What’s this thought leadership thing all about?

PR agencies, consultants, industry experts and your board of directors are all talking about it. Thought leadership! The latest industry buzzword, the serious business’s way of talking about social media and a more stoic way of saying “we’re gonna make you a star!”

What B2B company CEO doesn’t want to be considered a thought leader? Who doesn’t want the rest of their niche industry flocking to them for visionary ideas and insightful analysis of trends? In reality, most companies and CEOs have been striving for this for years. The marketing team didn’t invent a new concept, they’ve just re-packaged it and sold it based on the use of new tools and techniques to (try) to accomplish it.

But not every thought leadership program is a success, in fact there are probably a lot more failures than successes, and I think that’s because a lot of people don’t understand what it really means and what it’s really going to take in order to achieve “leadership” status. So here are a few things I argue need to be taken into account before you go down the thought leadership path:

1) You are going to have to stick your neck out.

Being a thought LEADER means you’re ahead of the pack. In many cases, that means making bold statements about the future, disagreeing with other major industry voices, and having a strong and consistent point of view that is DIFFERENT from everything else around you. A lot of people feel like they want to get involved in the industry conversation, but they don’t want to ruffle any feathers (and there are a lot of feathers to ruffle… customers, clients, partners, analysts, reporters, employees, the board, etc.) If you’re not willing to stick your neck out, then you’re going to be seen as a leader, you’re just another voice saying the same things already being said in other circles. Boring. No one is going to listen.

2) You can’t be an expert on everything.

You probably can’t even be an expert on everything your company does, unless you only have one product and it’s very niche. Sure, you have a business intelligence software company. But there are a lot of BI experts. Niche out. Pick a particular aspect of BI that is new, on the forefront, or that your company and you yourself are particularly good at and knowledgeable about. You can link your thoughts on this niche back to the whole, but the point it, if you’re a generalist, then you’re not an expert. You’ll spread yourself too thin.

3) You can’t use your boardroom voice.

Please. Don’t do it. Don’t decide you’re going to start creating content and positioning yourself as a thought leader, and then insist on a buttoned-up suit and tie voice and attitude. Relax. Let your passion, frustration and knowledge show through. In any situation in which you are positioning yourself as a thought leader, being the boardroom voice is not the way to go. Just think about the last conference you attended. Who was the best speaker there? Chances are, it was the guy who talked off his corporate powerpoint the whole time and never cracked a smile or got fired up.

4) You can’t be lazy.

You’re not lazy, I know. But establishing yourself as a thought leader can be a full time job, so it takes a lot of commitment. You need to constantly stay up to date on industry news and trends, and you need to adhere to a strict schedule of producing content and communicating with your audience. You also need to stick to these things even if at first you’re not seeing huge results. Building a program like this takes time, so you need to make sure you’re in it for the long haul… before your start.

5) You need to share the love.

Everybody wants a voice. So if you’ve got a platform, invite them to share their voice on your territory. This can apply in any number of situations, including asking a customer to contribute, or a partner, or a board member. Encourage an ongoing discussion where you become a leader AND a facilitator. Share the pulpit, and you’ll widen your reach and expand your list of loyal supporters.

Make sure you consider these factors before investing time, money and energy into a full-blown thought leadership program. Not every company is cut out to be THE leader, sometimes it’s best to focus on offering a great core product and communicate well with customers and potential customers, not striving to become the go-to industry guru.

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  • Anya- great post.

    Reminds me of what a good thought leader Paul Levy is as CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess in Boston. He sticks his neck out there, speaks the truth, and talks all the time about new/refreshing things. What other CEO would blog about the financial condition of their hospital?

  • Thanks Tyson, and great example, especially on the financial side of things. Openness and honesty don't have limits, and being able to talk numbers is just as important as anything else when you're a true thought leader.
  • craigbadings
    Anya, I love your first and last points particularly from a corporate perspective because it is in these two that corporates inevitably fail and it is also why most thought leaders out there are individuals or small to medium businesses that understand the need to be brave and are still relatively unperturbed by corporate politics.
    I've seen many a thought leadership campaign killed by corporate politics or by the fear of sharing too much information in case competitors get hold of it. Well I have news for you, you are never going to be a thought leader if you are not prepared to share your information.
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