The idea is this: get a group of experts on a team, then offer their knowledge to customers and prospects as a value-added service. It’s influencer marketing writ large and it can burnish your brand. What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty, as it turns out. Having managed several such teams, I am now helping two clients—a software startup and a consulting firm—formalize their thought leadership functions. Both will admit it’s harder than it looks.
What is thought leadership, anyway?
Thought leadership is more than a bunch of clever individuals with big ideas. A thought leader should offer fresh perspectives on a field or topic—yet a fresh perspective by itself doesn’t make one a thought leader. Academic achievements, books and journal publications, or regular conference keynotes likewise don’t define someone’s thought leadership bona fides. Thought leadership combines forward-thinking points of view, on-the-ground experience, and enough situational awareness to help customers work better.
Executives considering a thought leadership organization should keep the following five suggestions in mind.
1. Be unique
“But we’re all thought leaders!” goes the refrain from objectors, some of whom have silently assumed the thought leadership mantel while no one was watching. (Others are simply simmering with schadenfreude.) As can be said with musical virtuosity or chess, if all of us are masters, then none of us is.
A thought leadership team should concentrate effort on what I call core-adjacent activities. For instance, maybe you work at a machine learning startup that can diagnose tumors based on digital images? A thought leadership team might research the evolving role of the pathology discipline and public health. Or maybe you’re running an autonomous vehicle program for a major software vendor and decide to analyze your market to target early technology adopters?
In both these cases, the thought leadership team concentrates on adjacent-yet-complementary topics. This might mean creating models to determine customer segments, publishing research, or meeting with reference clients to compare success stories. Your thought leaders aren’t selling your product. Instead, they’re formulating ideas that validate it.
2. Be practical
Naïve views of thought leadership lean toward the academic. A newly-minted Ph.D. in Human Resource Management will have some compelling theories about attracting and retaining talent. But will she be prepared to make experience-based recommendations based on what’s worked elsewhere? And will she be able to tailor those recommendations to customers in industries she hasn’t worked in—with their own unique hierarchies and cultures?
The well-worn approach to “get some smart people in a room and hammer this out” is usually immediately followed by disaffection and eyerolling. It’s not a matter of the collective IQ, but about combining experience with creativity, usually (but not surprisingly) with a small team of collaborators. The faster a practical approach is conceived, the sooner it can be proven.
3. Be delivery-oriented
Thought leaders don’t sit around thinking up new ideas. Rather they test those ideas through research, often publishing the results. Or they create a long-form asset (sometimes called a research brief or whitepaper) that describes an idea in practice, explaining how it will attract new customers, grow revenues, or create demand in untapped markets.
The most effective thought leadership teams have honed the balance between independent thinking and collaboration. A priori assumptions about how your idea will happen won’t fly—your customers are smarter than that. They want to apply past experience to future innovations.
I recently helped form a thought leadership group in which there was a domain leader in charge of Internet of Things and another in charge of blockchain. Both leaders had cultivated a unique viewpoint about their areas, extensively writing about it and testing their plans with customers. Meetings with customers and prospects confirmed that the two leaders needed to collaborate. Both needed to answer questions on the impact to the supply chain and the contribution of digitization on manufacturing efficiencies. The two leaders decided to craft a 3-day advisory offering to discuss the marriage of their respective domains. Customer demand for the service skyrocketed.
4. Be comfortable with small
Thought leaders typically have unique combinations of skills and experience. For this reason, effective thought leadership teams are small and focused. The best teams feature specialists who go deep—even when the larger company culture might reward so-called jacks-of-all-trades.
Small, however, doesn’t mean invisible. If your thought leadership team is truly effective, it’s built its own internal brand. It has cultivated prestige. When I ran a thought leadership team for a technology vendor, I knew we were gaining ground when account reps would explain, “I want to introduce some of your team members to my customer. But I want to make sure my customer is ready for you.”
5. Be ready to defend the team
There will be politics. There will be naysayers. There will be people who think they should be on the team. There will be people hanging their own thought leadership shingles.
Even if your company is decentralized, a single thought leadership team makes good sense. For one thing, it brands the capability: differentiating thought leadership internally will eventually distinguish it externally with customers and partners. Over time, account reps and company executives will recognize the value of externally-facing thought leadership and credit the team for its contributions to corporate growth, and for its effect on the brand. Plus, it establishes a single standard for thought leadership across key domains.
Sure, thought leadership has become a buzzword. But when a team is thoughtfully-assembled and focused, it can turn out to be a competitive advantage.
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