“Make me a thought leader,” they say.
Why you should try, how to get started and how to stand out
If I look back on the last two years and select one thing more new clients asked for than anything else, it’s this: the out-sourced creation of thought leadership content…
- ‘Make me a thought leader.’
- ‘I want to be an influencer.’
- ‘Can you ghost-write for me?’
Of course, I can and do help them.
But looking #beyondthecurve, I forecast a growing compulsion among business owners, consultants, and even young hustlers to become Names in The Field.
What’s the problem? Too many wannabes and an over-saturated and sceptical audience. So here’s what you need to know if you want to stand out.
Is thought leadership a real thing?
Yes. Behind the buzzword is the admirable ambition of being viewed as a credible industry expert; someone who can offer insights worth listening to.
True thought leaders are trustworthy go-to authorities for their industry colleagues and peers, because they’re not only on the cutting edge in terms of their own ideas, but they also know how to enlighten, inspire and stimulate others.
Okay, so why should I bother?
Thought leadership has the potential to unlock a new level of professional accomplishment for you, and give you career and personal satisfaction:
- You’ll increase your strategic visibility en route to attracting customers for your products, clients for your services, partners for your companies, etc.
- You’ll get exposure for your ideas inside and outside your company, particularly with journalists, analysts, event organisers, and conference hosts.
- You’ll gain access to people who can help you make things happen – leaders in your community, innovators in your profession or industry, or researchers.
- You may be asked to join boards or participate in industry committees, both of which can raise your profile from local to national to international.
But, to become a compelling thought leader, you’ll need some basic attributes:
- In-depth knowledge and expertise in a specific niche (this is permission to play)
- A willingness to resist and rethink the way things have always been done
- A great product, service, programme, initiative, or company OR
- The ability to codify what you know and think (but have not actually built yet)
- Seriously good verbal and written presentation skills and interpersonal skills
Genuine thought leadership only comes with time and effort. A lot of time and effort. It’s not the result of a handful of articles, social media posts or networking events.
My advice? Give it 12 months of rock-solid work (daily for social media, weekly for events, and monthly for blog posts, articles and op-ed pieces) and then assess. Success may take another year, or even two, but a slow burn is what you’re after.
Becoming a thought leader often involves showing an audience that they can take a small step forward and how to get started – not just explaining or defining topics.
There’s a strong element of education in true thought leadership. That’s why you’ll need to create blueprints for people to follow: methods, processes, guidelines or sets of best practices.
Along the way, you’ll need to contribute to advancements in your field, beyond merely urging others to be open to new ways of thinking.
This is the difference between being a thought leader and having clever thoughts in your head. Thought leaders must be pioneers. They must be able to guide others, and even whole industries, into unknown territories. They must be able to actually affect change. As a fellow thinker (but not a thought leader) regularly puts it, “You can’t just re-word other people’s crap.”
Before the movement to online platforms, thought leadership was very much focused on authoring articles in trade publications and journals, and on making presentations at industry conferences and events. Being published was the goal.
Today, social media platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube can serve as the foundations for a thought leadership strategy. But remember: the goal is to provide value, not simply to engage – or worse, to push your products or services.
As a rule, well-written content that answers a timely question is a great way of showing that you’re a) an expert in a particular industry and b) available to help.
Write, write, write
The process of concretising your thoughts and then sharing them is both transformational and necessary for developing a voice. If you can’t write, that’s fine – transfer your insights into bullet points and pay someone else to write them up for you. But it’s called ‘thought leadership’ because it’s composed of your thoughts!
Love the topic
Successful thought leaders have to repeatedly write, speak, produce video, be interviewed, and come up with original ideas about their topics. You may have to do this for years and you may need to repeat yourself a lot. Believe in and love your topic, or you won’t last long enough to become a thought leader.
Spread the insights
Strive to get published as often and as widely as you can. Even if you start out by self-publishing on Medium, LinkedIn Pulse or your own blog, it’s important to develop a steady stream of regular readers. You can also publish guest posts on industry-related blogs, and grow from there to seek broader, more authoritative platforms.
Forget your business agenda
Try to understand the issues that impact your audience and offer upbeat, educational advice that’s driven by those issues. It’s not about your corporate bottom line. It’s not even about you. It’s about your ability to give your audience what it wants.