5 Steps to Becoming a Thought Leader
Are you regularly asked for your opinion? Have you been involved with the same specialism for 5 years or more? Do people listen intently to what you have to say on particular areas - whether it’s on social media or in person?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, then the chances are, you are already a thought leader to some degree. But if you’d like to up this element of your role - and there are a number of good reasons for leaders to do so - then what follows is some advice on what is likely to help.
But first, just to be really clear, what is thought leadership? Well, consensus seems to be that it’s providing ‘the best and deepest answers’ to your stakeholders’ ‘biggest questions’ (Brenner, 2019). You also can’t appoint yourself as a thought leader. You need to put the effort in to be recognised, and then wait for it to happen. It also sounds a bit ‘icky’, according to Clark. But it shouldn’t, because what you’re saying is that you want to be able to share your ideas and make a difference with them. Because you have some good ideas. Not so problematic then, really.
As a general (as opposed to thought) leader, your stakeholders are likely to include your team, your company, your customers, and your wider community. Thought leadership is a fantastic way of engaging with each of these audiences, widening your presence in the market, and having a dialogue with others who are interested in what you do. Particularly if you work in the knowledge sector (lawyer, accountant, management consultant, data scientist, researcher...you know who you are), you’ll want to use it as a ‘try before you buy’ offering - a way to demonstrate why clients simply cannot afford to ignore your expertise and experience. That’s the role it plays for me in my own work, and the position that I’ve built my customer base from, and the way that I have seen other consultants do the same.
The opinions from known thought leaders and the smattering of research in this area backs this up: business to business decision-makers will pay a premium to work with companies who have used thought leadership to establish a clear vision for the future. But it needs to be high quality, worth the decision maker’s time to read it, watch it or listen to it.
So, what’s the secret to becoming a recognised as a thought leader with great content? Advice and research gravitates around the following points:
Provide real value
Thought leadership comes from being a leading voice on a subject, meaning you can speak with authority and credibility on the topic. Pick a topic that you really do know a lot about and think about how you can say something about it that stakeholders will want to engage with. This is not the time to explore that thing you’ve always been interested in but not done much about. Think about the sorts of expertise people ask you for; the types of problems you’re asked to solve; and the topics that fill your head because you’re really interested or engaged in them. That is where you will locate your expertise. And that is where you should focus your thought leadership efforts.
Thought leadership isn’t about brand promotion, it’s about owning your experience, and that includes mistakes and missteps. You might not want to talk about all of them, but a degree of honesty and self-reflection will build trust and loyalty.
Be distinctive/instantly recognisable
Thought leadership is not about fitting in - it’s about standing out. What do you have to say that is distinctive? What can you do to make yourself rise above the crowd? For some, that’s having an idea that they can give a name, or giving themselves a distinctive identity. The Undercover Economist is a great example of a name that encapsulates the unique value that Tim Harford brings to the market and makes him distinctive. Finding a lane and staying in it is really important - particularly at the start when people are still becoming familiar with what you do. You want really clear messaging around what you’re saying and why.
As your following widens, and your distinctiveness is established, you can branch out a little into related topics, because by then your proposition will be clear - to you and others. But make sure you keep coming back to your home turf. A particularly good way to establish a strong brand is through writing a book, starting a podcast or finding another way to gain traction for your main idea or proposition. You don’t have to go through the formal publishing route - for many, self-publishing is sufficient and provides sufficient credibility.
Find ways to actively grow your network
Once you have a subject, and have been talking about it, you can use it to actively build your base. I teach on a number of university programmes where the students are squarely in my target audience. I always ask students if they would like to sign up to my monthly leadership bulletin - they gain good additional insight, and I have the ability to showcase the type of problems I solve and work that I do. A really good strategy is to create ‘freebies’ that you can offer if people sign up to your newsletter. Perhaps a report, a set of guidelines that relate to your topic, or a ‘how to’ guide. Other ways to grow your network include having an active present on the social media channels that feel relevant for the work you do. For me, that’s only LinkedIn (despite plenty of people trying to persuade me to spend time and money proving otherwise) but for you, it might be a wider set, including Twitter, Instagram, Houseparty, etc.
Look for ways to build credibility
A key technique is to make use of the credibility of others and partner with them. Dorie Clark, in HBR, suggests flaunting high-quality affiliations, which feels like excellent advice. For example, getting an invite to talk on a TV show or podcast; applying for an award; or asking if someone will spread the word of what you are doing or endorse you. Situations where it’s a win-win and they gain something too are a lot better and feel way less awkward. Being asked to speak at a university or an industry-leading conference are also good options. To identify what you should be doing, look at the CV/credentials of someone who’s around 10 years ahead of you on the same career track and is known as a thought leader, and then target similar sorts of activities and places.
Create regular, reliable touchpoints
Don’t just communicate with your audience when you feel like it. If you want to be relied on as a thought leader, you need to be creating a series of regular, reliable touchpoints. I’ve found that for me to spread the word about what I do, the most useful avenues are my monthly leadership bulletin and three-times-weekly LinkedIn posts. Anything else I do is ad hoc and a bonus, but I promise myself that I will do this. You can find a list of good options to consider here.
Now go for it!
Now you know the building blocks, you can make a start, if you haven’t already. Find your identity, work out how you’ll get your helpful thoughts and there and begin. And, if you find an audience who agree that your advice can help them to find solutions to existing problems, you’ll be well on your way. Moreover, if you're able to offer fresh and innovative ideas, you will be seen as a substantial contributor on the cutting edge - a leader who is a thought leader has an important role to play. Which in turn can skyrocket your status in your company, industry or network.