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Thought leadership surrounds you. It manifests itself in ideas ranging from “business process re-engineering” to “blue ocean strategy” and “management by objectives,” and in tools used for decades or longer, such as Gantt charts. Many of the technologies and processes you take for granted were once ideas that became common practice through the stages of thought leadership – from idea to article or paper to the first adoption, perhaps a book, then broad implementation. Many ideas never reach common use and some get debunked along the way, fall out of vogue, or are replaced by other tools or processes. Today’s flood of books, papers, conferences, and new information delivered steadily through journals and websites attests to the pervasiveness of thought leadership. It has become, perhaps, the most effective means available for organizations to build their reputation, identify and lead new fields, and expand the scope of their business.
“Thought leadership is the creation and dissemination of ideas that have direct relevance to business.”
Tens of thousands of business books are published each year – and perhaps hundreds of thousands of articles and videos – but they’re not all exercises in thought leadership. True thought leadership springs from “intellectual curiosity” that leads to original ideas that researchers can test. Thought leadership should offer unique perspectives, innovation, and practicality. Much of what people produce and present as thought leadership is actually “thought fellowship” – often still useful, but not to be confused with leading the exploration of new concepts or topics.
“Thought leadership is probably one of the most influential and successful business practices that the world has seen and it is surprising that it appears so rarely in business books or publications on state-of-the-art communication strategies.”
The best thought leadership offers significant credible information. It gazes into the future and takes a position on upcoming events, forces, trends, products, businesses, and themes. It must be genuine, distinctive, perceptive, and meaningful to its audience. Thought leadership should be offered freely and circulated widely.
Thought Leadership Throughout History
In the late 18th century, James Watt used the thought-leadership process to document and popularize his ideas for the steam engine and to raise the necessary capital. In the 19th century, William Lever used it to convince the British that washing with soap was good for their health and would save the time they spent washing their clothes and linens. In the early 20th century, Coca-Cola used famous personalities to popularize its beverage.
“The deliberate exploration, creation, and communication of business ideas has been used to improve business for at least 300 years.”
Through the 20th century, the science of management came into full bloom. Thought leadership exploded in volume and importance. “Thought leaders” such as Frederick Taylor, Peter Drucker and Tom Peters – along with thinkers from professional-services firms, universities and businesses – led America and much of the developed world into a new era of thought dissemination. Now proven to be a legitimate and effective tool, thought leadership is an essential and everyday part of the business.
The Ubiquity of Thought Leadership
Thought leadership appears almost everywhere and in many diverse industries. The world’s largest, most-respected firms use it to test and popularize their ideas and to create or build new markets. Whether business-related, technical, political, religious, or based in some other realm, thought leadership has a profound impact on how you live and how you form ideas and tastes. It is the most commonly used vehicle for taking an idea or innovation from a concept to something tangible and applicable.
You probably work in a field, pursue a course of study or feel drawn to subject areas within which thought leadership is relevant. Your reasons for creating thought leadership may even be connected to generating business and revenue, but don’t let those incentives drive this work. First, identify a subject that captivates your imagination and matches your firm’s abilities and reputation. Then strategically pursue an idea that aligns with your organization’s broad goals.
“A firm that is regarded as a thought leader is one that is willing to take a bold position.”
The idea should generate practical, unique insights that your company can research and test before creating a white paper, book, presentation, or other product for public release. At this stage, consider how your company will benefit from the ideas and thought leadership you might produce. Large firms with enormous resources and capabilities are often risk-averse; they are reluctant to put their names on new ideas. Small firms are not always capable of capitalizing on a concept if it should take off as hoped. As you develop your strategy for leveraging thought leadership, never allow revenue concerns to rule the process.
Find the Right People
Once you’ve settled on a topic to develop for thought-leadership purposes, determine who is capable of performing the research and writing required. Senior leaders should establish the initial ideas and strategies, then sponsor and participate in the research and reporting efforts. Choosing the right people inside or outside the firm to perform the work is critical.
“Strategy is…a clutch of ideas, crafted by the leaders of an organization, which set a direction…for their firm.”
IBM, for example, funds “centers of expertise” responsible for producing its thought leadership. IBM’s “Institute for Business Value” consults with customers and works with advisers throughout the corporation to identify ideas and help produce thought leadership. At Deloitte, only the firm’s elite, designated Eminence Fellows are allowed to create or approve thought-leadership initiatives.
Choose Your Method
To prime the pump for thought leadership, you can turn to surveys, focus groups, interviews, expert panels, and more. Once you gather ideas, assess them against one another to determine your firm’s priorities. For example, will a particular path to thought leadership unveil fresh ideas? Or will it offer new perspectives on older thought leadership? In many cases, organizations develop new thought leadership around finding better methods for implementing existing ideas. This is a perfectly legitimate and valuable approach.
Test Your Ideas
Test your ideas inside your company to ensure that they don’t clash with other published opinions or create conflict elsewhere in the organization – especially in areas that concern customer interests. Float your ideas in blogs or short articles to gauge the reaction and draw additional perspectives. This also helps you determine which experts and influencers might take an interest and potentially endorse your ideas once you promulgate them.
“Although it is never said, the designers of Thought-Leadership programs have to work out if their organization is brave enough to support an idea.”
If the ideas you test garner sufficient interest in their field, develop a more formal product – perhaps a white paper – that expands on them. First, circulate it internally for review and refinement, then consider a limited release – possibly to a trusted customer group or a panel of experts. Following any further adjustments, package the paper, video, presentation, or the like into “collateral” material your company can easily distribute. Your collateral should be professional and visually appealing so that it properly represents your brand.
“Fads are largely an American phenomenon. While faddish books sell abroad, they are taken as grist for thought, not as prescriptions to be acted upon.”
Develop a website to accompany the product. Follow up by speaking at events and conferences. “The successful users of thought leadership are not satisfied just to put on a conference or to stick a report on a website. Nor are they interested in pushy ‘marketing.’ They set out to communicate an idea with interested audiences.”
Thought Leadership Do’s and Don’ts
Executives want to know about and understand the trends and insights that might affect them and their industry. They need to be well informed and they enjoy the prestige that comes with being associated with new ideas. Businesspeople take thought leadership seriously only when it comes from trusted and respected sources, whether individuals or companies. Follow these fundamental do’s and don’ts to create and distribute thought leadership:
- Don’t let sales drive the process – When you create thought-leadership information, be sure it is unrelated to – and in no direct way supports – sales. If you earn a reputation for mixing thought leadership with marketing, sales or public relations, you will greatly reduce the impact and credibility of your thought-leadership work. Yet book sales, speaking fees and new business associated with “novel” ideas and insights can generate millions of dollars. Almost nine in ten US firms say that vendors’ thought leadership helps determine whether they’re considered as suppliers.
- Do know your goals – Develop a specific, well-defined and novel idea for your thought leadership and articulate what you expect from it in terms of impact and outcomes. Align your thought leadership to overall corporate strategy. For example, Allen & Overy, a UK-based international law firm, aligns its production of thought leadership with its overarching strategy for expansion into Asia.
- Don’t delegate thought leadership to junior staff – Many firms make the mistake of leaving thought leadership to junior or mid-level people. Organizational leaders should conceive, lead and stay involved in the creation of thought leadership. Choose topics that align to the company’s strengths, capabilities, knowledge and reputation. Ensure that the senior leaders involved are qualified; tap reputable people and insist on rigorous research and analysis. Partners at Russell Reynolds, an international search firm, develop thought leadership to build credibility and a solid reputation in areas that the firm wants to enter. For example, by researching corporate board “succession planning” and forming its own perspectives, Russell Reynolds built a reputation for expertise in a growing niche that boosted its business activity in recruiting board members. Partners produce papers, speak at events and form associations with well-known influencers to spread their findings. The team that creates thought leadership should include experts, writers, researchers, editors and marketers.
- Do know your audience – Develop a clear knowledge of your intended audience. Know what they want, what they’re looking for, what they aspire to, where they get their information, and what “networks” and “professional associations” they belong to and utilize. Don’t rely on what you think you know about your audience; do your research, and do it well.
- Do sell your ideas – Appeal to your audience on both rational and emotional levels. Case studies create a relatable emotional message. Build your thought-leadership program around a theme to generate maximum recall and impact. IBM, for example, connects thought leadership to its well-known “smarter planet” theme. Build your personal profile by speaking at events. Recruit renowned, respected thought leaders and experts to endorse and talk about your ideas. Use multiple platforms and media to get your thought leadership on the agenda at “famous” events and into respected journals, newspapers and websites. Consider the use of a skilled PR firm to aid your efforts. Spread your ideas through email campaigns, thoughtful and targeted web advertising, word of mouth among your employees, and even crowdsourcing. At the same time, don’t be too aggressive in promoting your thought leadership. To some people, your campaign may appear to be too much like PR or marketing, which is the kiss of death. Be subtle and always add value.
- Do think globally – Thought leadership is not an entirely “Western” concept, but you must adjust it for “cultural differences” worldwide. Customer relationship marketing, for example, has a different meaning in New York than in Paris. Even within the same country, make sure you are sensitive to cultural norms among your different audiences so they all accept your ideas with the least possible resistance. “Thought leadership should be customized and communicated in different ways…through…communities, countries or regions.”
- Don’t skimp on your budget – You can’t avoid spending money on quality thought leadership. Assign good people and spend whatever first-rate graphics, PR, websites and other materials require.
- Do avoid dubious recommendations – When trying to form a unique perspective, it’s easy to rush to conclusions. Beware of releasing work that might cause harm. Business process re-engineering – which is an outcome of thought leadership – led to waves of mass layoffs, for example . It is now debunked, but it damaged countless people’s lives over many years. Worse, a branch of evolution-related thought leadership – eventually labeled “eugenics” – began in the 19th century and accrued decades of credibility from unwitting researchers. Nazi experimenters applied this faulty science most infamously during World War II.
- Do let it go – Don’t try to own or control your ideas and thought leadership. Avoid pursuing trademarks, copyrights and patents, as they slow, stifle or smother your work. Offer your thought leadership to the public domain with your name on it. This path offers the best chance for wide dissemination and good returns.
“Despite the fact that the term Thought Leadership is extensively used, there is no standard, recognized definition of it.”
Thought leadership can be easily misunderstood, often mislabeled, and frequently abused. Developed and deployed correctly, however, thought leadership proves a powerful tool for organizations that want to build a good reputation, differentiate themselves, and move up their industry’s value chain.
Publisher: Kogan Page (October 28, 2013)
Paperback: 344 pages
Item Weight: 1.15 pounds
Dimensions : 6 x 0.72 x 9 inches
Best Sellers Rank: #1,801,678 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Customer Reviews: 4.5 out of 5 stars 9 ratings
AMAZON Category: Books › Business & Money › Management & Leadership