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How to Use Disruption to Find Your Growth Edge with Charlene Li | Heal The Divide Podinar

May 25, 2021

“Change that’s worth doing is going to be hard, theres not going to be an easy way to do it.” – Charlene Li


What does it mean to be disruptive? And instead of avoiding disruption, what if we can use it to find new growth opportunities? In this session, Alison Whitmire, President of Learning in Action, is joined by Charlene Li to explore what disruption is, why it’s important for leaders to be willing to be disruptive, and how coaches can encourage their clients to be more disruptive in their leadership roles.

Charlene Li is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller, Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead, and the co-author of the critically acclaimed, Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies. Her latest book is the best seller The Disruption Mindset: Why Some Organizations Transform While Others Fail. Charlene is the founder of Altimeter Group, an analyst firm that was acquired in 2015 by Profit. She is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School. Charlene has also been named by Fast Company as one of the most creative people in business and an expert on digital transformation.

Meaningful Change Requires Disruption

What does it mean to be disruptive? Disruption is all about the willingness to challenge the status quo because we hold a belief and have a vision that there’s a better future ahead. The reality is if we want to create change in the world, we’re going to be disrupted and we’re going to experience disruption. Growth naturally creates disruption, yet man of us resist it. The idea of this kind of radical change has been closely associated with a painful and negative experience in our lives — something we’ve been trained to avoid.

Disruption feels so hard because it takes apart the way we see the world. It dismantles our current relationships, networks, influence, and shifts the power around completely, which feels uncomfortable. Until the power relationships are re-established, disruption feels uncertain, ungrounded, and messy. And, when we understand that any change worth doing is inevitably hard — there is no easy way — we can embrace the growth opportunities we feel called to champion.

The Covid-19 pandemic is one of the biggest disruptions our society has faced. It forced us as a collective, and as individuals, to discover our growth edge. It has required us to change in ways we didn’t think were previously possible, until we had no other choice. The pandemic serves as a tremendous example of what’s possible when we lean in, acknowledge our circumstances, and find new ways to move forward.


What’s Required for Organizations to Embrace Disruption?

In order for an organization to be disruptive, it means we have to be willing to re-think how power is shared. Disruptive organizations know that no matter how wonderful things look today, nothing lasts forever. Perhaps the hardest part of true disruptive change is acknowledging that a radical unraveling of the organization is required rather than smaller-scale innovation within departments.

If an organization’s top priority is to keep things orderly and operating efficiently with few losses and little risk, it’s going to be difficult to imagine a future that’s anything different than what it is today. If we can’t even see what that future looks like, and understand the changes we must make today, then we’re never going to make progress. And this is the biggest disconnect. Profitable and well functioning companies with loyal and happy customers, have to be willing to risk upsetting the equilibrium in service of a much larger vision.


Characteristic of Disruptive Leaders

Leaders actively look for opportunities to disrupt and make transformation happen. To be effective leaders, we must be aligned with where our organization is going. And if we’re not comfortable with that direction, we have to voice our discomfort and work through it. There’s a dance between the ability to disagree and the willingness to find common ground and commit to the change at hand, at the right time.

People at all levels of organizations think they can’t make change happen — even CEOs. The reason it feels impossible at first is because we haven’t done it yet. The reality is that every single person can impact an organization’s culture. We shift culture just by showing up as our authentic selves and finding ways to make little changes that build our confidence. Once this happens, we begin to see that no one needs to give us permission to change things. Each one of us has innate agency to make a difference in our organizations.

As coaches, we’re being asked to create fundamental and deep transformation in people and organizations, which begins with an honest conversation. To move our clients to a deeper understanding of their effectiveness in creating change, there is a need to invite introspection and ask questions like: “What’s really wrong here? What’s really holding you back?”


How Coaches Can Embrace Disruption – Thinking Differently About Our Clients

One of the biggest mistakes we can make as coaches is to focus on our skills and abilities rather than our client’s problems and challenges. We have an opportunity to use empathy maps to define our future customers so clearly that they feel as if we are speaking directly to them.

Empathy maps help to understand the journey of future potential clients on a deep level and speak to their pain points. Instead of defining our clients by demographics, we can look at them through the lens of their feelings and thoughts, and what they say and do. And then we can design our services around this richer understanding. For example, asking ourselves questions about our potential clients such as:

  • “How are they feeling about this situation right now?”
  • “What are they saying?”
  • “What are they thinking?”
  • “What are they doing?”

As a coach, the benefit of looking at our future client’s needs from this perspective can help us find focus and drive our passion. Many coaches worry that narrowing our market will exclude too many people. Defining our clients in this way doesn’t mean we only work with one group of people. What often happens when we use this approach is that adjacent markets who have similar problems see themselves in our descriptions of those problems, attracting even more clients.



Embracing disruption takes courage and risk as we challenge the status quo in service of new opportunities for growth. To be a leader means to actively look for opportunities to disrupt and make transformation happen. As coaches, we can encourage our clients to lead change with more honest and introspective conversations. And, we can leverage a disruptive mindset to clearly understand the journey of our potential clients and design our services around their problems and challenges.


Charlene Li’s website

Charlene’s Ted Talk – Efficient leadership in the digital era


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Posted in: Heal The Divide|Podinar Series

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