I was on a webinar prep call with Frank Strong and some other friends last week, and the conversation turned to thought leadership. Frank said, “For thought leadership to work, people have to have a thought. One that isn’t the same as everyone else.”

It made me laugh—and I’ve been mulling it over since. 

For many executives, time is an issue. Heck, for most of us, time is an issue. And, for some reason, they understand the value of thought leadership but don’t want to put the time in. So they hire a communicator, either on their team or externally, and they put them in charge of thought leadership.

And it works…sometimes. If the communicator has enough experience to be able to capture the exec’s voice and actual thoughts without a ton of time investment, it can work quite well.

The challenge, of course, is someone at that level is expensive and not everyone wants to pay for thought leadership at that level. So, instead, they shortcut the experience and the “thought leadership” we see all over the web ends up being robotic, “I liked this article because it is spot on with the way I think. It said this and this and this and I agree.”

My friends, that is not thought leadership. And yet…

E-E-A-T Your Thought Leadership

Let’s start with a definition of thought leadership. 

Remember E-E-A-T, that allows you to create content that will supersede all changes with Google, AI, and anything else that is thrown at us? It requires experience and expertise—both things you can’t demonstrate if you share an article and say, “Loved this!” 

Thought leadership is the expression of ideas that demonstrate expertise in a particular field, area, or topic. That demonstrates expertise. A thought leader is typically known for their unique point of view and the ability to inspire others to think differently. 

And because they demonstrate experience and expertise, they create authority and trust. 

These people are the foundation of all things communications—from brand and messaging to content and thought leadership. If you get it right, it can lead to increased brand awareness (which drives top-of-the-funnel leads), credibility (which leads to increased SEO and community), and the ability to persuade and implement real progress and widespread innovation (which leads to sales).

It Takes Time, Patience, and Dedication

But it doesn’t happen overnight and it does take time—time most people with experience and expertise won’t invest. So, as you’re considering a thought leadership program, that’s the first thing you should consider: how much time will it take, and can you invest it? 

If the answer is yes, the next things to consider are how much dedication, patience, strategy, education, and the ability to create a steady flow of thought-provoking, relevant content on various channels it will take.

I’m not trying to scare you away. On the contrary. If you do this right and invest the time and patience needed for it to succeed, it will be incredibly successful. 

Now that we have that out of the way, and I’ll assume you’re all in on thought leadership, let’s talk about how to create your thought leadership so people will care. 

A Client Example

We have a client who is one of the nicest humans on the planet. He runs an organization of about 300 employees, and it has grown into one of the top companies in their industry. When we started working together, we did a survey of employees to figure out what they wanted, both from their leaders and from one another. 

Through those conversations, we came to realize that the CEO is widely respected, people really love him, and they want more of him. But, while being incredibly kind, he also is so shy that it is sometimes debilitating for him. Something I completely understand.

I sat down with him, just the two of us, to discuss our findings, He groaned and said, “I know! I know I need to do better. 0-I just can’t bring myself to do all of the things other leaders do, like town halls and weekly all hands. We implement them and then I find reasons to skip them and they falter.”

So I suggested a weekly email that allowed him to get in front of his employees, answer their questions, give them good news—and do it all in a way that is comfortable for him. 

Build Your Thought Leadership Platform

Once a week, I sit down with him and we discuss everything from world news and politics to industry happenings and company news. I personally love the time with him because we both stretch our expertise during those conversations. 

Some of it I keep confidential and the rest I share with my team, who then take his comments and draft the email. 

People love this. So much, in fact, that we’ve been able to take other parts of my conversations with him and build a LinkedIn newsletter, which today boasts subscribers made up of employees, industry trade reporters, competitors, and prospects. 

It does take him about an hour a week to do this with us—and sometimes a bit more if we’ve found articles for him to read and reflect on ahead of our meeting. But it works.  He’s invested the time and the thinking and we’ve created it in a way that works for him.

Why You Must Take a Stand

One of the things that is important in thought leadership is taking a stand, which almost no one wants to do. It feels uncomfortable and most people with the experience to be a thought leader have been told their entire lives not to take a stand for fear of alienating prospects. 

Those days are over! Now is the time to take a stand.

That doesn’t mean you have to take a stand on gun control, climate change, or Trump running for POTUS again, but you should take a stand on the things that are important to you and that you’re passionate about.

For me, it’s measurement and the PESO Model™. Well, and cycling, but I can’t really spend all of my time talking about cycling on a blog for communicators. 

So how do you figure out what your stance will be and how you’ll begin the thought leadership process? 

First, pay attention to the trends happening around you. It could be the business lessons you’ve learned from Taylor Swift, combining both pop culture and your expertise, or it could be a new take on how to grow profitability. Whatever your passion, start there.

Then there are a few ways to get the old juices flowing.

Go to Reddit

I know, I know. I HATE Reddit. People there are so rude. But you can find subreddits based on industry that are helpful. For instance, I searched “thought leadership” in there and found this really good example of what thought leadership is and now wish I had used it in the intro when we were talking about what thought leadership is. But I’ll give it to you now! 

“Thought leaders are the ones you turn to to get their take on things. If you’re a baseball fan and you’re interested in knowing who’s going to win the World Series this year, would you listen to your friend, or would you listen to the former ballplayer with 11 World Series pennants in his closet, plus 8 more as a team manager, and now has 10 years of commentating and color experience as a TV announcer and expert on baseball? That’s a thought leader.” 

In other words, it’s not Tony Romo (thank heaven I don’t have to listen to him again for seven months!).

All to say, Reddit is a great place to start the brainstorming process.

Do Some Googling

If you search, “What should I do to create a list of things to develop my thought leadership on?”, you’ll get pages and pages of answers. One of my favorites is 121 Blog Topics and Ideas to Write About from SEMRush. While it’s more focused on content development, blogging specifically, there are some things you can take away from it.

Such as a mistake you once made and what you did to fix it. If that were me, I could talk about how the Great Recession nearly killed my business and what I’ve done to ensure that never happens again. Or I could talk about how I never imagined the PESO Model would take the industry by storm like it has and what I should have done differently.

You could also talk about the latest and hottest topic, AI, and how it will affect your industry and/or your business.

Google is your friend.

Don’t Forget AI

Speaking of AI, don’t leave it out. It will be helpful in helping you brainstorm a starting point. You might prompt it with, “How should I assess my expertise to build a thought leadership platform?” 

I love what ChatGPT has to say about it, “Assessing your expertise involves a thorough and honest evaluation of your skills, knowledge, experiences, and the unique perspectives you bring to your field.”

Then, it goes on to give you some ways to do that based on your skills, knowledge, education, achievements, interests, passions, and even how to identify the gaps you have.

Generative AI, for the win!

Put In the Elbow Grease

Now that you have the ideas in the can, so to speak, the hard work begins. But the good news is that you can parse it out over weeks, months, and years. Thought leadership is a long game that will get better as it ages (just like my favorite wines). 

If you’re going to get help with the content creation part of it, having this list of topics will be incredibly helpful. You can provide it to your ghostwriter or developer and then spend your weekly meetings discussing what’s happening in the world that you can comment on with something from your list of topics.

If you’re doing it for yourself, take the same approach, but you can skip the weekly meeting. Just get to creating!

The point is that commenting on an article with, “Love this!” does not a thought leader make. Put in the elbow grease, and you will be rewarded ten-fold.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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