How to Be a Thought Leader
Get on the business map, and set a course for professional greatness.
An informed opinion leader. The go-to authority in your field. The guru.
Ask any of your colleagues what a thought leader is, and chances are you’ll receive a variety of amorphous, indistinct definitions. That’s the challenge with a term like “thought leader”; it can mean just about anything you want it to mean.
For our purposes, though, we’re keeping it old school. Russ Allen Prince and Bruce Rogers coined the term in Forbes as follows: “A thought leader is an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.”
Sounds like a pretty good gig.
It is, says business coach Dave Crenshaw. “Becoming a thought leader increases your value per hour. Whatever you’re making as a CPA in terms of rate per hour, you can multiply it in value when you become known as a thought leader.”
As with most good gigs, however, thought leadership comes with caveats.
“Becoming a thought leader isn’t easy in a broad category,” Crenshaw explains. “The competition will be stiff. But if you find a very specific niche, one that not many people have mastered, you can bypass the good ‘ole boy network and become the go-to much more quickly.”
Lee Frederiksen, Ph.D., managing partner at Hinge, a marketing and branding firm that specializes in the professional services industry, echoes the sentiment. “The narrower the niche, the faster the rise,” he says.
Crenshaw cites Robin Robins as an example. “Bet you’ve never heard of her—unless you’re in IT marketing at a small firm. That’s her niche. She counsels small IT firms that provide support to other businesses. And she has a profitable career that has skyrocketed. Conferences, newsletter, events, subscribers, followers—all of it.”
Robins brings us to the second part of Forbes’ definition: “A thought leader is an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognized as such.” Robins commands $1,500 per hour and has a six-month waiting list for clients, according to her website.
That said, Frederiksen prefers to think of thought leaders as “visible experts” rather than promoters. “Visible experts are teachers, ultimately, not promoters,” he explains.
Nevertheless, promotion is key to a thought leader’s success, as well as that of his or her firm. In fact, 30.6 percent of clients find “visible experts” via an online search, and approximately 80.8 percent via a website, according to Hinge Marketing’s 2014 study, VISIBLE EXPERTS™: How High Visibility Expertise Helps Professionals, Their Firms, and Their Clients.
That same study cites benefits for firms that employ visible experts and thought leaders. Two-thirds of the firms surveyed reported growth and business development benefits as a result of having these people on staff, while 47.7 percent reported shorter sales cycles.
Denise Brosseau, business advisor and thought leadership consultant, sees this meteoric rise as more science than kismet. “Becoming a thought leader can happen organically, but most people need to intentionally follow steps that will help to create the situation in which they’re the respected authority.”
Brosseau’s book, Ready to Be a Thought Leader: How to Increase Your Influence, Impact, and Success, covers these steps and more. Here’s her condensed version, just for ICPAS readers.
Step 1: Find your driving passion
“Being a thought leader takes focus and commitment. Without passion for an area, you won’t have the stamina to stick with it, particularly because the effort usually comes in addition to your day job.”
Step 2: Build your ripples of influence.
“You have to test your thoughts and opinions with knowledgeable colleagues and mentors so you can hone your ideas down to the most useful kernels that help change minds and galvanize people to take action.”
Step 3: Activate your advocates
“Find people who will champion you and your ideas.” A personal advisory board is a great way to build that type of network. Include everyone from reporters in your arena to academics and colleagues to establish a broad base of support.
Step 4: Put your “I” on the line
“Sometimes, as a thought leader, you will be the first to advocate a position or you’ll choose to take a stand that might not be popular. You have to be ready to defend your views.”
Step 5: Codify your lessons learned
“To codify your ideas will require that you test and refine a repeatable and scalable blueprint for others who want to follow in your footsteps.” Develop that blueprint into intellectual property by creating a visual framework, a memorable name and verifiable metrics that document the success of your efforts.
Step 6: Put yourself on S.H.O.U.T.
“You’re not a thought leader if no one knows anything about you or what you’ve accomplished.” If your clients are tech companies, you had better be in front of tech company executives, not just other accountants. Identify the top 25 social influencers in your area and engage on Twitter, LinkedIn and other sites. Offer to speak at your firm’s brown-bag lunches. Write a white paper. Lead a webinar.
Step 7: Incite (R)Evolution
“You need supporters who will be spokespeople for your ideas, spreading them within their own firms and spheres of influence.” Passing the baton to others is part of what a thought leader does to spread their ideas.
Most importantly, have realistic expectations. “Don’t reach too high in the beginning. Don’t try for perfection,” says Crenshaw. “Try for improvement instead. You can’t expect that your first article will get picked up immediately. You will need to create a library of work through consistent effort—video, audio, podcasts, articles. Doing that over and over is what creates a professional reputation and a buzz.”
“Don’t try to be an expert; be a thought leader,” Brosseau adds. The distinction is a fine but important one. “Experts tend to focus on facts, data and details and want us to know how smart they are. A thought leader wants to simplify complex topics and make everyone else smarter.”