How To Become A Thought Leader


Photo: Flickr via Hamed Saber

Five hundred or five thousand twitter followers will not buy you a cup of coffee in America.  Followers at work, by comparison, will propel your career and assist your rise up the corporate ladder.  When top executives look within their company to identify the people they wish to promote or hand additional responsibility, they look for people who others will follow.   Executives want people who are already followed within the organisation.  But leadership qualities alone won’t get you ahead.

There are many kinds of leaders. But the leaders who get promoted are the acknowledged thought leaders within a company — they’re the informal leaders people are already following.

Sure, strong managerial skills and/or superior competence within your scope of responsibility is helpful.  As is being a hard worker. But those attributes are ultimately table stakes, as everybody in the game has them. To rise above the fray, you need to demonstrate the type of leadership that generates respect and recognition from upper management.  The same type of leadership that creates followers within the organisation.

So how do you create followers? How do you become a recognised leader? One key is careful development and measured demonstration of thought leadership.

Here are some ways to develop such leadership, as well as a few tactics for demonstrating the skill.

Become a subject matter expert

Go beyond competence in your job: develop subject matter expertise of interest to a broad swath of your organisation.  

Examples would include your own company’s products and their primary uses, the competitor landscape, key operating metrics, or industry trends.  Take the time to read and analyse the posted reports of public companies, listen to free podcasts of industry experts, watch posted videos of key executives’ speeches, read whatever whitepapers you can get your hands.  All the information necessary to transform you into subject matter expert is available to you.  The bulk of it is free.

To avoid prompting defensiveness, make sure that your interest is characterised as professional interest in a subject that will make you a better corporate contributor; and second, offer your insights first to anyone who may be threatened by your knowledge.

Demonstrating deeper and more current knowledge is the nature of subject matter expertise

Everybody dislikes a faux expert. Make sure you really know what you are talking about.

Having achieved your expertise, you will be progressively and regularly surprised by the people who seek you out.   At the end of the day, there may be others who are tasked to know some of this stuff.  But, if someone’s neck is on the line for a decision, they’ll find the people who really know.  And that will be you.

Increase your relevance

Make sure others know about your expertise. Offer information freely and widely to anyone you think may benefit from it.  They will react, respond and follow you if the information is valuable to them.

Enable others to trade and leverage the information you have developed with concentrated diligence. Don’t worry about attribution. Either way, consumers of your information and expertise are following your lead and that is far more significant.  If the organisation comes to rely on your expertise with regularity, well, you have established yourself across departments and among peers.

Recruit your followers

Whenever someone expresses interest or respect for  your subject matter expertise, ask them to “opt in” to occasional updates from you.  Offer to share your material in email briefs or short presentation briefings.   Seek exposure for the material, (and yourself), and always offer to provide updates to everyone you expose to the information.   Warning:  characterise the updates  as a “from time to time” communication as “significant or important developments occur” so no one confuses you with a subscription service.

Find and follow other thought leaders

Other thought leaders in your organisation will end up being promoted over time.  Which means that they are the most likely to be in a position to help you now or later.  Bonus:  thought leaders  are flat out more interesting than the average knucklehead in your workplace  They have material and insights you can leverage in your job.  Smart people make you smarter.  Thought leaders are also easy to find by asking around. You can also find them near the company’s most well thought of initiatives.

You need to find and follow fellow thought leaders so they are in  position to vouch for you to top management.   Remember, when it comes time to evaluate you for promotion, the people who provide input  will be the leaders  you know and who know you.  You should proactively build this pool.

If other thought leaders respect you, they can multiply and amplify your influence

Volunteer to go wherever and whenever you can while customising the information to the degree possible to the audience.   Example:  Brief the salespeople on the weak points of your competitor’s latest offerings in a way that enables them to win deals and you will have a vocal following.  Take the same information with a product positioning spin to various departments in marketing and you will have new recruits.   Understand that the nature of followers in the modern world is that hierarchies get jumped and circuits close in unpredictable ways.

Picture the salesperson who utilizes your insights on a high level sales call with  your CEO.  After the sales call, the CEO might reasonably say, “I didn’t know that about our competitor’s latest offering.   Where did you get that information?”  Cue: Nice comment about you.  If it happens once, it is nice.  It happens twice, and that’s good.  The third time someone quotes you or your information to the CEO, well, you’ve added another follower.  An important follower whose success is dependent upon finding and promoting thought leaders.  Thought leaders like you.

Communicate carefully

Don’t waste an important insight by sending it at the wrong time or sacrifice the value of your insight  by not spending adequate time packaging your product.

For most people, you will only share information from time to time and you need to make the most of each communication.   Do everything you can to enable and encourage sharing of the information.   You can even make helpful declarative statements like “I did a ‘deep dive’ …(you can add that it was over the weekend if this works in your environment)… into this applicable subject matter (competitor product/industry review) and noticed three material things we at OUR COMPANY should be aware of.  Would you pass this along to anyone who could benefit from it?  I am happy to answers any questions about my analysis….” Package your insights and package yourself.  This is thought leadership in an email. The desired cycle is that the email is read, valued and forwarded on.

Becoming a thought leader requires hard, thoughtful work

The application of the developed leadership must be conscious and deliberate.  The return is outsized, however, as one gains a credibility and respect from this type of recognition  that is much harder to develop than from superior execution of one’s job responsibilities.

If you’re willing to do the work to have greater knowledge and you package and present it willingly, you will generate a following worth “tweeting” about.

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