Thought leadership: big opportunity or cringey cliché?

Y ou may have noticed the term ‘thought leadership’ has found its way into the lexicon of corporate jargon in recent years. Whenever a popular business phrase becomes overused in this way, there’s always the risk that simply saying it can cause a few eyes to roll and attention to fade. So quickly, before I begin to lose you, let’s take a look at why the phrase ‘thought leadership’ shouldn’t cause you to switch off.

As a means to establish a professional reputation, thought leadership has always been an effective course of action. Long before Arianna Huffington launched the Huffington Post, people looked to her for observations and thoughts on developments across a range of industries. One of the reasons Tim Armstrong,  CEO of AOL, decided to acquire the publication in 2011 was because Arianna Huffington’s name was “a key intellectual property asset”.

The emergence of social media has only served to elevate the role of thought leadership, taking it to another level. For example, if we look at digital marketing guru and New York Times best-seller Neil Patel (who is currently active on my Twitter feed), he has built up 340,000 Twitter followers by offering advice, motivation and inspiration. And you could argue he’s comparative small fry. Others have amassed followers in the millions. Just look at Guy Kawasaki with 1.4M Twitter followers or Gary Vaynerchuk with 2.1M followers.

Duplicating this level of success may seem unrealistic for a typical corporate executive, after all these ‘B2B influencers’ clearly commit a huge amount of time (and budget!) to generating and nurturing their followers. But it doesn’t mean your business leaders can’t reap some serious gains by replicating this behaviour – and they can do this while still holding down their day job.

And when senior professionals in any business increase their public profile in a positive way, it enhances the perception of the brand they serve.

So, what is thought leadership?

A thought leader might evoke images of world-leaders, philosophers and scientists. However, thought leadership can simply be highlighting trends, common themes and patterns within a particular industry to people who care. When these thoughts are based on expertise and offer enlightenment, they hold real value to others – it may help them identify new opportunities or solutions for growth.

If your company’s founder, CIO or any other c-level executive is doing innovative work in a fast-changing industry, they are very likely to hold insights that others will want to hear. It is often the case, however, that they don’t appreciate just how valuable the golden nuggets of information they hold are to people less knowledgeable than themselves.

How do you start to be a thought leader?

The first step is to ensure any potential leader will be taken seriously. So it really does help if they are an expert in their field and it’s easy for them to talk about a chosen subject matter – no matter how niche. Whether it’s cyber-security, legacy software, data protection, there is always an audience willing to consume any wisdom available.

A thought leader doesn’t necessarily need to be pigeonholed by the platform that raises them to notoriety though. Take Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit. He’s known for being a wealthy entrepreneur, and Serena Williams’ husband. But, while an influential figure in the tech world, he’s also become well known for his views on parental leave. Ohanian has been vocal on his personal social media outlets of Twitter and LinkedIn to share his progressive views on an issue, and sparked a great deal of debate in the USA.

How to elevate a personal brand to the next level

To elevate a thought leader to the next level, it helps if other influential people or publications are sharing their views and opinions. If you want to increase the profile of a business leader in your organisation, think about the media titles where an appearance would most likely enhance their reputation and then reach out to them.

These third-party associations are extremely powerful. For an example of how this can be deployed with devastating effect, I would strongly recommend The Missing Crypto Queen podcast. It’s an investigation by technology writer Jamie Bartlett into Dr. Ruja Ignatova who became a multi billionaire through the cryptocurrency ‘Onecoin’. She rose to prominence by using the media to promote herself through advertorials in The Economist and Forbes. It has since come to light, however, that her ‘Onecoin’ currency was a scam – and she’s not been seen for two years.

This might be a dark example, but it may also serve as a little warning that if you want to build a credible profile that will stand the test of time, make sure there’s authenticity in the message.

Dr. Ruja Ignatova aka The Missing Cryptoqueen

So, is thought leadership a viable option?

If you already have “brand ambassadors” in your team, who are already experts in their field, then there is real potential to use them to raise the profile of the business. But is that enough? After all, if you are going to invest time and resource nurturing personal profiles, you’ll want to know whether you have a good chance of building some momentum or whether you’ll be left flogging a dead horse.

Well, there are other attributes to look out for in a business leader that can increase your chances of success. Such as do they genuinely have an altruistic streak – are they the type of person who already takes time to advise others? Are they already active and comfortable using social media, such as LinkedIn? Would they be comfortable attending roundtables, speaking at panel events and presenting at conferences?

A thought leader doesn’t need to have all these attributes, but they certainly help if you are going to commit to building a long-term reputation. And if they do have some, and they are willing to invest a small bit of time to help themselves and others build that personal brand then they have a lot to gain, as does the business they serve.