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Leaders communicate. They connect with others. They engage in dialogue to learn, encourage and direct. But in a digital era, with a new array of communications tools allowing both one-to-one and mass communications, many leaders are confused and wary, technology specialist Charlene Li has found.

"They may feel comfortable personally on Facebook or Twitter but they are not sure how to use those as a leader to engage others. I kept hearing over and over: 'I don't know what to do,' " the San Francisco-based chief executive officer of the Altimeter Group and author of several leadership books said in an interview.

She feels that's a shame because they could be far more effective leaders, reaching more people, on their staff as well as customers, digitally. She decided to produce a road map, The Engaged Leader, which sets out three steps to follow that are also, more importantly, three opportunities available to digital communicators.

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The first is listening at scale. Listening, of course, is vital for a leader to stay informed. "The ancient art of listening takes on new meaning in the digital age. We can listen to tens, hundreds, or thousands of people all at once without ever looking them in the eye. And we can do this on a continual basis – at scale," she writes.

She highlights the Denver restaurant chain Red Robin, which launched a new sandwich in 2012 that drew customer complaints. The staff posted online the comments they heard as well as their own thoughts, and the executives and test kitchen listened, refining the offering. In the past, it might have taken a year to 18 months to react. Now, within a month, a new version was ready to roll out, thanks to listening at scale.

She stresses that executives don't have to listen to everybody. But they should set aside 15 minutes a day to poke around digitally, hearing what customers and employees are saying to others in public forums like Facebook and on the company website or Intranet.

"You don't need to listen to all of it. Just some of it to see what is going on," she said in the interview. Sometimes the leader is eavesdropping, not letting others know of his presence, but in other cases communicating directly with customers about complaints they have made on a site will reassure them that somebody in command cares. She notes that while the 15 minutes daily is realistic for an executive to listen, writing responses may require additional time.

But don't just look at it as a time suck. Working with General Electric, she says CEO Jeffrey Immelt was leery about actually engaging with the public and the broad base of employees, feeling that was the responsibility of others. "I said no, your job is to be a leader," she recalls. Later, before a Boston College speech, he sent a message to graduates of that university in his organization asking for ideas, which helped him to to craft his speech. "He basically crowdsourced his speech," she said.

The next opportunity is sharing to shape opinion, behaviour, corporate culture and so forth. You can use digital communications to remind people of your strategy and nudge them in the right direction. Pope Francis, she notes, has been doing that with selfies when on the road, allowing followers to feel connected with him. Rosemary Turner, president of the Northern California District of United Parcel Service, uses Twitter to connect with her sprawling, often literally on-the-road team, recognizing accomplishments, reinforcing expectations, and providing business intelligence.

Ms. Li says that should be done through stories – and not necessarily by typing. She often advises clients to record themselves and post a podcast. "One executive came out of a client meeting and immediately shared what he had learned. It was highly motivating," she said. Some leaders are afraid they might say the wrong thing but she feels that's unlikely. Leaders generally have good judgment and know what they can say and what must be held back.

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You don't need to create totally new material. Share what you have heard. But she advises you to make a schedule for your blog posts, podcasts or other utterances, and stick to it. Also, make sure you're sharing, not directing. Many leaders have been told in the past not to share – that it will be used against them – and such fear has to be overcome.

Finally, you must engage to transform. That means interacting with others – going beyond listening and sharing to connect more powerfully. As others in your organization see you reaching out, they will do the same. They will also relish the fact you are breaking down the power differences, and are more likely to be candid.

You can't engage with everyone, so must pick your spots, strategically. Make sure you define the end result of engagement, put controls in place, and find some way to measure effectiveness – it's not just about being touchy-feely.

It can be challenging. Leaders worry they will be criticized. The first step can be terrifying, with the leader uncertain of the reaction. But it can work, she says, pointing again to Ms. Turner of UPS. Her staff feel she is accessible, that she has an open-door policy and that they can tell her what's on their minds. "It has changed the culture, one engagement at a time," Ms. Li said.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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