I am the first to admit that there are so many over used, cliché sayings in business these days it has become borderline cringeworthy. It seems that every company on the planet encourages people to "be authentic" or "think outside the box" when, in most cases, it tends to be a façade and just look good on a mission statement or on the corporate values section of the employee handbook. Thought Leadership is another of these kitschy phrases that you see peppered across industries, with vague statements like "we value thought leadership" or "promoting thought leadership across our organization." In my experience, most companies don't know the first thing about thought leadership or showcasing it properly within their company and industry, however a proper thought leadership strategy can be a incredibly powerful tool for promoting your brand, creating consumer loyalty and attracting top talent.
So, what is thought leadership?
It's VERY simply defined, and very often screwed up in execution. Quite simply, thought leadership is tapping into the leadership of your organization and building a repository of materials that showcase the diverse knowledge based housed within your leadership team. There is a reason (or at least there should be!) as to why you have chosen a specific team of people to lead your company and one of the key attributes to being a successful leader is being able to talk - with ease - about topic relevant within your industry. If the senior leaders of your business cannot easily speak to trends in your market space and the basic tenets of being successful within your industry, then they should not be in a leadership position. Period. We can all name someone we've worked with who has a senior role in a company whilst seemingly having no clue what the company actually does. It is an unfortunate product of poor hiring practices, nepotism/favoritism or sometimes just a crappy hire. However, in cases where there are truly industry leaders and subject matter experts within your leadership team, it is crucial that, as a marketer, you leverage and highlight this as much as possible.
Building our your Thought Leadership Strategy
Be forewarned, most leaders are extremely apprehensive about being asked to author a piece, participate in an interview, or speak on a panel. A good CFO is in role because they have a solid understanding of finance - not because they have a degree in public speaking and creative writing. This is where it is essential that your marketing and communications team is set up to provide proper support, helping to ease the anxiety that comes with shining the spotlight on someone. I have implemented thought leadership strategies across multiple organizations and the most consistent roadblock are leaders who simply doesn't feel comfortable doing it or doesn't see the value in it. Enter the role of the marketer.
Step One: Do you homework
Before even approaching your executives about thought leadership, you need to do your due diligence. Look at your competition, find tangible examples of how other leaders are being showcased. Research your own leaders, understand their career paths and professional affiliations - this will help you come up with ideas for potential topics they can write / speak about. If your organization uses a PR agency, speak to them to understand the types of opportunities that exist, both for written pieces and speaking (interviews, podcasts, or serving as a panelist at an event). Having a concrete plan that outlines your ideas and demonstrates real-life examples of how other leaders are elevating their presence will help your executives to be more receptive to participating in thought leadership activities.
Step Two: Hand Holding
Once you've gotten buy in to proceed with your strategy, you need to make good on your commitment to support your leadership throughout the process. I have found that there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to supporting senior leaders, in fact, it's usually quite the opposite. You'll need to be nimble and flex your approach to fit the style of each person on the leadership team; your ability to pivot and adapt to their style will continue to ensure you have their buy in. Remember, you own this process and its ultimate success or failure. Be prepared to take lead on collating the thoughts of your leader on a given topic, pulling those into a cohesive, written piece and guiding it through rewrites and edits. For interviews or speaking engagements, work with your leader to form clear talking points, concise answers to potential questions, and (equally as important) a level of comfort and ease when speaking.
Step Three: Promote, Promote, Promote
If you've made it this point - congrats - you've made it further than most do. Once you have a finalized piece or recorded interview, promote it everywhere! Publish it across your social channels and your corporate website; share it internally with your organization and encourage your team members to share it across their networks; distribute to your client base, via a scheduled newsletter or email blast.
Maximizing the Benefit of Thought Leadership
The ultimate goal of a comprehensive thought leadership strategy should be to amass a repository of "white papers" that showcase the variety of expertise housed within your leadership. These pieces can be used for a multitude of purposes beyond just the initial buzz when they are first published. Oftentimes, weaving in quotes from senior leaders into presentations to prospective clients helps to show the human side of the products and services your company offers. Remember to strive for a diverse topic base within your repository, covering both tangible industry specific topics as well as general business subjects such as diversity and inclusion in the workplace, employee engagement, and managing a remote workforce.
Today, more than ever, people are looking deeper into the companies that they buy from and work for. Brands that have the most loyal customer and employee base have the most inspiring leaders. Look at companies such as SPANX, Tesla, and Google - yes, they have fantastic products, but they also have well known and respected leaders. Never underestimate the impact your leadership has on customer retention and employee loyalty. Ensuring that you highlight the strengths and knowledge within your own executives is a integral part of a successful overall marketing strategy.
Until next time,