Building a culture of thought leadership means involving your individual contributors in producing content that earns serious attention from prospects in your market. You channel your investment in thought leadership through the ranks of your employees rather than through an external agency or siloed department and some of this investment rubs off on your ICs in the form of increased confidence and client-facing domain expertise.
What Thought Leadership Is
Thought leadership for a firm requires the following ingredients:
- Firm's point of view
- A thought leadership agenda, which can include:
- Question(s) you will own
- Transformation you will own
- Optimization you will own
- Unique experience and/or primary research assets
- Layered content plan emphasizing habitual production. Think in terms of 2 layers:
- Frequent short-form chunks of content that both address questions (meeting the market where it's at in terms of language, thinking, and sophistication thereof) and gesture at the firm's POV and deeper treatments of these questions.
- Less frequent long-form chunks of content that prove technical depth, diagnostic/advisory chops, or implementation excellence, with coherence among these coming from the firm's POV.
- You can add more layers, of course, and layers are not the same thing as media/channels. Think of them like the elements of a drum track -- high hat on the 16th notes, bass drum on the quarter notes.
It's OK to think of thought leadership as "premium content marketing", but the foreground presence of a distinctive point of view and the background presence of a thought leadership agenda are two vital elements of the most powerful thought leadership content. Deep experience is helpful, but the combination of owning a question and investing in research can substitute for or even exceed the value of deep experience.
How Do You Win At Thought Leadership?
Thought leadership is an infinite game, so you don't win or lose. You can make varying levels of progress, though. And because thought leadership is a considerable investment, it makes sense to measure progress, which you can do by assessing or measuring:
- Market recognition of branded IP or ideas/questions you decide to own.
- Market sophistication around the questions/ideas you are focused on.
- Market adoption of branded IP/frameworks/concepts/terminology. (ex: Gini Dietrich's PESO model, ref: /podcast/tsme-152-gini-dietrich/)
- Metrics that measure discovery, sharing, and/or consumption of content, list growth, etc.
- Buy-in to thought leadership, demonstrated primarily by prospect behavior in sales conversations.
Overall: thought leadership is a long game, played in a spirit of service, constrained to the questions/transformation/optimization you decide to own, and "won" by making your market into ever-more effective thinkers, deciders, and implementers.
Who Fits This Approach
I can help your firm build a culture of thought leadership. You will probably fit into one of the following scenarios:
- Firm principal(s) already do thought leadership somewhat naturally. I can work as a specialized thought leadership coach with principal(s) to improve the effectiveness of what they're already doing, increase output, etc. Read on.
- Firm principle(s) are willing to commit to thought leadership and want a specialized coach to help guide the effort. I can help; read on.
- You're willing to work with an opinionated coach for 2 to 3 years to build up a culture of thought leadership because you want it to be a strategic strength of the firm's culture. Read on.
- You hire(d) a "rockstar" IC who already does thought leadership (extreme example: Stripe hiring Patrick McKenzie). I can't help with this scenario. I'll consider exceptions if you want to try to persuade me, but trying to get a rockstar with existing fame and POV to integrate into the firm's POV isn't a fight I'm interested in. If the integration goes the other way (firm adopts rockstar's POV), I can help because this is a variation of scenario #1. Also, please consider the downside risk of this person doing their thing well while with you, creating impact, and then taking that with them when they leave the job. This is why, when seen as a personal asset, thought leadership should belong to the firm principle(s). My whole thesis is that thought leadership can be a firm asset.
Thought leadership is an investment. The first-order beneficiary is your market, the second-order beneficiary is your firm's profitability and -- if thought leadership is made a part of the firm's culture -- saleability. My best idea about how to make it a manageable investment for the small firm is to structure it in a way that outputs both thought leadership content and cultivates new confidence and expertise in your junior and mid-level people. Even with this increased efficiency, thought leadership will not be right for every firm.
If you can't imagine leading your market, if you don't really want to own a market-wide question/transformation/optimization, or you can't afford your IC's taking on some hours/week of un-billable activity, then you should avoid this approach. Fortunately, you can "buy" rather than build thought leadership content via an outside agency. It won't be thought leadership exactly as I've defined it above, but a good agency can produce for you excellent content marketing that includes the ingredients of thought leadership: distinctive point of view, unique research or experience, and a campaign or mission-oriented mindset. I think it's fine to call such content marketing thought leadership, and it's possible to buy rather than build this kind of content.
I can't speak to every content agency's process, so I don't want to overstate this, but I do doubt there will be much or any skill/process transferred from the agency to your firm, so when you stop paying them you'll have the content they've built and whatever residual value it creates, but you won't be any better or more self-sufficient at thought leadership than when you started with them. There are plenty of situations where that's the ideal tradeoff. Just make sure yours is one of them before you choose to buy instead of build.
The main problem with my approach to thought leadership is employee motivation. Most people have strong preconceptions about whether they "are a writer" or are "good at writing". If they fall on the negative side of these preconceptions, it is difficult or impossible for them to buy into the idea of individually publishing their thinking, and their efforts at a group contribution will be less efficient.
My best idea about how to make it more attractive for IC's to participate in the work of thought leadership is to involve them in a primary research effort. Relevant research is already what makes thought leadership content rise above the noisy din of average content marketing, so it's rare for a good thought leadership campaign to not include primary research. Primary research is do-able without the rigor and cost of large-scale academic/scientific research. It's rare that firms of your size attempt it, but that makes its value even more distinctive.
My second-best idea for supporting IC participation in thought leadership is to give them empathetic editorial support; support that feels like "this guy wants me to succeed at writing and coaches me rather than critiques or corrects me". This soft, supportive approach might sound like a threat to the effectiveness of the thought leadership initiative, but writing excellence is not what creates effective thought leadership. It helps, but it's not the essential ingredient. Relevant, unique insight into important, unanswered questions in the market is what makes thought leadership valuable, and writers across a range of skill levels can produce this value.
This is my approach to building a culture of thought leadership. I function as consultant, coach, editor, and project manager at various stages of your engagement with me. While addressing the early strategic questions (POV, thought leadership agenda, designing a small-scale research initiative), I function more as a consultant. During the middle and later stages of implementation, I function more as coach, editor, and project manager. Ultimately, I seek to fade away and leave as we see self-sufficiency and sustainability emerging.
This Service Is New But Only Moderately Risky
This Thought Leadership Coaching service descends from two successful innovations in my business.
1: Since January, 2019 I've been leading small groups of indie consultants through a 9-month publishing and small-scale research program called The Expertise Incubator. I've road-tested the ideas in my Thought Leadership Coaching service and tempered idealism with lots of close contact with real-world implementation. This experience has also made me a more effective coach for those struggling to use writing to effectively express their thinking.
2: An Expertise Incubator alum joined a specialized CPA firm called Small Batch Standard, became their operations manager, and hired me to coach a subset of his team through a small-scale research project. This is where I learned that channeling an investment in thought leadership through the ranks of your employees rather than through an external agency or siloed department causes some of this investment to rub off on your ICs in the form of increased confidence and client-facing domain expertise.
More detail on this project: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1XoGkBqA0C2viHQJFaGMin2obAkcUn6b0qC5Eme7glFI/edit
Prior to this experience, Small Batch Standard's IC's did not have the confidence or domain expertise needed to produce content like this: https://sbstandard.com/business-or-a-hobby/. Now they do.
I believe strongly that my Thought Leadership Coaching service is a good one, and yet I'm happy to point out the risks. Thought leadership itself involves irreducible uncertainty about how the market will respond and whether it will move a business needle. There is no risk-free approach.
The approach I've outlined here is not right for every situation, just as thought leadership itself is not right for every company. But if it's right for your company, I hope you'll consider channeling the investment through your employees because of the potential benefits to your culture, profitability, and firm saleability. I'd be happy to see if I can help with this unique approach to thought leadership.