It takes more than just saying “Listen to me, I’m a thought leader” to make an impact. Engaging thought leadership must offer innovative thinking on a topic that matters to your audience.

Can your organisation do that? The short answer is probably – but not necessarily as well as you might think. For a start, your CEO may not be the best person for the job.

If that’s the case, it’s time to search for the thought leadership heroes in your company.

Before you start, it’s important to be clear about what corporate thought leadership is for. First of all, it’s much more than a simple nice-to-have. It must align with your corporate purpose and enhance your company’s reputation in a way that engages the people who will buy your products.

Talk about what you know and don’t be tempted into areas that might prove controversial and potentially damaging to your business. However much your CEO cares about a social issue, only go there if you can weave it back in to something positive your company is doing.

Risk and reward

“Done right, thought leadership has tangible business impact,” says marketing consultancy Edelman. “Done poorly, it creates risk.”

Russ Prince and Bruce Rogers, in their book Profitable Brilliance: How professional services firms become thought leaders, put it even more bluntly: “Becoming a thought leader is about making money and making history.”

Of 3,275 business leaders polled for Edelman’s 2020 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study, almost half said they would buy from a company that demonstrated good thought leadership, while over half thought it was a better way to vet potential suppliers than marketing materials or product sheets.

The bad news is that fewer than 15% said they had encountered excellent or very good thought leadership, while 38% said that their respect and admiration for companies had decreased after reading poor thought leadership. 

As well as innovative thinking, good thought leadership must be insightful, demonstrating deep subject knowledge and an understanding of the issues that concern the audience. It must also be heartfelt and authentic.

The personal can be as effective as the professional. In my book, I talk about Virgin boss Richard Branson’s use of personal life events – ranging from the birth of a grandchild to New Year celebrations – as the basis for thought leadership articles.

Yet thought leadership does not have to be the exclusive domain of the C-suite. Your company will have experts who deal daily with the issues facing customers and who may have valuable and inspiring ideas around which to build content. With planning and coaching, you can develop your own in-house group of highly authentic thought leaders.

Keep up the pace

What else can you do to ensure your stay ahead of your competitors with your thinking?

  • Keep up the rhythm: It is also important for your output to be sustained. There is no point in speaking out once and then falling silent. What’s needed is a planning and creative process to support the generation of a regular flow of content.
  • Build a plan: Your thought leaders are unlikely to have the time to come up with ideas and write all of the content themselves. You will have to build a content plan and populate it with ideas for their approval.
  • Develop intelligent research: Regular research is essential to generate a pipeline of ideas. These must then be turned into briefs for approval by your thought leaders. The next step is to draft questions and schedule an interview with them.
  • Get ahead of the game: As well as having an ideation pipeline, you must allow time for interviews that could be delayed. Then there’s writing and approval time to be factored in. Getting ahead of the game is vital to effectively maintaining a publishing schedule.
  • Build a structure & process: The existence of a robust structure that supports content creation is likely to build confidence that thought leadership is something that can be done well and get results.
  • Start talking: Get out and about in your company and find your thought leaders – it won’t be long before you start to see the power their stories hold.