The moniker “thought-leader” has become increasingly coveted by c-level leaders in recent years. In this guide we’ll explain what a thought-leader is, who can be one, why you’d want to be one and crucially, how to become one.
In a nutshell
A thought-leader is someone who proactively advances understanding of a subject or topic by offering new and stimulating insight. Thought-leaders are often highly revered and seen as inspirational figures.
Who can be one?
Pretty much anyone but the more senior, experienced or qualified the person, the more credible they will be. All you really need is some original (or at least, semi-original) thoughts or insights, but it’s also possible for organisations as a whole to seen as thought-leaders and this can be particularly powerful.
Why become a thought-leader?
There are a huge number of reasons to become a thought leader and far too many to list here, so here we have a few of the main ones:
- The ability to strategically shape the external landscape to the benefit of your organisation
- To be seen as an inspirational leader
- To positively influence shareholders, potential investors or other stakeholders
- Because you believe it’s the right thing to do (i.e. you’re an activist CEO)
- It can be great exposure for your business’ brand, building trust and affinity
- It can affect political or regulatory change
- It’s good for your personal profile
- It’s fun!
What are some of the barriers to becoming a thought-leader?
Some of the main barriers are a lack of know-how, concerns over time investment, and worries over saying the wrong thing (we’re looking at you Elon Musk!). All are valid and all are totally surmountable, especially with expert guidance and support. Thought-leadership doesn’t have to be shoot-from-the-hip, but it can (and probably should be) extremely well-planned and strategic to achieve the best results.
A quick-start guide to thought-leadership
- Match thought-leadership communication objectives against business objectives. See the ‘why become a thought-leader section’ above for inspiration.
- Brainstorm thought-leadership positions (aka opinions) that would help shift opinion in such a way it meets your objectives. Be bold but don’t be reckless. Don’t worry too much about occasionally upsetting certain people but try not to make a habit of it.
- Make sure your opinion is interesting. Does it say something new? Will it make people sit up and take notice? Try to avoid being like everybody else and don’t copy what they say. Zig while everyone else zags. If in doubt, try it out on colleagues to see if it clicks with them.
- Think about what channels are available to you and which are best to use:
- Social media, especially LinkedIn, can be a fantastic thought-leadership platform but does require strategy behind it to make it effective. Have a look at the social media pages of your favourite business leaders and take inspiration from them.
- Print/online/broadcast media are a brilliant way to spread your message far and wide but it’s important to choose the right media. A powerful trade magazine could be better than the Today Programme, but again it all depends on your message and what you’re trying to achieve. If you’re not a confident media spokesperson consider things like media training, or even, conducting thought-leadership through opinion-editorials (op-eds) – now usually called “hot takes”. Play to your strengths. Reacting to the zeitgeist is a great way to get cut-through.
- Speaker opportunities. There are a wide range of speaker opportunities that provide great opportunities for direct engagement. The audience might be smaller, but engagement could be sky high.
- Depending on your objectives you could unleash your inner lobbying and try to engage in Westminster or even local government. There are a range of opportunities via which to do this and our politicians, preoccupied with Brexit though they are, are surprisingly accessible.
- Get support. As mentioned above, becoming a thought-leader can be time consuming and isn’t without risks which is why it’s a good idea to engage specialist support or counsel to make sure you can keep up the practice and that it achieves what it’s supposed to.
- For the sake of my fellow comms professionals, we do recommend you consult your comms team before you start holding forth if you have one. External relations can be complex and a thought-leadership campaign should complement, not complicate, the wider strategy.
- Build a thought-leader mindset in your organisation. This is a longer term play, but when organisations start behaving like thought-leaders, amazing things can happen. Sometimes, the most compelling thoughts come from surprising places!
That’s thought-leadership in a nutshell. At Spider, we specialise in helping people and businesses from start ups to government agencies become thought-leaders. If you’d like to find out more about our unique approach to thought-leadership, drop us a line on 0207 403 6900 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or Jessica.Dixon@wearespider.com