How To Become A Thought Leader

November 22, 2010

11:09 am

The entrepreneurs and executives I have worked with throughout my career are, almost by definition, leaders. They have a vision of a new product or service or a new way to do something, they bring people together around that vision and then they work really hard to bring their vision to reality. While most have been successful at building great teams, products and companies, few have taken that success and made the transition from leader to thought leader – becoming the go-to leader in their industry or niche – the one that others look to and rely on for new ideas, new directions and new frameworks for creating a better future.

Thought leaders do more than lead. They inspire, infect and influence others with their innovative ideas and passion for change. They create a following because they are willing to share their business models, success strategies and even their mistakes with others. They keep an open mind and an open dialogue with the world by speaking, writing and teaching others about a new way of looking at the problems of their sector, industry or niche. To change minds and behaviors thought leaders need a combination of expertise, a point of view, a unique innovation or accomplishment, and approachability.

What holds most people back from making the leap to thought leader is not usually their level of expertise. I was speaking to a senior executive in the credit card industry who was intrigued by the idea of becoming a thought leader, but she was unwilling to make the shift from speaking as a representative of her company’s position to advocating her own point of view – even though the company’s position was clearly one that she had developed single-handedly. She shied away from self-identifying as the visionary because it would mean standing out in a very visible way and potentially taking the spotlight from others in her company. Visibility is critical for a thought leader – you can’t influence change if no one knows who you are or hears what you have to say.

Unlike corporate executives, entrepreneurs can take the spotlight with little fear of making waves at the office. But they face other challenges. Often they are so busy raising money, managing their teams or delivering a product that they overlook the power of their ideas to bring about broad-reaching change. Robin Chase, founder of ZipCar and GoLoco has made the shift from leader to thought leader – taking her ideas on the future of transportation far beyond her Boston home to have a far-reaching impact on governments from Asia to Europe. Last year she was recognized as one of the Top 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos has done far more than revolutionize the shoe industry. With his book, Delivering Happiness, and his regular speeches about how to create a great corporate culture, he is not only gaining more customers for Zappos, he is also influencing other entrepreneurs to re-think the way they treat their customers and employees.

If you are ready to go from leader to thought leader, here are a few of the steps I believe it takes to make the leap.

The big idea: It always starts with something you are passionate about. Why did you start your company? What keeps you going through thick and thin? Was there an inequity you were trying to make right? A way of doing things that you knew you could do better? An idea or product from one industry that could change things in another? A trend that you identified that led to a likely future that only you could see? How can you generalize your ideas to make them applicable to others? What shortcuts can you offer others to save them from making the same mistakes you did?

Visualize the outcome: As you did when you started your company, becoming a thought leader means showing others the way forward. Can you broaden your ideas from one product, service or company to make it applicable to others in your niche, industry or community? Can you spell out a believable future that others can get excited about? Stories are best – use some examples and testimonials from real customers, if possible, that help others see a possible path to get to that future.

Create a plan: Becoming a thought leader doesn’t happen by accident. How will you know you are making progress if you don’t have some way of measuring your impact? Is that impact measured by media mentions? Speeches given? Articles written?

Get others on board: Clarify your audiences, messages and channels. Determine who your stakeholders are. Start with your inner circle, mentors and allies before moving to other audiences. Lining up others who are willing to champion your ideas is the key to broadening your impact.

Image courtesy of US Army Africa.

Guest author Denise Brosseau is CEO of Well-Connected Leader, Inc, an executive talent agency focused on accelerating the success of senior executive clients from companies like SAP, Genentech and Agilent, including those who are ready to make the leap from leader to thought leader. She is the co-founder of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (now Watermark) and the Springboard venture conferences, which have helped women founded and led companies raise over $5 billion in funding for their companies. Join Denise at the Invent Your Future webinar on Wednesday, December 1, from noon to 1PM Pacific Time – register here.

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