“We’re looking for an IT thought leader to run the IT strategy group worldwide.” It would be a regular job ad if it were not for the phrase thought leader. This ad well illustrates the current shift from jobs to roles, comments Peter Hinssen, the author of Business / IT Fusion: How to Move Beyond Alignment and Transform IT in Your Organization. “We don’t need IT strategy consultants; we need ‘thought leaders’,” he explains. Weston Bergmann, Lead Investor at The Greenhouse, a virtual business incubator, predicts that thought leadership will become an essential part of career development and entrepreneurship in the coming years. Lauren Hockenson, a former reporter for Gigaom, notes that the term thought leader is already the highest compliment for professionals who are actively seeking to be at the forefront of business innovation. Bruce H. Rogers and Russ Alan Prince, the authors of Profitable Brilliance: How Professional Services Firms Become Thought Leaders, argue that “[…] no one can possibly be a thought leader unless they’re capitalizing on the dramatically enhanced brand equity attained by being a thought leader.” Their remark highlights the importance of thought leadership in personal branding and its business value, which has initiated discussions on what it takes to build a thought leader’s brand.
“Start niche,” recommends John Rampton, an entrepreneur and contributor for Forbes. “I personally wouldn’t go after very large niches where there are already established players,” he says. In his opinion, first you should establish a strong position in a small niche, and only then move on to larger ones. This will help you gradually develop your subject-matter expertise. Similarly, Weston Bergmann, Lead Investor at The Greenhouse, advocates a focused-niche approach. According to him, sharp focus on a narrow niche will increase your chances of becoming “a radical expert in that field”. It will also help create a ‘mind-share monopoly’: your followers and customers will be more likely to refer to you as an expert if you have a solid public record of your expertise, which includes all your speeches, publications, professional accomplishments and active participation in discussions on topics relevant to your field.
Sophorn Chhay, an inbound marketer at Trumpia, a marketing firm, claims that in pursuit of thought leadership “[…] a robust online presence is a must”. He stresses that it is important to keep your social media profiles updated: they should be a detailed record of all your latest professional activities and accomplishments. They should also redirect visitors to your company website and your personal blog, whose maintenance should be your top priority. Your blog is like a business card: if you do not post regularly, and your posts lack depth and disruptive insights, you will fail in branding yourself as an industry expert and thought leader. Your blog will not make much impact on visitors: you will not establish your status as a go-to source for industry news as well as customer loyalty. If you do not have time to post regularly, think of other options such as hiring a ghostwriter, outsourcing or creating your own editorial team, advises Chhay. “The key to consistent publishing is to create an editorial calendar to manage all the articles that you will publish, plus schedule the social media promotions that will boost its shareability,” he explains. The calendar can also help you assign writing tasks and facilitate communication related to content production in your team.
Thought leadership can be established by attracting the attention of the top influencers in your industry, says Carolyn Edgecomb, Community Coordinator at Impact Branding & Design LLC. In her opinion, one of the best ways to get noticed is creating content around them. You can quote them, discuss their ideas or even include them in a post which outlines the top influencers in your industry. You should share any content you create about them on social media and tag them in your post so they could notice and share it with their followers. It is a win-win deal: the professionals you write about get more publicity, while you can establish contact with them and even expand your post reach through their social networks. If you are on good terms, you should consider interviewing them. Such an interview will appeal to a broad audience, which in turn can boost the number of your followers.
Once you have a reputation as an expert, it is time to make bolder claims and predictions about the future of your industry, says Jayson DeMers, Founder and CEO of marketing firm AudienceBloom and a contributor for Entrepreneur. “Drive change and innovation in your own business, and publicize those efforts,” he encourages. Your ideas should stand out, adds Geoffrey James, a sales blogger and contributing editor for Inc.com. In his opinion, it is important to be an independent thinker who does not go with the flow. “Thought leaders don’t constrain their thinking to preconceived notions of what works and what’s appropriate,” he notes. They try to disrupt conservative thinking with innovative ideas and solutions.
Paradoxically, if you want to brand yourself as a thought leader, you should never call yourself so. “‘[T]hought leader’ is not a position you choose to adopt, it is bestowed on you by others,” argue Liz Alexander and Craig Badings in Thought Leadership Tweet Book01: 140 Prompts For Designing And Executing An Effective Thought Leadership Campaign. “It’s amateurish and smacks of arrogance to put it in your bio and marketing materials. And the pros see it from a mile away,” comments Karima Mariama-Arthur, Founder and CEO of WordSmithRapport, a boutique consulting firm which specializes in leadership. Alexander and Badings believe that the term thought leader is often misused because of a lack of understanding of what it actually means. They have observed that there are many consultants who call themselves thought leaders believing that it is just another way of introducing themselves as advisors, experts or futurists.
References:  Peter Hinssen, Business / IT Fusion: How to Move Beyond Alignment and Transform IT in Your Organization /  Weston Bergmann, Search Engine Journal /  Lauren Hockenson, OPEN Forum /  Bruce H. Rogers and Russ Alan Prince, Forbes /  John Rampton, Forbes /  Sophorn Chhay, business.com /  Carolyn Edgecomb, IMPACT /  Jayson DeMers, Entrepreneur /  Geoffrey James, Inc.com /  Liz Alexander and Craig Badings, Thought Leadership Tweet Book01: 140 Prompts For Designing And Executing An Effective Thought Leadership Campaign /  Karima Mariama-Arthur, SUCCESS