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November 19, 2021

by Mariela Azcuy

To answer my question, no, this article doesn’t make me a thought leader. Neither does the Tweet I sent three months ago. Or the fact that I included the phrase Thought Leader in my LinkedIn bio. (I didn’t do that. But lots of people do and it blows my mind.)

You can’t deem yourself a thought leader. The market does that for you, and it only does that for you after you prolifically share ideas and stories that make people pause, follow, and share. Thought leaders also must have the experience -- the cred -- to validate their ideas. And finally, they should have a healthy mix of humility and pride.

Before I go into these, maybe you’re asking: Why should I care?

It’s because of one of my favorite phrases, which I believe Seth Godin originated, but Luk Smeyers called to my attention: “abundance of trust-stuff.” As in, most prospects are checking you out -- multiple times -- before they decide to work with you. So, you better have an abundance of easily-accessible trust-stuff that “confirms how good you know your business, understand your target clients, and solve problems.”

I’d add to that: Trust-stuff confirms that you’re a real person (not an organization) they want to do business with.

Here some guidance on your journey toward thought leadership.

Be Prolific

The path to thought leadership is the opposite of going viral. Going viral is one moment in time that gets amplified and gains instant popularity for a myriad of reasons. Getting to a point where you are considered a thought leader is a slow but steady process -- one where you are unafraid to take risks and share opinions along the way. You share and share often. The medium isn’t as important as the consistency. You could write LinkedIn posts, sit on conference panels, join webinars, author blog posts, distribute Twitter threads, participate in Reddit AMAs, send out a bi-monthly newsletter, or commit to an illustration a day. The point is you can’t say something once -- three months ago -- and expect to be considered a thought leader because of that.

Pull from your Experience

Ben Horowitz, co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz calls this your “earned secrets.” You can go to minute 8:07 of this podcast to hear him explain it through the story of Airbnb’s Brian Chesky. I’ll share the main takeaway: “You did something in your past to solve a hard problem and learned something about the world that not a lot of people know.”

One of our clients does this shockingly well through personal storytelling around her role as a three-time tech founder and CEO. Her purpose is to extend the ladder down so others can dream, build, and lead, and she hears she’s accomplishing this every day from aspiring or early-stage founders who find value in her stories. Going back to that idea of being a real person, we know current and potential clients tune into her podcast and decide this is the person they want to work with.

Other ways you can pull from your experience include activating your expertise. What do you have to say about a just-released syndicated industry report? What sort of report can your company design and deliver that nobody else can and will help your target audience achieve their goals?   

If you ever feel like your expertise is too obvious to be shared, here’s a video that might make you reconsider.

Be Involved

We’ve had clients in the past who list thought leadership as a goal but had no intention of acting on it. They saw that as the agency’s work, didn’t show up for meetings, and just sat back and asked: What’s your new idea? And agencies can and do have ideas out the wazoo (try us!). But the agency is primarily the filter that extracts and shapes a client’s ideas, prepares those ideas for consumption, and helps those ideas find audiences.

Here’s a chart that breaks down a few different ways we collaborate with clients on thought leadership daily. Two things to note: the list isn’t meant to be comprehensive, and there’s a reason client and agency appear on every line item. It’s a collaboration.

Make People Pause

A content curator is hardly ever a thought leader (unless that’s another aspect of what they do). A serial rehasher of ideas is also not a thought leader. A thought leader’s ideas make people pause because they are new or different from what audiences have heard; they add to the conversation or help people envision future possibilities. Sometimes they make people pause because they offer a contrarian point of view or are provocative.

Just be careful that you are not being provocative for no reason. Stay focused on bettering your industry and providing value to your target audiences. If your contrarian POV leads with that goal in mind, your ideas have extra fuel behind them.

Gain Followers who Share

By followers, I don’t mean a specific number of LinkedIn followers or newsletter subscribers. Instead, get to the point where your ideas made people want to stick around for more. They want to hear what you have to say next. They see you as so quotable that they call you for that next news story comment or ask you to participate in their conference.

Typically when a client starts on that slow and steady thought leadership journey, the early distribution efforts are mostly proactive -- meaning, the agency pitches the byline idea or the client’s participation in a conference. You’ve reached a turning point when those opportunities start coming your way. At that point, it’s about making strategic decisions about where to build relationships, how to spend time, and in which direction to grow.

Be Humble and Proud

We have a client who shies away from prolific thought leadership because he doesn’t want to come off as narcissistic. And we understand that hesitation. Keeping your audience’s best interest as your north star can help overcome that. When you are sharing your expertise to help others, your audience will thank you. This is a form of leading with humility. It’s not about you; it’s about what your POV can do for them. But humble doesn’t mean hesitant. A thought leader is confident because they know their earned secrets have worth.

 

 

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