For the past two decades, Charlene Li has been helping people see the future. A graduate of Harvard Business School, she is the author of six books, including the NYT bestseller Open Leadership. Her latest book is The Disruption MindsetWhy Some Businesses Transform While Others Fail. With over 20 years of experience advising Fortune 500 companies, Charlene is an expert in digital transformation & strategy, customer experience, and the future of work. She has spoken at TED, the World Business Forum, SxSW, and even appeared on 60 Minutes. This episode is FULL of thought-provoking concepts and creative ideas. Enjoy this conversation with who Inc. calls “One Of the Top 50 Leadership Innovators.


Q: Tell us about how you ended up starting with Cutco.

  • The summer after I graduated from high school I was looking for a job because I needed to pay for college and I saw a newspaper advertisement and thought I could learn a lot from the job.

Q: Tell us about some experiences and lessons you learned from selling Cutco during that summer.

  • The first thing I learned is that when you really love a product it doesn’t feel like you’re selling anything. It feels like you’re helping someone.
  • Eventually when I started my own business I realized that if I believe I’m adding value to people’s lives I deserve to be paid for adding that value.

Q: So you went to Harvard and then went back to Harvard Business School; what did you do for work right when you got out of school?

  • I went into management consulting and worked for a company in the US for a year. Then I moved over to Amsterdam for 2 years and that was during the time when the Berlin Wall fell.  I took a train overnight the after it fell and walked around East Berlin.  It was amazing to be at that location at such a momentous time.
  • But I realized I really didn’t know very much and being a woman of color in the business world, I could tell that having Harvard Business School on my resume was going to get my foot in the door.

Q: Did you find that as an Asian-American woman that you were a pioneer in your field? What was the environment like for women in the business at the level you were at in the business world at that time?

  • There were no Asian-American women role models as far as I could see, but at the same time I was comfortable with it.
  • I grew up in Detroit and there were so few Asians that I was used to being the only one so I was comfortable with it.
  • I didn’t so much care about being a minority, I just focused on helping people and adding value to others.

Q: Tell us about the process of starting and building your own company.

  • I was really happy working for the company I was with before I started my own company. I had been there for 10 years.
  • But it all started after I wrote my first book and it made me think about how I didn’t want to be an analyst anymore.

Q: What were some lessons or challenges you experienced early on when you started your business?

  • One lesson is that running a business is a partnership between you and the people working for you.
  • Another thing when starting a business is thinking about how you’re going to structure things. You need to think about governance and conflict resolution.  How do you make decisions when people don’t agree with one another?

Q: Let’s talk about your recent book.  What are some lessons you’d like people to learn from your writings?

  • If you think of the most disruptive companies these days, none of them are built on the newest and most “shiny” technology. They’re disruptive because they change the dynamics in relationships.
  • It’s important to look at the future too. Just doing what you’ve always done won’t continue to get the same results because your competition is changing and so are your customers and if you don’t look for new and better ways to serve your customers, someone else will.

Q: In your book, “Open Leadership” you write about the concept about being open and in control at the same time.  How do you find the balance of being an open leader while also being in control of the organization?

  • Let’s start by addressing the concept of being in control. You’re never really in “control” because you may tell someone to do something but just because you say it, doesn’t mean they have to listen.
  • Jim Kouzes & Barry Posner wrote a book called, “The Leadership Challenge” and in it they say that “leadership is simply a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who are inspired to follow them.”

Q: What advice would you have for somebody who is just getting started as a leader?

  • “You were born with two ears and one mouth for a reason. Use them in the same proportion.”  Epictetus
  • The best skill you can learn is listening and listening deeply. Listen and then know what to say for that person.
  • Also having empathy and confidence are important traits of a leader. Especially confidence in your path you’re taking them on and that you’re going to achieve it.
  • Humility is another key attribute.

Q: As you look ahead into the future, how do you aspire to change people’s lives through your work or through your influence?

  • I want to inspire as many people as possible to become disruptors.
  • What that means is that they see in themselves the ability to create exponential change in their organizations.


  • Selling vs. Helping people: real selling is helping people. It’s helping people make decisions for their best interest and if you believe in what you’re and you believe you’re adding value than it’s easier to influence and easier to sell.
  • Remember the importance of being a good listener.
  • Have confidence and humility rolled into one.
  • Revisit her thoughts on servant leadership.
  • Never doubt the impact you can have as one person.



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