How to... become a thought leader

Written by: Alexander Garrett Posted: 06/08/2019

What is it?
Joel Kurtzman, Founding Editor of the magazine Strategy + Business, is said to have coined the term in the first issue of the magazine. ‘To be truly competitive, CEOs and their top leadership teams must not only outexecute their rivals, they must also outthink them,’ he wrote. Today it’s become ubiquitous, but some think it’s too loosely used. “Some people use the term ‘thought leader’ as if all you have to do to earn that moniker is to start tweeting,” says Denise Broussard, CEO of Thought Leadership Lab. It takes much more than that, she continues. “Individuals with expertise, passion and a track record of changing the world become thought leaders when they rise above themselves by sharing their knowledge so others can change the world too.”

Define your area
To be a thought leader, you usually have to specialise in a particular subject area. The more focused the area, the more likely that you will have something original and valuable to say. Better to be a thought leader on the topic of exchange-traded funds, for example, than on funds. Think about where your strategic interests lie, and where you would like to develop a reputation for expertise.

Take it a step further
PR company Good Relations has identified three types of thought leadership, each defined by the audience. Organisational thought leadership is about leading thinking and demonstrating expertise in an industry, market or topic. Product thought leadership is about leading thinking and demonstrating market advantage around a product or service system. And individual thought leadership is about positioning an individual as an expert or leader in a particular field. The individual version “is particularly effective when the individual’s personal story is shown to provide strong foundations to the current platform”, says Good Relations CEO Richard Moss.

Start with a blog 
It’s the simplest way to self-publish and will get you into the habit of expressing and articulating your thoughts on the chosen topic. It’s also a start to creating a community of followers. To begin with, post on sites such as LinkedIn, Medium and Quora, where there’s an audience waiting to discover you. Or, if you’re a full-time employee, consider posting on your company’s own blog, as it will already have a receptive readership that’s attuned to your industry.

So, what are you going to say? 
‘Start with an idea,’ advises US-based Stern Strategy Group. ‘What is your original, innovative, forward-thinking idea that will help your audience navigate the most pressing challenges and create new opportunities? Consider capabilities and knowledge that make you and/or your organisation stand out from the competition.’ You don’t need the business equivalent of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, but at the least you must have an original viewpoint on a relevant issue that you can run with. 

Develop it 
Carry out research – both original and desk research – to substantiate your point of view. Draw on your own customer data, then use this to develop your thinking and report the results. Set up your own research group – perhaps in partnership with a business school. And bear in mind that your point of view must be more than a one-liner if you want people to keep coming back – it should evolve as you start up a conversation and build your audience.

Create a YouTube video; put it on Twitter and other social media channels and ask others to repost. Offer an opinion piece to relevant specialist media, such as trade press. Put yourself forward as a conference speaker, or offer to talk to your local chamber of commerce or other organisations. When you’re ready, produce a white paper that articulates your point of view in great detail. Think about a book – it will open doors and in the digital age still carries more heft than any number of online posts. 

Make yourself available 
“Part of putting your name out there is getting your name everywhere,” says Emma Knightley from the Digital Marketing Institute. “Always open the door for inquiries from media outlets and bloggers, especially on platforms that are popular with your target audience.”

You’ll need a thick skin  
“You will be in the spotlight, which means you may take some pretty painful arrows,” says Broussard from Thought Leadership Lab. But as well as providing an immeasurable boost to your career, being a thought leader will give a real sense of purpose and meaning to your work. “As a thought leader, you will leave a lasting legacy – transformed teams, communities, industries, systems, governments or the world.”

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