The term Thought Leadership was first coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, then the editor-in-chief for the magazine Strategy and Business. It was he who said, "Thought Leaders are those people who possess a distinctively original idea, a unique point of view, or an unprecedented insight into their industry."
In some industries the term is tarnished because of the number of individuals and companies self-proclaiming they are Thought Leaders. In truth, how many can hold themselves accountable to Kurtzman's definition?
Many companies often think they already have Thought Leaders when in fact what they have is Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). The stepping-stone or solid foundation for someone to become a Thought Leader is authority in a particular area or topic. However, SMEs are only known within your company, whereas a Thought Leader will be known throughout your industry and even beyond.
While SMEs will have relevant and perhaps even thorough knowledge, a Thought Leader continually develops their thinking. As a result, sharing information about their area of expertise is not only relevant and thorough, it is also elegant and unique.
In addition, Thought Leaders proactively speak and write about their area of expertise. They are active on social media sharing and curating content, but more importantly creating it. Therefore Thought Leaders are constantly contributing to and leading conversations about specific topics.
Another key aspect of Thought Leadership, is the ability to express ideas in a way that makes sense to others. To do so, Thought Leaders are avid readers and consumers of knowledge. This is crucial when developing your body of knowledge and expressing ideas. It should also be noted that a Thought Leader does not express only one idea or an idea once. Matt Church, who is the founder of Thought Leaders Global, often says that Thought Leadership is not thought follow-ship and it is not about I had a thought once-ship.
It is no surprise that Thought Leaders are being asked to speak at industry events and contribute to industry magazines. By developing their thinking continually and socialising it, they are widely known for being knowledgeable about something and highly regarded in their area of expertise.
Why companies consider Thought Leadership
There are three big challenges that most companies are facing today that Thought Leadership can address. They are:
- War for Talent
War for talent is not a new challenge but companies need to rethink how they go about it. Your really talented people are looking for more than the expected good pay, recognition and promotion. They are even looking for more than flexibility and autonomy. Often what they really want is the opportunity for mastery: to have a professional purpose and to make a difference by having an industry influence.
- Battle for Attention
Battle for attention just keeps getting harder and the need to stand out in your market and enter into new markets has never been stronger. Selecting and positioning individuals as Thought Leaders, and by extension your company, affords a significant competitive advantage in the marketplace. You are no longer chasing sales as people are coming to you.
- Race for the Future
The race for the future is an increasing challenge for companies. The rate of disruption is so fast and so significant that what got you here will not get you there. Past success will not guarantee future success as markets change so rapidly. A team of Thought Leaders can help guide you through this disruption or even disrupt the market place for your benefit.
If war for talent, battle for attention and race for the future are challenges for your company, then a commitment to Thought Leadership is definitely worth considering.
Four common mistakes when implementing Thought Leadership
- Mistake 1 - The Spin Approach
One of the most common mistakes companies make can be classified as the Spin Approach to Thought Leadership. This is where companies start calling themselves Thought Leaders, updating their website and marketing collateral, and self proclaiming Thought Leadership.
In some cases ghostwriters are even hired to research and write articles under the CEO's name. While this may seem an easier approach, it achieves nothing and can have a detrimental effect on your brand. Especially if you are claiming Thought Leadership and not actually doing anything about it.
- Mistake 2 - Curate over Create
This is where companies ask their employees to become more active on social media. Sometimes they are provided with some social media training but the result of this is a curate over create mentality. By only sharing other people’s thoughts or content, you are simply elevating the Thought Leadership of others.
Often people are encouraged to write articles without a process to develop their thinking. While these posts may be relevant it is unlikely that they offer any original or unique perspective on the topic. An effective blog post, article or presentation requires adequate time to develop your ideas and thinking.
- Mistake 3 - All your Thought Leader eggs in one basket
Some companies rely on one isolated individual to be the Thought Leader, most often the CEO but not always. This is a high-risk strategy that works until the person leaves the company. It can be very effective when the CEO also owns the business, for example Richard Branson and Virgin. His high profile and insights into leadership and business benefit both his company and himself. If Branson sold Virgin, he would still maintain his high profile and influence in the industry.
An example of how this can fail is the recent sacking of CPAA CEO Alex Malley. For the past 2 years, CPAA elevated Malley as their sole Thought Leader and spent a reported $60 million on marketing his book and TV shows.
- Mistake 4 - Leaving it to chance
At times, companies can have a genuine Thought Leader but it was only by chance that this individual was working for them. In these cases there is no strategic development or support, it simply occurs as a result of the passion and interest of the individual.
It is important to note that creating a culture of Thought Leadership within a company involves a strategic approach as well as investment in time and money to develop and support your employees. This will not happen by leaving it to chance or simply creating a KPI around Thought Leadership with no strategic plan for implementation.
Implementing Thought Leadership
To effectively implement Thought Leadership, companies should take a strategic approach. This involves selecting individuals to form a dream team of Thought Leaders.
The first step in this approach is for a company to determine what they want to be known for. This is not limited to products and service or strategy and visions. While you would most likely want Thought Leaders for these areas, there are many other subjects such as values based leadership, cultures worth belonging to or customer centred design, which are important to consider.
Once your areas of Thought Leadership are defined, companies will need a process for selecting the appropriate people that could become Thought Leaders for each topic. Ideally your candidates should already want to be SMEs but they also need to be passionate about their area of expertise. Selecting the most senior people is not essential however they need to be relatively senior and willing to be a Thought Leader for a specific topic. Thought Leadership is not for everyone and the worst thing you could do is to force someone to take this on.
It is also vital to capture, package and deliver this expertise proficiently. Not only do Thought Leaders need to know their ‘stuff’ inside out, they also need to communicate it in a way that is easy for others to understand. Training in the use of models and metaphors to communicate contextual knowledge is an important aspect for Thought Leaders.
What’s more, companies will want to present the information in way that connects and engages people. Using stories to deliver content in a way that keeps people enthralled is an important skill for Thought Leaders. Thought Leadership is more than just delivering a good speech or being a good presenter. It is crucial to understand how to package ideas in a way that creates meaning and relevance for others.
In summary, selected candidates need to be prepared to write and speak about their area of expertise and carry out the work necessary to step into the Thought Leaders arena.
When implemented correctly, your people will be asked to speak at events, be regular contributors to industry publications and be strategically active on social media. As their Thought Leadership and brand is elevated so too is that of the company.
Thought Leadership can become a critical way to attract and retain your talented people. In the same way, it can help with the battle for attention as your Thought Leaders gain the ability to cut through the noise and stand out from the crowd. This in turn will put you ahead of your competitors in the race for the future.