruptors, um, change the status quo, but they change it for the better. And so these amazing disruptive leaders are focused on growth and all sorts of different types of growth, uh, revenue growth, societal impact, growth, personal growth, whatever the type of growth is, but the growth implies change from today into something better.

So disruptors are always looking for what could we do better? And one of the reasons why we feel so disrupted is because relationships are changing as you’re going through all of these changes. And so until those things are put back together, again, we feel disrupted.

David Reiling: [00:02:29] And Charlene, one of the things you brought out, I listened to one of your Ted talks that really strikes me is that when you talked about disruption in the, in the growth mindset that goes with that, it wasn’t like your typical boy, we’re going to grow three to 5% or something like that.

That quite frankly, bores me to death. It was really transformational change. It was 10 X, it was exponential type of growth. And that I think really does speak to disruption. Um, how do you think about growth in those terms?

Charlene Li: [00:02:57] Well, um, because people oftentimes ask me, like, how did we grow ? What kind of disruptions can we create to grow?

And they, you got it backwards. It’s actually growth that creates disruption. It’s when you’re growing at exponential rates where you’re having to make so many changes, that’s when you feel disrupted, because nothing is the way you expected it to be. There’s a huge amount of uncertainty. And so that, but frankly, that’s the kind of growth we need.

There are so many problems that we face in the world as individuals, organizations, as society. We’re not going to get to where we need to be to incremental change. So if we’re going to change, I believe let’s go for the biggest change we are capable of not with what we’re comfortable with.

David Reiling: [00:03:40] Yeah. And, you know, if I always say that the beauty is in the problem, and if I had to think of, well, why don’t you just pick a big problem then?

Because the big disruption or the big innovation sits within that in which to move forward. Um, I have to ask you from the standpoint of, it seems like I can’t go through a week without the conversation around digital transformation. And so when we think of disruption and the impact that digital and technology have in regards to our world today, how do you think about this?
The rapid pace of technology and digital transformation? How do let’s say particularly the bankers think about using that digital to be, to be disruptive in that positive way?

Right. Again, I’ve been studying digital transformation for over a decade and even technology before that. And what I find that it’s never about the technology.

I mean, the technology is extremely important, but it’s much more about the relationships that are impacted by those technologies. That’s why it’s hard to change. That’s why it feels so disruptive because of the relationships that are impacted. So if the technology was the hard part I would have to do is just install them, push a button and it would go, and then you’d run into this thing called people and change.

So it’s not the digital part that’s hard. It’s a transformation part of digital transformation that’s hard. And what I found with disruption, strategies and disruptors, they actually prepare for that difficult times. They, they know it’s going to be difficult. Whereas people who think digital transformation is going to be straightforward, it’s going to be easy.

Charlene Li: [00:05:11] It’s going to be not a huge amount of change and they sell it that way. I guarantee you, they will not be successful.

David Reiling: [00:05:18] It sounds to me like the real difference. There’s that component in there of leadership that a leader is going to tell you, Hey, I’m not going to sugar coat this, this is going to be hard.

Or this is going to be, this is going to cause you some uncomfort. Um, but it’s more than likely, On the other side of that discomfort is where all the learning and the disruption in the growth is going to come from, speak a little bit to the leaders that you think of. Maybe when you think of these are really disruptive leaders, but very successful ones.

Charlene Li: [00:05:46] Right. I mean, there were, there are so many, but I, I think about, um, he’s no longer the CEO, but John Legere at T-mobile, who completely led a huge turnaround for the company, making it into the uncarrier and personally became literally a symbol of what transformation could look like. He was a buttoned up AT&T executive, you know, coat and tie white shirt started wearing basically just black and magenta.

All the time grew was hair long was a total rebel fit the role perfectly. So it was a transformation of the company, but also a transmission to the leader right there. And he was so focused on customers. So incredibly focused on listening to them, he would spend hours every day, personally, engaging with people on Twitter, on Facebook, on Instagram, wherever people were to really show yeah, we are here and it starts with me.

We are here listening to you and it starts with me.

David Reiling: [00:06:39] Fantastic. I mean, what an authentic leader from that standpoint, from that ground up, and now you work with leaders and companies to create strategies that disrupt. What goes into creating such a type of strategy.

Charlene Li: [00:06:52] It’s a, it’s actually pretty simple, but not easy.

And that is to look to your future customer. And it’s kind of weird because people think, well, I am focused on my customers, I’m customer centric and I go, but you’re focused on the customer today. That’s great. But you actually have to focus on the customer of the future, because if you know where you want to go, that’s the basis of strategy.

Then you make the preparations and you make the choices today to be able to be in that future. And the only way you can do that is to go out there and try to see what the future looks like. And this is really hard because the future isn’t a hundred percent given it’s uncertain. And we, as leaders like to have things buttoned up, all of sewn up, I can guarantee you and deliver these, uh, these results to you and being a disruptor and thinking about a disruption strategy means you’re comfortable, very comfortable with uncertainty.

You have a very healthy relationship with failure. And you’re also able to realize that you’re not in control and really bring up agency across your organization so that every single person sees themselves as a leader. Otherwise you can’t move fast. You can’t move at the speed that your future customers can.

David Reiling: [00:08:04] And, you know, I, I often tell, uh, my board, when they asked me like, Dave, what are you really do? And I’m like, my whole job is to go out into the universe, see what the future looks like and bring it back here. That is my job is to, is to now move you from the past to the present. Now we’re going to move into the future in terms of what’s that to look like.

Is there any tip that you could give though? I really think it’s fascinating to me. And you’re really onto something from the standpoint of who is the customer of the future? Is there any learnings that you’ve seen or tips or tricks as to how you discover that.

Charlene Li: [00:08:41] Yes. I would say if you’re not used to looking to the future, look close in, look at your customer base and what is called the adjacent user.

It’s not your core user, but just one step away. They are mildly unhappy with you. Or if they have told you over and over again, you don’t serve my needs really well. Instead of dismissing them as cranky customers really look and say, what would we have to do to serve them better? Does this person represent a larger market opportunity for us.

Instead of always saying, where’s the product market fit where it’s our sweet spot. Of course you have to do that, but where is it going to be in the future? And sometimes you have to let go of any ego and really listen to them and say, wow, no, we don’t serve your needs. And look at all the changes we’d have to do.

Can we do this? Is it worthwhile and make all those prioritizations that you have to?

David Reiling: [00:09:32] So I’m going to take you back because you started out by really kind of cementing in a lot of the uncomfortableness of disruption is about change in relationships. And what came to my mind right there is you talk about the importance of culture in an organization and what that means in terms of being able to foster the disruption that’s necessary for growth. Can you speak a little bit more about your thoughts around that culture and why it’s so important for disruption to take place?

Charlene Li: [00:10:02] It is crucial. I mean, one of the reasons I wrote this book was I was curious why do some organizations seem to just disrupt and change in big huge ways constantly over and over and over again. Like what do they do? They’re like the Energizer bunny of disruption and what they do is they create their culture, their strategy, leadership and culture, all align around this future customer and their culture is laid out, with very clear beliefs that allow them to be open, have agency and not have a bias for action. These are fundamental three beliefs of disruptive organizations, and they systematically put all of these processes and structures, the rituals, the stories they create the scaffolding. So that it’s really clear how we get the work done, how we create all this change so that we can spend a hundred percent of our efforts on the change itself.

So, what they’ve done is created a scaffolding to hold those relationships in place. So the relationships never get torn apart and what’s happening is you can, you’re secure in that, you know, where you stand, so you can focus on these big, huge, audacious changes.

David Reiling: [00:11:10] That’s fantastic. And now I have to, I’m going back to another Ted talk that I listened to of yours, which I think could be really practical and helpful for our audience, particularly those that I’ll say that are in a bank.

And they’re like, you know, disruption and being a disruptor, just isn’t in the vocabulary of this bureaucracy that I live in. How I see myself within being a disruptor. You had talked about a change survey from like one to 10 and it wasn’t, and it was a great, I think, engagement from the standpoint or exercise with the audience.

And maybe I can have you just lead, lead through the logic here.

Charlene Li: [00:11:48] And again, if you think about disruption, right. And how. How much disruption are you capable of creating on a scale of one being you don’t have to create anything. You’d like these being exactly the same every single day to 10, like you are capable of driving huge, disruptive change in organizations, scaling it beyond belief, pick a number.

Right. And the goal here isn’t to be a 10 it’s actually, if you are a two right, if you could be a three even, or four, they get the lower end of the scale . Your organization is like even lower than you are. You’re killing it. You’re blowing things left and right. So your four compared to organizations, two or three, you’re a highly disruptive person by the same measure, you could be an eight, but if your organization is like a nine or 10, then you’re the laggard, right?

So disruption is highly relative to the people you’re around the organization. And I encourage leaders to do this with their own teams and just ask people like, put a member on the table, no shame, no gain in this put a number out there and then put a number out for the organization. Well, how disruptive do you think the organization is?

And most organizations, people will peg themselves. The average is about one or two points higher than the organization. In disruptive organizations they are exactly the same. So you’re trying to close that gap between where people see themselves as being disruptive and the organization that they are part of, that they determined the disruptiveness of the organization are made up of the same people.

If you can close that gap that’s when you have alignment against what speed, how fast, how big can we dream.

David Reiling: [00:13:27] Wow. So everybody’s a hundred percent on the same page. Everyone is beating to the same drum. They have that trust the fabric with which you can move forward. You can fail, you can feel comfortable.

Charlene Li: [00:13:38] Yeah. For example, you talked about going into the future and bringing back and telling the story of what this is, where we’re going, but then making sure that everyone else is aware of what that story is.

I like to say that every single employee should be able to answer these questions. Who is the future customer? Where are we going? What’s the strategy we’re trying to put in place to make that happen, but changes what we do. What are the priorities? And third is what is my role in making that strategy happen?

What’s my dashboard telling me about how I’m contributing to making that strategy come a reality. So again, every single person to your point needs to be aligned. Singing from the same song sheet, maybe harmonizing. But not singing a completely different song, but that is so essential. That’s the role of the leader to tell people where we’re going, make sure everyone’s aligned and then make sure everyone has the resources to get there.

David Reiling: [00:14:33] Gotcha. Well, the environment with which banking is in today, uh, and I will say that it is being disrupted in so many different ways by so many different change makers, big and small. If, when you think about the next generation of banker. What do you think when you think of, in the terms of, of disruption as well as leadership and, uh, those skills that are necessary to take the financial system forward in a positive way, what comes to mind?

What does that next leader look like?

Charlene Li: [00:15:09] That next leader doesn’t think of themselves as a banker. They think of themselves as a financial security or financial dreams enabler. And they describe themselves in the language of their customers and their clients. And they, they, they, they talk about it from that point of view, not from a point of view of products and services, all the things they sell, but they are fully in standing and empathy with their customers and they see themselves in service of their needs.

So it, and that’s not the way most bankers talk today. They talk about the bank and the products and the services. And I asked, what do you do? I sell these things versus how do I help? How do I help these people? I help people achieve their financial dreams. That’s so different than I sell banking services.

David Reiling: [00:15:58] Well, that is fantastic.

I mean, I think it’s in that place. I always, the phrase comes to mind as to when I think of the ultimate customer that we want to serve. Um, my motto is like, how do I be a hero to that particular person? What do I, what can I do today to help them? Um, as opposed to the, what, of boy, I sell these checking and savings accounts, which puts me to sleep immediately.

Um, Charlene, thank you so much for your time and insights today. Really love all your content. I recommend your book, your books, I should say, um, from Open Leadership, uh, to, uh, Disruption Mindset. Really great content out there for the next generation of banker to look at. And again, I’m a great visual learner, so I’m out there and watching on YouTube and Ted talks.

And so, uh, really inspired by how you think about these topics and thanks so much for being on the NextGen Banker podcast.

Charlene Li: [00:16:50] Thank you again for having me.

David Reiling: [00:16:51] Thank you.

David Reiling: For this episode’s musical feature, we’re showcasing Paul Averitt and his band, Doublepluspop.

Doublepluspop is a late 90’s/early 2000’s power pop band from Denton, TX. Their latest release is 2020’s “Too Loud, Too Fast, Too Much.” Here is “Everyone,” by Doublepluspop.

(song plays)

That was “Everyone,” by Doublepluspop. Find more music and news from the band at their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Doublepluspop. If you would like your music featured on the NextGen Banker podcast, email Nextgenbankerpodcast@gmail.com Off Site Link with a link to your music and website.

Thanks for listening to the NextGen Banker podcast. We’ll see you soon.