I am joined in this Talking Point by the wonderful Scott Stein, co-author of several of my books, and the indomitable Gabrielle Dolan, author of Hooked and Ignite. Scott and Gabrielle are Partners in the Thought Leaders community and core members of the new Thought Leaders Advantage team. The wisdom of their thoughts and writings is invaluable and it is a pleasure to have them as co-authors on this Talking Point.

The Decade of Disruption

The business world is going through an era of massive disruption. Information is flowing faster, technology is providing for more leveraged activity and innovative new market players are disrupting industries. We have noticed an increase in competition; not only in market share or sales, but in finding ways to grab the attention of the market. Meanwhile the challenge of becoming an employer of choice means you are fighting on two fronts: new clients and a campaign to engage your best and brightest.

Business needs to undertake a new leadership imperative. They need to develop their internal thought leaders to create a competitive advantage. This is not something conducted across the whole organisation, but it will affect the whole organisation. This is not something that marketing is responsible for but it will drive better positioning and brand awareness. This is not something for HR to direct as a people issue, although it will most definitely engage your high potentials better than any offsite ever could. This is first and foremost a strategic leadership issue.

The Three Big Challenges

We see three challenges that are slowing down large organisations. Three areas where you are able to gain an edge if you develop a small team of thought leaders.

The first is the war for talent, the second is the battle for attention, and the third is winning the race to the future.

Develop a small team of thought leaders and gain the competitive edge

The War for Talent

Build capacity not capability

Putting your smart people into training courses is not going to end well.

Talented people want to manage their own professional development; compliance courses and ineffective training are not the key. They need to be inspired to be inspiring. This is one of the hidden levers of the Edge program. We work hard on the role modelling and the internal status of the thought leaders who qualify for the program. The examples they set – speaking at client conferences, leading internal meetings and publishing insights – become major rallying calls for others in the organisation to step up and shine.

Retaining and attracting the best and brightest has to be one of your biggest challenges. You can pay your employees well, promote them to more senior roles and recognise their efforts with bonuses and development opportunities. For many of your employees, this will be sufficient. However your best and brightest are looking for something more. They want to belong to something different, to give back, they want to leave a legacy. They may not work with you forever but they want to say “I did this when I worked there.”


Build a small team of thought leaders and deliver implementable innovations throughout your business

The Battle for Attention

Traditional marketing is dead

As the return on investment from traditional marketing channels continues to decline, everyone from senior executives to small business owners are now scrambling to find the next way to market their services and products to their customers. Digital marketing, including social media has exploded, with some companies embracing this completely whilst others are just “testing the waters” to see what approach will actually bring in real sales to their business, not just a number of likes and positive comments on Facebook.

The need to stand out in your market has never been stronger than it is today. So how can you position your business as being individual and different from everyone else trying to promote their unique value proposition?’ How can you find the edge for your business and be seen and heard over the noise? By positioning your business as the thought leader in your industry you will be seen as leading edge and will attract customers organically. This doesn't replace marketing, it supports sales!

Below the line on this model are the traditional Push activities. ‘Marketing’, ‘selling’ to new clients and selling more products to existing clients through ‘relationships’. These are all effective and yet they all require a certain ‘push’ onto the market. A business that takes the time to make marketing effective, formalise their sales funnels and nurture existing relationships has a solid business development process. It does take continuous effort though.

Above the line on this model are the Pull activities. Businesses and professions that tend to do less marketing, for example professional service firms or professions like law, will traditionally rely on these more. Generally over time, as you deliver great work, you build a reputation that drives future business. The first of these is a straight up ‘referral’: being so good for so long that people start saying “Don’t even think of doing X until you talk to Y”. Above this is the idea of getting serious about distribution partners and channel relationships. The big idea, the one that trumps all the previous, is being known for knowing something. Once individuals, and by default the business, are positioned as thought leaders the game tilts in your favour. When this tilt happens you get a significant competitive edge in the marketplace.


Develop a small team of thought leaders and drive quality business opportunities

The Race to the Future

Innovation comes from within 

What got you here may not get you there. As evidenced throughout history, both ancient and recent, it's incredibly hard to change a system when you're living within the system. For those operating in large, complex organisational structures with many moving parts, leading change and disruption is incredibly difficult.  Essentially, past successes lull organisations into continuing blindly along the same path, discouraging adaptation to new circumstances. 

A small team of thought leaders can ask the tough questions, challenge the status quo, put the sacred cows out to pasture and do so without removing the momentum of current business. They can develop the dangerous ideas you need in your business if you’re going to shift towards the future. A dream team of thought leaders gives you the edge to disrupt yourself.


Develop a small team of thought leaders to drive change

Corridor doubt is an awful thing. Imagine we have had a meeting in which we discussed the benefits of thought leadership. It all made sense at the time, but then in the corridor you whisper “But are any of our people thought leaders?” This happens more often than any of us would like to admit. The ‘not good enough’ paradigm raises its ugly head. Ben Zander said it brilliantly in his ground breaking TED talk of 2005: “A leader must never doubt the ability of their people to realise whatever they are imagining.” This doubt is the impostor syndrome turned non-specific. It is false, and it’s not helpful. You have thought leaders, you just don't know it yet. Develop your talent and watch them fly.

Do this well and you increase the chances that you will win in the race to the future.


So How Does a Business Enterprise Thought Leadership?

There are a number of ways to get your business positioned as a thought leader or leading authority in your industry. Many marketing gurus obsess about creating a brand that has a personality. This is to make a business feel more like a person than a business. One of the reasons for this line of thinking is that people trust individuals more than faceless companies. If a brand has a personality that is attractive, it creates followers who are more committed and loyal than typical customers. To position your business as a thought leader, you need to have a number of individuals that become known for being the leading thinkers in your industry. These subject matter experts are ideally admired by others in your industry due to their ability to capture and share great ideas with others.

We have worked with numerous businesses and organisations around identifying and developing their internal thought leaders. Over the years we have also seen a range of activities that people have undertaken to try to position themselves as leaders in their industry. Some of these have worked brilliantly, others have failed miserably and been quietly abandoned. We have also noticed that there are a couple of natural pathways that can be taken, and the choice of pathway determines success or failure.

We believe there are three common approaches businesses take to try to position their business as thought leaders: they Spin, their approach is Scattered or they become Strategic about enterprising thought leadership.



This is the most common form of positioning that we see. Spin is what somebody does when they recognise that they need thought leadership in their enterprise, but they don’t have it. They pay lip service to thought leadership, but they have no actual substance to it. It is an empty façade. Spin is when the marketing department creates documentation and language that says the company is a “thought leader”. In actuality, they have not changed anything besides stringing a few words together to appear as if they are positioned as the experts. Unfortunately, very few will believe this marketing spin, because there is no real evidence to demonstrate innovative activity.
The three hallmarks of this approach are:

  • Businesses using spin try to convince the outside world that they have thought leaders in their organisation. They do this with words and phrases, changing a few words on websites and collaterals to include “thought leader”. No one believes this nowadays - they’re not doing anything different than they did in the past. In fact, I find that this can turn off some people, because they look through this marketing spin with disdain.
  • Businesses trying to convince people inside their organisation that they are thought leaders, without actually providing any development for them. This often comes in the form of adding “Thought Leader” to a staff title. After presenting at a Gartner CIO Asia Pacific Conference, I met someone that had this in their title. When asked what it meant to have Thought Leader as a title they couldn’t define it, which unfortunately makes it apparent that they are not one.
  • Businesses running a “Thought Leader” series that has no great ideas or approach. They’re trying to believe in thought leadership, but failing in the execution. I’ve found that people attending these events view them as the same old information, just packaged a bit differently. The participants get no additional value and therefore the positioning opportunity is lost for the business, often with the cost of running the events also wasted.


The second most common approach we see is the scattered approach. This occurs when there is intent to be thought leaders without the investment, or there is intent to be thought leaders without the right kind of investment. I see many variations of this approach, but all show a lack of understanding of what actually makes a thought leader.

The three hallmarks of this approach are:

  • Businesses employing overly traditional approaches that fail to inspire real action. These can come in two forms. Firstly, I see dry and boring presentations that turn people off. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the message is, if it’s not delivered in a clear and inspirational way then the message will be lost. I also see papers that are more based on academic theory than practical application. The ideas aren’t pragmatic. They might be great in theory, but if they can’t be implemented in practice in the real world, then they’re not worth that much.
  • Businesses that encourage individuals to become more active on social media, without giving direction on how or why. This results in a curate-over-create mentality, which sees them only sharing other people’s thoughts. In effect, they are elevating other people as thought leaders without ever becoming one themselves. Although social media is an important part of a thought leader’s positioning, of itself it is not what makes them a thought leader.
  • Businesses that limit their thought leadership to one person. This means that there is no depth of talent within the business. This either happens by design, when organisations decide it should be the CEO alone who is the thought leader, or it happens by luck. It is a dangerous situation to be relying on an isolated individual to be the thought leader. Businesses stifle their own exposure if there are no other identified thought leaders who are actively positioning the business as the authority.



The strategic approach is by far the most effective. It is about taking selected individuals to develop a dream team of thought leaders, who in turn develop their thinking in alignment with your strategic direction. The marketplace start to notice the depth of authority that an organisation has when they roll out their thought leaders across industry events and publications. Their leaders have realised the importance of being able to capture, package and deliver their expertise clearly and efficiently, in a way that is easy for others to understand. We like to use what I call ‘the paper napkin test’. Simply put, if you attended a presentation you should be able to draw the presented model to someone else, just on the back of a paper napkin, clearly enough that they can then repeat it onwards.

The three hallmarks of this approach are:

  • Businesses that start to find it easy. When you have real thought leaders in your organisation you don’t need to expend effort in the same ways as other approaches. By creating a range of touch-points through which customers will experience your business’s thought leadership, people will get the sense that you are leading the market. This in turn generates more touch-points. Genuine thought leaders create their own momentum.
  • Businesses that have authentic authority. Your thought leaders are capable of delivering their expertise across a whole number of arenas, as they have a deep understanding of their IP and its applications. You will be sending out engaging presentors that know how to keep people’s attention through content relevant and memorable enough that it moves the listener into action. And rather than your marketing department trying to find the best way to spin something, suddenly their job is really simple. They take what you’re producing and simply show the world.
  • Businesses that leave disruption. Your organisation goes from being reactive to change to being a catalyst for change. A business rich in thought leaders makes a splash in the marketplace, as they are able to innovate far beyond what anybody else is yet doing. Being at the forefront of the market brings with it the opportunity to shape the whole industry.

The 5 Considerations when Implementing Thought Leadership Strategically

From experience garnered over ten years of working with the Thought Leader curriculum, we have identified 5 important areas to consider when setting out to implement thought leadership in your business.

  1. Who are your potential subject matter experts or thought leaders? What are their current areas of expertise? What returns could you achieve if they were positioned as thought leaders?
  2. What is your strategy? What do you want them to achieve overall for the business? What are the specific targets that they will individually need to meet to allow the overall positioning strategy to be achieved?
  3. How to balance their current responsibilities with your strategy? How will you get them to maintain their current role whilst adding positioning activities. How will you shift tasks to provide them with the time to think and deliver their thought leadership?
  4. How are you going to skill them up to be admired thought leaders? How are you going to provide them with the relevant abilities to position your business and be seen as leading edge?
  5. What will you gain by early thought leadership positioning in your industry? What is the marketing advantage? What could happen if one of your competitors gets positioned as the thought leader before you? How will you maintain your leverage and innovation in a competitive environment?

Making sure you have a full understanding of these considerations is crucial to successfully implementing strategic thought leadership. It’s no good pretending that your business has thought leaders, or haphazardly carrying out thought leadership type activities. It’s time to ask yourself the right questions, set out a plan for your business, and start developing real thought leaders inside your organisation.