Thought leadership has become a buzz word in recent years as companies strive to differentiate themselves in their industry. Small companies think it’s a strategy industry leaders are using to tout their R&D departments. Some view it as a way to stake out the future; yet others see it as owning the current market. Everyone is right. Thought leadership is a concept that covers all of this.
Ultimately, it’s the new sales pitch. The smarter customer is demanding more than a product. They want a relationship and a knowledge resource. In response, many companies are transitioning their way of selling to talk more about how they think, rather than just about what they offer. Thought leadership for a company centers around the brand promise and what you’re telling customers about your company. Thought leadership as a business strategy can be complicated as companies shift the way they meet the marketplace.
If companies are ultimately going to move toward a thought leadership strategy then it stands to reason that somewhere within the company they will have to have thought leaders. Long before companies can get there, individual leaders can. These leaders aren’t defined by a title or position; they could be a manager in the IT department or a vice president of finance.
To us, thought leadership simply means differentiating yourself and becoming knowledgeable enough on a topic that audiences seek you as the speaker rather than your company.
It’s landing on a topic or an area of focus within your industry and investing the time to become a valued resource and advisor. This is a critical way that senior managers build an executive presence outside of their companies and often accelerate their career by becoming known within an industry and sought after as a resource. There is a huge communication component to thought leadership. Every month, executives stand in front of customers and external audiences and talk about strategies and the positioning of new products. In all of these presentations we tell executives that they gain more credibility by talking through issues and external situations than by giving details of a product solution.
Every week, we develop messages and presentations and send executives out to their external audiences to deliver them. Yet I’m always amazed at the missed opportunities. Presentations deliver great ideas and insights. However, once it’s said, it’s forgotten. Time and effort goes into creating powerful messages and rarely are presentations repeated or leveraged as part of an overall communication strategy.
We coach executives to leverage topics and audiences. If you’re going to invest time to talk at conferences and industry groups, then also invest the time to become a valued source on a topic. Pick your area of interest and learn it backwards and forwards. Corporate communications groups are always trying to develop speakers beyond the CEO. They would be more than happy to have another resource to propose to groups and can easily leverage a thought leader and their topic within the industry. We work with many corporate communication teams to develop high profile thought leaders and the impact of this effort is impressive.
When asked about developing future speakers, one corporate communications leader told me that she had quite by accident “discovered” a young employee who was very effective.
As part of a media story, a journalist asked to talk to younger employees who might have a different perspective for her story.The communications leader asked around within the company and was directed to a young man who worked in one of the regional offices. She prepped him for a small part in the interview thoughts. Now she calls on him frequently as a thought leader on the topic. That was definitely a high profile moment for the young manager.
Three steps to consider as you think about defining yourself as a thought leader:
- Understand Your Customer and Your Industry: Most thought leaders gain attention by defining the market in a way no one else has. They see something differently or are exploring it from a different angle. You don’t have to create a new product, you simply have to be willing to talk about challenges and invest time in studying these challenges.
- Define What You Know and What Interests You: Executives tell us they simply don’t know enough about certain topics to talk to other industry leaders about them. Don’t try to know everything; just know something very well. Then be willing to share your thoughts and observations constantly. Give away your knowledge with reckless abandon in publications, customer conferences, white papers, trade journals, etc.
- Align with a Signature Solution: As you become a thought leader, you will begin to talk about solutions rather than specific products. A signature solution should tie back to your company, but it is rarely an advertisement for it. Make yourself an advocate rather than a commercial.
Three steps to consider as you develop a communications strategy for your topic
Once you land on a topic, you need to think through a communication strategy to support it. For many leaders, this is a key part of the communication plan we discussed in Chapter 14. As you build a strategy, consider these three steps:
1. Create It: This is not your typical presentation. This is a mind-shifting message. You want to provoke, surprise, and engage an audience. And, you need to leave them wanting more. Invest the time and energy to get this right, so you will feel confident and excited about delivering it again and again. You’ll need a strong message with good insights and examples to bring your concepts to life. As you get started, you may not have insights of your own. You can use research, whitepapers, and other trusted sources for data. But, you will need an idea about the topic that is centered around your own unique point of view.
A few years ago, we worked with an executive who was chosen by his company as the sustainability expert. The company was just beginning to explore sustainability and knew they needed to have a voice within the industry. The only challenge was that this executive didn’t know anything about sustainability nor did he have experience in the area. He would gain experience over the next several months as he stepped into the new role, but they were eager for him to speak sooner and he didn’t have anything to say. We developed a unique angle for him from the consumers’ perspective, and his presentation was a hit. As his knowledge grew, his presentation evolved and within twelve months he was one of the most sought after sustainability speakers within his industry. He has also advanced two levels within the organization in the three years we’ve known him.
Consider this: The average presentation takes about three days of development time from an executive. Then, it only lives for 60 minutes. Imagine a presentation that is delivered 12 times and lives for months within an industry. That’s a leveraged plan.
2. Sustain It: Once you develop it, you’ve got to sustain the message. Not only by repeating the presentation itself, but through a communication plan that builds on the ideas and creates repetition around them. Some executives do this internally with monthly phone updates and internal newsletters. However, most concepts stop short of external communication which actually allows the thought leadership to build within an industry. You have to consistently provide cutting-edge information and answers through external newsletters, conferences, or articles. Visibility is an essential component of positioning yourself as a recognizable expert. Unlike self-promotion and the guy we all view as a political player, thought leadership adds value to the listener and advances discussion on critical topics.
A great example of this is the investment world where money managers create their own persona through newsletters, blogs, and industry appearances.
3. Expand It: A communication strategy behind thought leadership allows for broader support in positioning a topic and an individual. Often, key messages can grow into other topics or gain relevance in other industries. A team effort can help an executive expand an idea and keep a topic fresh or leverage it to broader audiences.
Here’s how I’ve seen it work. An executive came to us for help developing a message about recycling benefits. He was actually in the property management business and his firm had taken some heat about not recycling on large properties. He was developing a board presentation to drive a decision on whether or not they should consider recycling.As we gathered data and research for his presentation, he was surprised by the statistics we uncovered and became intrigued with the possibilities. His presentation shifted from simply explaining options to seeking buy-in for a comprehensive recycling program.
He used the same presentation to show his plan to each of his property managers and his team created a recycling campaign so that tenants would recognize it. He tracked the results and followed up with the key audiences to prove that the assumptions he laid out in the initial presentation were reached. His insights were noticed. He was asked to present the project and its results at Property Management conferences. His firm won a national award for the campaign and he started a quarterly newsletter covering their efforts.
In short order, he created it, expanded it, and is now sustaining it with the help of his communication team. He is seen as a thought leader on recycling and has been interviewed, quoted, and recognized many times for his insights on recycling. As an added benefit, their occupancy rates have climbed as well.
Thought leadership can happen inside or outside a company. It can be a major undertaking or just an added component of a well thought out communication plan. Either way, thought leadership is a powerful tool to leverage visibility. The more you’re seen, the more likely you are to establish an executive presence with all of your key audiences. And, being seen is one communication method that many executives forget.
This is chapter 16 from The Hidden Factor: Executive Presence by Sally Williamson. It is reprinted with permission from Sally Williamson and Associates, Inc.