Bestselling Author Charlene Li on Professional Networking

The importance of growing your professional networking is obvious, but for many, knowing what it takes to truly develop meaningful connections with others can be challenging. In this video, New York Times best-selling author and entrepreneur, Charlene Li, and CTU Provost and Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Connie Johnson, discuss networking, selling your value and how saying "no" can help leaders achieve more. You'll learn about how to stand out from the crowd by doing simple things like remembering details, and you'll also discover the opportunities that come if you’re willing to take a chance and step out of your comfort zone.

Video Transcript

New York Times best-selling author and entrepreneur, Charlene Li, and CTU Provost and Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Connie Johnson, discuss networking, selling your value, and how saying "no" can help leaders achieve more.

Connie Johnson, ED.D - Provost and Chief Academic Officer

Hello CTU, and welcome to the Colorado Technical University live-chat. I’m your host, Chief Academic Officer and Provost Dr. Connie Johnson. And today we’re very fortunate to talk with New York Times’ best-selling author and leadership expert Charlene Li. She’s a consultant, and independent thought leader on leadership, strategy, social technologies, interactive media, and marketing. Welcome Charlene.

Charlene Li

Thank you for having me.

Connie Johnson, ED.D - Provost and Chief Academic Officer

We’re going to start right off with some questions about topics that I know many of us are interested in at CTU. And we certainly look forward to hearing from you later in September and throughout the months leading up to that. I know we have a couple different events planned with you. With the success you’ve already achieved in your career, you clearly found a way to stand out from the pack. I’m looking forward to hearing about lessons you’ve learned in your career and share your advice on how to stand out in the professional world. Any thoughts on that right off the bat?

Charlene Li

Well I think that first of all, you have to want to stand out. One of the biggest things that I’ve really tried to do early on in my career was to look for those opportunities and to just really grab as many of them as possible. So that can include anything from sitting at front of the classroom to sitting at the front of a speech or conference that I’m attending. So little things like that. Standing out by even as little as wearing bright colors so that you get noticed. Little things like that really make a big difference when you add them all up.

Connie Johnson, ED.D - Provost and Chief Academic Officer

So it sounds like details do matter.

Charlene Li

They absolutely do. One of the things that I know CTU is very keen on is talking about how do you network. How do you make the connections that are so important? And what you realize that it’s not just the times when you’re in front of somebody but it’s all the little things. The way you shake a hand, the way you look at somebody in the eye, the sincerity and authenticity with which you approach every single interaction. One of the things that people has said, about people like President Obama, is that he makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room. And that’s a very special skill. And it’s not something you perfect overnight. It’s something you have to build towards, and it comes from deep within you – this desire to want to be able to connect. So I think more than anything else is that those little details are what make a difference in being able to connect with people. 

Connie Johnson, ED.D - Provost and Chief Academic Officer

It sounds like it’s very important for connections. You were a published author, an entrepreneur, and you’re very accomplished. How did you get started on the path to the successful position you are in today?

Charlene Li

Oh that’s a good, that’s a long story. But I would say that the things that have really made a difference in my career was when I really took chances and really pushed myself into areas. And I’ll start with a very first job. I was in high school and I wanted to go out and make some money, and so I actually went out and sold CUTCO knives. And it was door-to-door sales, it’s networking sales, and I absolutely hated it. Because the thought of going up to somebody, a total stranger and saying “Hey look at my knives, want to buy them?” really pushed me to the edge of my comfort level. It taught me first of all that I really didn’t like sales; didn’t enjoy it. But then it also taught me that everything I do in life is about selling myself. Selling the ideas and selling the people I’m around working with. So selling became something I was very uncomfortable with, didn’t like, but forced myself to get really good at. So that was my very first job. That taught me also that even if I wasn’t very good at it, didn’t like it, it’s still something worth knowing and throwing as much of myself into it as possible – doing the best job I could. So that experience early on made me realize that even when times are tough, if I was doing something right at that very moment I didn’t like, I really did just have to do the best I could and try to excel in it. And that has really stood me by very well in my career.  

Connie Johnson, ED.D - Provost and Chief Academic Officer

So it sounds like persistence and excellence – those are the things.

Charlene Li

One of the things, the values at our company, one of them is actually gong. Which is when you win something, when you do something, you celebrate excellence. And so we hold that as one of our core values and I hold that for myself that if it’s something worth doing, do it as well as you can. And then just as importantly, decide not to do something if you can’t do it well. So I think the art of getting things done is often times the art of saying no. So being able to say that I want the persistence, what I’m going to be persistent in, what I’m going to excel in has a matter to do with priority. So my strategy of what I will do or won’t do and that’s what strategy is in the end. For my company, for the companies I work for, for myself and for my personal career, has always been about making choices and prioritization, then doing those to the best of my ability.  

Connie Johnson, ED.D - Provost and Chief Academic Officer

I read an article recently that said sometimes it’s just as important to decide what you’re not going to do. It sounds as if though that has been one of your guiding principles as well.

Charlene Li

It has been because I was an analyst at Forrester in the middle of the dotcom boom in 99-2000. And so many of my friends and classmates were off in Silicon Valley making millions upon millions of dollars. And I’m sitting there being an analyst watching all of this, analyzing it, and getting very envious. And I took a self-assessment class and I said what is it that I really value? What are the things that are really important to me? What makes me truly happy? And money wasn’t at the top of the list – it wasn’t even close. It was a matter of having control over my schedule, flexibility, because I had young kids at the time. And then also, it was very important for me to have an impact; to have influence. And I realized that being in an analyst role, I could do that in spades, better than I could do in any other career choice that I could have. And being true to myself in that way, even though I could take my skills and put it to a company like Facebook or Google, I realized that I just wouldn’t be as happy. Because the thing that for me the thing that motivates me is having an impact, making a difference, and making a change. And do that through the writing, through the speaking, through the research that we do – it’s incredibly gratifying. And much more rewarding to me than all the zeros behind a dollar sign I could see out there.

Connie Johnson, ED.D - Provost and Chief Academic Officer

So I think it’s really knowing yourself as well. I’m sure that hasn’t been easy for you. What challenges have you faced and overcome along the way?

Charlene Li

The biggest challenge I’ve always had is speaking up. I’m very extroverted, but I can sometimes doubt myself. And I am my biggest saboteur in that I think to myself “maybe I shouldn’t say anything, I don’t want to cause a ruckus or put anybody out. Cause any problems.” And I realized that whenever I sense that or feel that today, I have to, I have a hard time recognizing that I’m doing that to myself. So that’s always been my challenge – not moving fast enough. Not moving quickly enough to do things that my heart is blocking me from doing. I tend to be very emotional. Not emotional, but I put people’s relationships first and foremost. So my biggest problem has always been if somebody’s been having a problem, an employee or a person who’s reporting to me isn’t doing very well, I tend to try and make it better. But at some point you just have to have that frank conversation. I never, never, ever say “Man, that was too early.” I almost always say, “Why didn’t I do this sooner”? So that speaking up something early in my career was raising my hand, literally, and now even as a manager, not stating more forcefully what I believe it right. And as a leader that’s something I’ve had to learn how to do – is to really feel very confident about my ability and right and the time and place to be able to speak up. That’s a hard balance to manage sometimes.

Connie Johnson, ED.D - Provost and Chief Academic Officer

That actually leads to my next question, which is about blending in. So from your experience, Charlene, how do you distinguish yourself from the person that doesn’t blend in?

Charlene Li

Well if you look at me, it’s hard for me to blend-in in many ways. I’m Asian, I’m a woman, and for much of my career I was the youngest person in the room. It was all old white guys – I hate to say – often times when I walked into a boardroom, so it was hard for me to blend in first of all. The thing for me is that I always took advantage of that – I took advantage of the differences. If I’m going to stand out, I’m really going to really stand out. I think the key thing here is to have an opinion, make a call, and do it in the most respectful way as possible. Because often times people who may be hearing the call won’t agree with it or may not be ready for it. So it’s putting myself in their shoes, hearing the news that I’m going to deliver, and really being respectful of the way they need to hear it so it can be accepted. The art of negotiation often times is knowing how the other person is going to … where is their BATNA (best alternative to negotiating agreement). So if you know what that is, can anticipate what that is, then you walk into a room with a lot more knowledge and room to negotiate. If you want to stand out you have to push yourself and ask for the things that you think are just really pushing you to the edge. So when it came down to negotiating salaries I always asked for more than I thought I deserved. When I’m negotiating deals with clients I always ask for more because you can always go down in price but you can’t always go up in price. That has always worked when I’m negotiating terms with an employee. I ask them to go beyond what I think or what they think is possible because then they achieve greatness and excellence. So that has always worked really well in any sort of circumstance when you’re trying to move people to a point where they are not necessarily comfortable but come to a place.

Connie Johnson, ED.D - Provost and Chief Academic Officer

Negotiating for what you want is certainly a challenge for some folks. Sheryl Sandberg speaks a lot about that in her book “Lean In”, which I believe you have read that as well and ascribed to some of the values in that book. What advice would you give to those who are striking out in their careers about developing the confidence that you just talked about.

Charlene Li

Having people who you can go and trust and give you advice. Your peers are often times people who have been through this, especially people who have gone through exactly what you have just gone through -– like one year ahead of you for example. I also think that what’s amazing to me is that as public as I am, not that many people reach out to me. Or if they do so, they do so poorly. Sheryl also talks in her book how it is very good about reaching out very specifically for very pointed pieces of advice. Those are the kind of responses that I really love. When somebody says, “I just want five minutes of your time, can I ask you a very specific question – and this is how it’s going to help me?” I say of course because it’s a very specific question that I can answer versus somebody who says, “Can you be my mentor? I have a couple of questions, can we meet for coffee?” Then I see an hour, hour and a half slip by and I’m not sure if it’s going to add any value. I keep going back to you have to be very conservative. If you don’t know what the answers are to develop that sense of being asked the right question, of the right people, and of the right time is the key thing. You get better at it the more you do it. My favorite technique early in my career was to go to all of these conferences, all these speeches, doing online webinars and asking questions. Ask the questions of people. Because you go to these things all of the time and you see nobody puts up their hand. There’s your chance. No one’s going to know who you are; they’re never going to see you again. But here’s your chance to ask all of those questions that you never thought would be asked. So take advantage of every single thing. It got to the point where my friends were kind of like “Okay, it’s question period. Charlene, what’s your question going to be?” It became sort of a running joke but they were the only ones who knew I was doing this because everybody else would be rotating through these conferences they wouldn’t know necessarily that I would always raise my hand.

Connie Johnson, ED.D - Provost

I love that. Raise your hand and ask questions. You know, I was remiss before in not mentioning all of your credentials. Charlene is the founder of the Altimeter group and is the author of the New York Time’s best seller “Open Leadership”. She’s the co-author of the critically acclaimed best-selling book “Groundswell,” which was named one of the best business books in 2008. With all of that under your belt – and you just talked about the importance of speaking up – what do you see your role as a leader and a mentor, and how mentoring has played throughout your career?

Charlene Li

Yeah again, I’ll talk about the people who have mentored me. They have been people who have been sort of in and out. I never really thought that I had a particular set of mentors. I had people and executives who would give me great advice, but I would go again to them with very specific pointed questions around advice. I think my role now as a leader, and also as an author in particular, is to try to point out different ways of thinking and to hopefully inspire some people. It’s very gratifying to me now that my book, five years later, has people coming up to me saying, “Your book changed my life, I changed my career because of your book. I saw the possibilities that you could actually do this stuff that I was doing personally in a professional way, so I just want to say thank you”. For me, that kind of impact, being able to write about that, is very inspiring. The more I get that feedback, the more I do and the more I write. So for readers who are going to be your mentors, you have to think about this, about how they think about this, what are they getting out of it. Feeding back and circling back to them saying this is the influence that you have is absolutely tremendous. I just wrote to my thesis advisor from 25 years ago and said “I just want to tell you that writing that thesis was so formative because it gave me the confidence to be able to write books.” I knew I could sustain that level of research and concentration. If I could do it for my thesis, I could do it for books. To close that loop I thinks is one of the best gifts you can give back to your mentors. It’s motivating for them to go and continue to do that.

Connie Johnson, ED.D - Provost and Chief Academic Officer

I love to hear about the thesis. Do you hear that everyone at CTU? The importance of thesis and professors of how they play into your career. Just a few more questions related to that, Charlene. You mentioned inspiration and that those relationships inspire you. What inspires you now?

Charlene Li

I just wrote a post on LinkedIn that had a whole series of all these thought leaders write about what inspires them, and it’s great reading. It took me a long time to write this post; I really had to think about it. I talk about having an impact in the end. Writing in particular has a tremendous impact, but this is what I write about in the post: I am a horrible procrastinator. I procrastinate especially when it comes to writing, which I really enjoy. Once I get to the laptop and I’m sitting there writing and I’m in the thick of things, I am so incredibly happy. But overcoming it because it’s such a draining activity. I talk about writing in the thick of it as picking up the keyboard and banging it against your head until blood comes pouring out of your forehead and the words somehow appear on the table in front of you. It draws every single ounce of intellectual and emotional energy out of me, at least. So I put it off for as long as I can so I talk about how I have to put the reader at the center and think about the impact that my writing will have on them. Again when people come up to me and tell me that the writing has made a difference or say that my blog post or video really did make a difference is what really keeps me centered. It’s hard sometimes to remember that because they’re not sitting next to you. They’re not in the video or book that you can open up and read. So that’s what really inspires me. That fact that the work I do really has an impact.

Connie Johnson, ED.D - Provost and Chief Academic Officer

It does and I really like what you said about LinkedIn as well. I think LinkedIn is a great place for thought leadership and I will make sure that I LinkedIn with you. The last question that I have about relationships is because you mentioned this a few times now in your comments about different relationships you’ve had, and you must be managing quite a bit in your career now. Managing your time, managing your relationships – how do you determine what’s important to you as a leader to continue to be that as well?

Charlene Li

It is so, so hard. As you can imagine, I’m on every possible communication channel that’s out there. I have to be on a social media diet. So I use social media actually very sparingly. I will spend most of my time composing. I do not write a lot in social media and try to be very selective. But I do reply back to people. I follow maybe about 400 people on Twitter, which in the scheme of things really isn’t that many. I’m very selective about the things I look at and read. I don’t use an RSS feed, I follow very specific people, I’m very specifically task oriented, and I have prioritized list of all the things that I have to get done immediately, in the next week, in the next month, in the next quarter of the year – and I try and prioritize and balance those things against what I have to have. The hardest thing for me is to invest in the relationships that I have in order to accomplish the short-term goals, but also keeping in mind the long-term goals. I am writing another book, I’m working on it, but it’s so hard for me to tear myself away from my day-to-day to invest in those relationships that are important to write that next book. Those are the things you nurture over years. It’s always hard. But having that strategy is absolutely key. It helps you figure out what’s important and what’s not in the thick of the battle.

Connie Johnson, ED.D - Provost and Chief Academic Officer

That’s great advice. Be strategic with your time, but do engage. Thank you for that little pearl of wisdom. We’re very fortunate that Charlene will actually be writing a series of blogs for us so stay tuned CTU community. One last question Charlene, any final worlds that you would like to say to CTU?

Charlene Li

I would say that the more audacious you can be, the more you can stand out and the better off you will be in your career. It’s so hard and intimidating to find the energy and confidence to go out there and stick your neck out. But the worst thing that can ever happen is that you blow it; you fail. And what’s the shame in that? You really have to ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can ever happen?” Actually the worst thing is that you never tried. I encourage you even though that every bone in your body says, “I really shouldn’t raise my hand” or “I shouldn’t really wear this outrageous shirt to that networking event” to do it. I would do it, stand out there, and worst comes to worst you say that it didn’t work out very well. I’ll try something different the next time. But you can’t be afraid to fail. Try lots of these things and develop the confidence to do it over and over again.

Connie Johnson, ED.D - Provost and Chief Academic Officer

Great advice. Thank you for spending time with us Charlene. We look forward to hearing more from you about leadership and your experiences, and we very much appreciate you talking to the CTU community today.

Charlene Li

Thank you for having me.



 


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