“Thought Leadership” now there’s a two word phrase that has emerged through the social channels in the past couple of years. As with any trendy term the bandwagon soon becomes full and chased by those who think they know the answers but often started after the opportunity well before they’d studied the direction in which they should be travelling.
Personally I’m not a fan of such glib phrases mostly because of their all too often over use in the hands of those who think using it will magically propel them into the top echelons of that particular sphere.
Before my cynicism takes hold I would like to make a few positive observations about the concept of thought leadership and how it can be a powerful force for good, in the appropriate hands at the right time and with considered execution.
Let’s start by reflecting on what makes a thought leader. It’s not necessarily a business owner nor entrepreneur but someone who has a depth of knowledge and clearly articulated view on a specific topic. The best thought leaders have a passion for their chosen subject of interest and that enthusiasm carries through in the variety of channels they chose to convey their message.
What it’s not – it’s not a sales platform to funnel in a pitch for a particular product, service or concept that offers immediate financial return for the communicator. That is out and out selling and will be spotted from some distance by your audience of network members.
What it should be – open, honest and thought provoking communication that adds to the knowledge and understanding of your target audience. Of course there will be an unspoken understanding within your network that behind this altruistic sharing of intelligent analysis and opinion lies a commercial objective.
How do you capitalise by giving your best ideas away for free? – No one is suggesting that all of your best thinking needs to be shared openly however it’s a very cluttered and noisy world and the challenge is in how you may find a voice for yourself, colleagues and your business by positioning them as leaders in a particular field. The danger of holding back on a particular subject may leave a door open for a competitor to establish their viewpoint and be perceived as the new “go to” source of information.
Do you need to be an expert in all areas? – Of course you’re setting yourself up for a fall if you’re a self-proclaimed “Guru” and for me that’s the biggest turn off. The phrase is “Empty vessels make the most sound” and unfortunately there are no shortage of those. What can be refreshingly appealing to an audience is an industry commentator who admits that they don’t know it all. That openness and honesty builds trust with a network and an affinity that you won’t see from those who are clearly making it up as they go along.
How can this apply to my business? Whichever area you work in – legal, IT, manufacturing, organic farming, charity, education or public sector there are individuals who will be looking for answers, original thinking and leadership. Social networking platforms enable everyone with an internet connection and a suitable device to link to millions of data sources each day. Creating a space for you or your organisation by positioning it as a lead in the chosen specialist area will add value to the brand and over time ideally lead to an increase in the volume and quality of enquiries.
Is it all about the broadcast? What you say is of course very important but what you do is equally telling. If you receive a re-tweet or a G+ or comment it should always be offered the courtesy of a response. If you see someone else posting very good content, useful links or other material supportive of your sector don’t resist the opportunity to praise the contributor, even if it may be a competitor – it’s about positioning and taking a “big picture” view rather than scrapping things out in the trenches.
What should the message be? True thought leadership is sharp in focus and unique in its perspective. Not borrowed or paraphrased from others. It should follow a consistent line. If customer service in retail is your particular line of interest the messages conveyed need to retain a common theme leaving the audience in no doubt of your view and suggested course of action. That message should deliver insight and information that leaves the reader or viewer feeling that they have gained from the experience. Investing time in absorbing data online is very popular but won’t pay off for you if the content falls short or leaves the reader frustrated.
Who should you be directing your message to? This might sound obvious but it’s surprising how many, who are active on social networking sites, persist with an obsession with the numbers. How many you have in a network will play a minor role in your success especially if the network is largely made up of competitors, friends or random individuals who will add no value to your business. The audience needs to gain real value from the knowledge imparted and for an opportunity to impress and create impact an in depth understanding is essential. A detailed awareness of your network, their jobs, problems, aspirations and interests will help shape the message and provide a tailored communication that has far greater prospect of engagement.
Developing as a thought leader. Sitting back and expecting inspiration to flow will work in the short term, if you’re lucky, but not in the longer term. As with any other industry expert you can’t afford to sit still and ignore the developments that are happening all around you. Actively seek out available information from those who are influential and recognised sources, subscribe to trade press e-mail alerts, twitter accounts, join sector specific associations, work groups on LinkedIn, attend conferences and build a continually growing bank of information. From this source you can articulate your view and place your own organisation at the centre of that conversation.
What makes a good thought leader? Malcolm Gladwell uses the term Maven in his excellent book Tipping Point (recommended reading) and the (i)Wiki definition really puts it very well. (i) A maven (also mavin) is a trusted expert in a particular field, who seeks to pass knowledge on to others. The word maven comes from Hebrew, via Yiddish and means one who understands, based on an accumulation of knowledge. Those whom I would site as leading Mavens or thought leaders of note include, technology futurist and social media strategist Guy Kawasaki @GuyKawasaki, Virgin entrepreneur Richard Branson @RichardBranson, and leading business strategists Rosabeth Kanter @RosabethKanter and Stephen Covey.
How do I start? A suggestion would be to think long and hard about the message you wish to convey, how your business wants to be positioned and who within the organisation could be sufficiently qualified to take the role of a thought leader. You may need to face the reality that you don’t have that particular skill but look to recruit for it. As you’ll fully appreciate it’s not a given that everyone can be a thought leader but if you have a passion for your business, access to strong communication skills and a connected network you can begin to build a presence and see where that journey takes you. Above all have a plan and be consistent.
Each industry or sector will have its own leading lights but that doesn’t preclude you from learning from their approach and finding your own voice and space to communicate.
If you would like further help with the development of a “thought leader” strategy in your organisation or have your own particular view we would be delighted to hear from you.
David Laud – Managing Partner i2i Business Solutions LLP follow me on twitter @davidlaud