“People use the term ‘thought leader’ as if all you have to do to become one is set up a Twitter account and start tweeting. This is hardly the case. True thought leaders have expertise, passion and a track record of changing the world.” – Guy Kawasaki in the foreward to “Ready to Be a Thought Leader?”
The Twitterverse is littered with the dead hashtags of those who thought they could become thought leaders and failed. There are hundreds of moldy blogs that attest to the challenge of maintaining a lively, consistent following.
So how do you break out of the pack and become a thought leader? Anita Bruzzese recently spoke with Denise Brosseau, author of “Ready to Be a Thought Leader? How to Increase Your Influence, Impact, and Success.”
AB: What is a thought leader?
DB: Thought leaders are change agents who move and inspire others with their innovative ideas, turn those ideas into reality and then create a dedicated group of fans and followers to help them replicate and scale those ideas into sustainable change.
One example of a thought leader is Avinash Kaushik who was the director of web research and analytics at Intuit when he began his journey. He started a blog, “Occam's Razor,” to share his day-to-day experiences and his expertise. As he started to gain a wide readership, Wiley Press invited him to write a book, compiling his blog posts as well as additional content. His thought leadership attracted new people to his team, led to a promotion and opened the door to many other new roles and opportunities. He's since written a second book and today he is the Digital Marketing Evangelist at Google and his blog is read by chief technology officers and beginners alike.
AB: Why is it important to become a thought leader?
DB: Thought leadership is the key that unlocks a whole new level of professional accomplishment and achievement as well as career and personal satisfaction.
As exemplified by Avinash's story, as a thought leader you can amplify your impact, multiply your influence and have the opportunity to leave a legacy that matters. Avinash told me that every day he gets emails from around the world from people telling him how his blog posts have helped them find a new career and solve their (and their company's) challenges. He told me what joy it gives him to receive these emails and they keep him motivated to keep writing and sharing his expertise.
AB: You say it's important to find a niche, something that makes you unique. Can you provide some tips on how to do that – especially if I'm someone who has a variety of interests?
DB: Some people have a clearly defined niche based on their job title, their work experiences or something they are passionate about.
If you are not yet sure of your niche, try this exercise. Create a Venn diagram – three overlapping circles on a page. In the first, write down your expertise, experiences or know-how; in the second, add your credentials – where do you have some "proof" or "reasons to believe;" and in the third, make a list of everything you are really committed to. If you can find places where those three circles overlap, you've identified a possible "thought-leadership intersection point" – a niche. This is an arena that can be uniquely yours, or where you'll be one of the few.
If you have a lot of interests, it is likely your expertise and credentials line up best with one of them. Start there and expand to other niches after you're well established in the first. Having a clearly defined niche will expand the likelihood that you'll be able to have a meaningful impact in the world because it will help others identify and send you the right opportunities.
AB: How do I get others to pay attention and listen to what I'm saying? There seem to be so many voices out there today…
DB: Follow these three tips to rise above the noise and get your voice heard:
1) Add value to the conversation in your niche, rather than repeating what others are saying. Start by doing your homework and listening in on the conversation in your niche before you begin your own blog, give a talk or start a Twitter feed. Share your own experiences and lessons learned.
2) Be a thought leader rather than an expert. Thought leaders "uncomplexify" difficult-to-understand ideas and invite engagement with their followers.
3) Go to where your audience (customers, potential customers, those you want to influence) is already active – is it a LinkedIn group, a specific blog or a certain magazine? Are there certain events these people attend? Establish yourself as a thought leader there.
AB: How do I stay memorable?
DB: We remember information if it is wrapped up in a story – a customer story, a specific example of a beneficiary of our efforts, even a parable. When possible, find or develop a picture or a visual element that can help you tell your story or make your point.
Whenever I speak about finding your courage to be a thought leader, I use an image of a tiny orange kitten seated before a beautiful antique mirror. In the mirror we see reflected back not a tiny kitten but an enormous orange lion, calm and majestic. I ask my audience: “What helps you stay connected to your inner lion?” That image stays with them long after my talk is over.
AB: How can I find time to really develop as a thought leader (writing, speaking and blogging) and still do my job?
DB: Start small, develop some achievable milestones and find a cheerleader or a thought partner to help you keep going. If you devote 30 minutes a day, a few days a week to drafting a blog post, doing some research or crafting a speech, you will make significant progress every quarter.
Create a folder to collect articles you read or an image you might repurpose. Keep a journal with you where you can jot down blog ideas – or use your phone to store a voice memo. The more you "ink it when you think it," as Intrigue Expert Sam Horn advises, the more likely you will be to have those ideas on hand when you're ready to compose your final draft.
AB: What is the biggest mistake people make when seeking to be a thought leader?
DB: Many people never get started because they think thought leadership is just for other people. They hear stories, like that of Avinash that I shared earlier, and they think, well, he's special. He's got something that I don't have – more expertise, more time, more courage, better writing skills. The truth is, he had his doubts, he had many constraints on his time and he wondered whether he really had anything to add to the conversation. But he experimented and he tested and he learned from others and he kept going. That's all any of us can do.
AB: You say being a thought leader can be a "lonely path." How so?
DB: Anyone who is a change agent or who begins to step out of the norms of behavior in their organization or among their community or family can face naysayers, backlash or a subtle lack of support. Sometimes it's a negative remark that sets us back. Other times it's realizing that you still have a lot to learn. And often courage can desert you.
It's important to create support structures and identify a few trusted people with whom you can share your doubts and fears.
Please keep going. I believe the world needs more people who have the skills and motivation to help us solve the big problems (and take advantage of the opportunities) – global warming, rapid technological change and spiraling health costs, to name just three. We need people who are ready to create, and help the world create, evolutionary and revolutionary change more quickly, intentionally and effectively.
That’s why I wrote “Ready to Be a Thought Leader?” as a guidebook and blueprint to help leaders become thought leaders and create a following for their ideas. I hope it will serve as a source of inspiration and resources to help you keep going on your own journey. No matter where you are on your journey, remember to reach out your hand and help others on their way.