Thought leadership isn’t just for individuals. In the Serious Insights guide “Thought Leaderhip’s Golden Rules,” you will learn how to use thought leadership to shape people’s perception of a company, its products and its services.
Firms large and small want to be thought leaders. Thought leadership derives from strategic differentiation, a demonstration of a superior technology, a breakthrough process or a unique insight. Amid the cacophony of often superficial, sell-oriented corporate messages, thought leaders add deeper dialogue that shapes the minds of customers and the profile of industries.
Establishing an organization or an individual as a thought leader requires consistent and diligent effort. Thought leadership accumulates. All thought leadership should reflect a strategy, not a tactic. Thought leadership should change how people perceive the world.
When an organization invests in thought leadership it should know what it wants from those who will consume it. It should know if it wants respect and recognition, lead generation and revenue, or an opportunity to build new relationships with partners or attract new employees inspired by the vision articulated in the thought leadership.
Most of all, thought leadership should intrigue, challenge and inspire.
After many years of guiding thought leadership in for-profit and non-profit organizations, we have honed our insights to 10 golden rules that can elevate every organization’s thought leadership program.
Don’t sell anything except ideas. Stay focused on the idea. Selling during a thought leadership presentation undermines the conversation about the topic. Never go from the thought leadership topic to the conclusion that your organization is the answer to the problem or the way to overcome the obstacle. Salespeople and not-for-profit development teams can translate the thought leadership idea into an ask. Keep the thought leadership as pure as possible.
Always give it away. Thought leadership is not a revenue stream. The dividends may be intangible, but when thought leadership flips from push to pull (writers are seeking out an opinion, conferences invite executives to present), that defines a thought leadership hit. Charging for thought leadership looks self-serving, it eliminates any good karma volunteered in the content.
Offer a unique perspective. A unique perspective means taking a position on something meaningful and interpreting it for others. That’s pretty vague but it needs to be because it is the search for that perspective that drives the thinking. Jump to a conclusion too soon and risk putting too narrow a constraint on the thought leadership.
Focus on one thing at a time. Thought leadership manifests as a program, an initiative or a marketing strategy. It is not a single white paper, blog post or webinar. Too often people developing thought leadership want to include every idea they have into a single piece of content as if they will never write again. Good thought leadership focuses on a single topic, makes its arguments, observations, and asks if any and ends. Thought leadership requires good editorial controls to ensure focus, clarity of purpose and accessibility of concept. Thought leadership builds on its initial premise, providing plenty of runway for subsequent work to expand and deepen the dialog.
Address a specific audience. Thought leadership only matters if people read it. That means it needs to be highly relevant and insightful. Relevancy often translates into industry-specific. Too many organizations think they can stretch concepts from one industry into another. They can’t. A paper targeted to banking risk officers cannot be delivered by analogy to supply-chain risk managers. Thought leadership credibility reflects plausible perspectives. Don’t let market ambition get ahead of what the organization knows or has actually delivered. The formula goes like this: pick an audience (or a few) and create content and experiences that speak in the audience’s language about important ideas where the organization has a unique perspective that adds value to the topic. If the organization can’t make that formula work for an audience, it needs to refrain from targeting them with thought leadership until it has more knowledge and experience. Build trust by writing about what you know.
Get involved. If an organization cares passionately about something, then it should get involved in its passion. Getting involved stretches beyond social issues. Project management companies need to get involved with project management societies. Workforce planning companies need to participate in workforce planning conferences. Electronics firms need to sponsor academic programs. Software companies get involved by mentoring at hackathons. Participation means running workshops, sharing ideas in forums, hosting panels, taking leadership roles in associations and leading technical committees for standards bodies. Getting involved may also mean starting a not-for-profit that redefines an idea and creates a platform where other like-minded firms can invest. Don’t just say. Do.
Admit what you don’t know. Be humble. Don’t come across as uninformed and defensive— but do express legitimate, sincere expressions of uncertainty. A software company that admits it doesn’t know what the future of communications will look like, that actively and thoughtfully explores a number of possible evolutions, does a much bigger service to the industry than one who places a shaky stake in the ground to align its vision with its product roadmap. Thought leadership isn’t about making the bet early and hoping you’re not wrong. Thought leadership is about actively pursuing possibilities and sharing that enthusiasm for exploration with customers and partners. Thought leadership should excite, and nothing excites more than going on a journey into the unknown, be it to a cavern where a dragon named Smaug purportedly lives or trying to figure out how people should work in the next decade.
Make your audience feel smarter. The most effective thought leadership delivers a perceived value to individuals. Think about a manager who attends a thought leadership session on social media in marketing and then comes back with some great ideas for his or her team. The person sharing his or her learning expresses a certain level of trust in the source, which they may well return to should any of the ideas stick, thus transforming a learning experience into a purchase. Those “transactions” can’t be counted upon, but if the recipients of the thought leadership don’t believe it somehow enhances what they know, then they are either the wrong audience, or the content isn’t valuable. And if the individual recipient of thought leadership doesn’t perceive value, they won’t pursue a relationship. Make the thought leadership consumer the hero.
Market thought leadership like a product. Thought leaders can’t be thought leaders if no one hears them. Awareness comes from marketing. A single speech at a conference, unless it goes viral (and chances are it won’t), performs as poorly as a single advertisement purchased with the hope that enough people in the target audience will see it to justify the cost. Thought leadership needs a campaign. It needs to be tweeted, Facebooked, webinared and advertised. Thought leadership needs to show up in the op-ed pages of the New York Times. Thought leadership needs to appear in the pages of trade and business magazines. Thought leadership needs to be marketed with the same vigor as any other product in the organization.
Hire thought leaders. Some, like Shel Israel (“What Makes a Thought Leader?”), believe that thought leaders are people, not companies. We disagree. Companies create a context and they permit thought leaders to thrive. Their thought leadership persists after individuals leave. A company, however, that wants to establish itself as a thought leader in a new area, needs to hire thought leadership in order to create a legacy of thought to steer them forward. Organizations also need to work to retain their thought leaders as they represent one of the best proof points to idea commitment.
Keep in mind that others bestow the title thought leader. People and organizations may aspire to become thought leaders, but the consumers of their speeches, rhetoric and writing ultimately determine if they are one or not.
Thought leaders should act as thoughtful leaders.
Organizations, be they public sector or private, retail or Rotarian, should act as thoughtful leaders. They create perspectives and content that influence others. They need to understand and be held accountable for their ideas and the impact they may have.
Being a thoughtful leader also means being a patient leader. Thought leadership does not usually increase retail transactions, software license sales, or fill the consulting pipeline as soon as it rolls out. Over time, thought leaders build trust and build a following. How long that takes depends on industry, investment and, perhaps most importantly, the value of the ideas and their success in the marketplace of ideas.
Thought leadership also requires perseverance and dedication, as well as a willingness to honestly examine why something that should work isn’t working. When thought leadership fails, take responsibility to refashion the idea into something more challenging, more accessible, or abandon it for a new or better idea.
Sustainable thought leaders infuse their organizational DNA with their ideas and let it trigger the genes that lead to other ideas. They purposefully accept feedback in order to adapt and remain relevant.
Organizations that successfully land thought leadership programs attract and retain customers, drive revenue, and get invited to all the best parties because they not only express thoughtful ideas and act as a thoughtful leader, but because their organizations reflect the thought leadership in how they behave, what they create and how they treat their customers.
Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.