I recently spoke to Charlene Li, who is the Founder of Altimeter Group and the author of the New York Times bestseller, Open Leadership. She is also the coauthor of the critically acclaimed, bestselling book Groundswell, which was named one of the best business books in 2008. She is one of the foremost experts on social media and technologies and a consultant and independent thought leader on leadership, strategy, social technologies, interactive media and marketing. Formerly Li was vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, worked in online newspaper publishing, and was a consultant with Monitor Group. In the following brief interview, Li talks about how she manages projects, how making lists is effective, creating a high performing team and more.
Dan Schawbel: How do you personally manage all your projects? What do you usually delegate and what do you usually focus on with your time?
Charlene Li: I have three major areas of work -- research, client work, and running Altimeter. In research, I usually work with Researchers who conduct about half of the interviews on their own. The key is to have a clear research plan, definition of roles, and constant communications around key findings. For client work, we have senior consultants who manage the day to day aspects of a project, allowing me to focus on overall direction and relationship with the key stakeholder. Lastly, when running Altimeter, I have an amazing COO who handles all aspects of operations except for research agenda setting and analyst management. This allows me to focus on the decisions and actions that only I can do.
I constantly ask myself if someone can do something instead of me. I try to take the time to make sure that clear expectations are set. I also accept that up to 20% of the time there will be follow up or additional work needed, but I save so much time that this is an acceptable risk.
Schawbel: What issues have you faced with your own time management and how have you gotten around them?
Li: I love making lists -- but I frequently forget that I have them and get caught up in the Urgent in the moment, rather than focus on the Important. That's when the lists get tossed to the side and I pick them up a few days later. I also procrastinate the really big tasks, partly because they seem so daunting to get done.
I've done two things. The first is writing and working sprints. I use a method called Pomodoro with a timer -- 25 minutes of focused time on something I really don't want to do, then I get a 5 minute break. I can usually do 2-3 pomodoros of a dreaded task before I need to take a longer break. The second is I envision what the benefit is of the dreaded task. By focusing on the end, I find the motivation to get started.
Schawbel: What is the best way to form a high performing team? Who do you recruit and how do you mesh people with the right strengths together?
Li: When hiring, we test for culture first. This isn't about if the person is nice or has a sense of humor. Culture is about how we work and get things done. We ask a lot of questions about their preferred way to work -- what drives them nuts, describing the best team they worked on and why. We make clear from the start that we want a good fit -- for us and for them. We are big believers in Strengths Finders and frequently discuss them when working together.
But I think that the secret to a high performing team doesn't rest in great hiring and onboarding -- it's from a commitment from the start to find and continue to develop "fit." And that means having a healthy attitude about performance and departures. We typically know if someone is going to work out or not within the first two weeks. There needs to be a commitment one both sides that if there isn't a fit, we need to move on. The harder part is when someone is "OK" or if they've been a high performer in the past but isn't now for various reasons. Our company is constantly changing and so are the people. If the fit is no longer there, we have a commitment to each other to live in integrity and have an honest discussion about what the future holds.
I like to say to new hires that we start talking about the day you leave the day you start -- at some point, Altimeter may not be a fit anymore for what they want to do. To the extent possible we'll help them get started on the next phase of their career. Ideally, I want to know six months in advance that they are leaving so that we can each plan, rather than them sneaking around for interviews. For a small company, a two week notice is a nightmare.
Schawbel: What are some ways to increase the productivity of your team?
Li: My favorite is no paid time off. This means that people take time when they need it, and based on their work commitments. I have no idea how much time people take off for vacations -- we simply don't track it anymore (that is a huge productivity gain in of itself). But I do know that we are generating more revenue per employee and people are less stressed.
The second is we try to schedule all of our meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which are our "office" days. This includes our meetings with clients. That way, we have Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays free to actually do work. This has been a wonderful development -- we have coordinated writing/working days where we agree to leave each other alone!
The third is a work in progress. We still love our email and meetings! We've reduced it a lot with tools like Chatter and now we're testing a new platform called Slack where we put any communication -- email, instant messaging, file sharing, etc. into Slack. By focusing attention in one place, we can invest more time and information, share more, and reduce the need for standing meetings.
Schawbel: Can you talk about some leadership tactics that motivate people to work harder and smarter?
Li: I do everything I can to reduce the power distance between me and members of the team, so that they can tell me anything. It's motivating to them when they feel they are HEARD, when I take action based on a suggestion that they had. But they need to make the suggestion in the first place. I never take this for granted -- I remind people in every interaction that I value their feedback and expect it. During our monthly team meetings, we "gong" contributions from people, especially if they stepped out of their comfort zone to do so.
But the thing that underlies all of this is an alignment that we are working towards the same purpose. We love helping leaders thrive with disruptive technologies and it's what makes us work hard every day. Reminding each other of that purpose keeps us focused and aligned. It removes petty politics. It helps us prioritize and make tough decisions. And it reminds us how lucky and privileged we are to be working with like-minded, like-valued people.