Identifying Thought Leaders in Your Organization
You’ll want to choose a few people from the front lines — the doers — to ensure that you’re offering up tactical perspectives that help people connect. They’re there to display expertise and transparency, illustrating the quality of the work at all levels. You’ll also want to set up your mid-level managers to help talk about challenges that your customer is facing, and about the value propositions of their product or service. Finally, you do want the CEO out in the market (they just shouldn’t be the ONLY person out there talking), because they have an opportunity to publicly set company vision. I think of Satya Nadella, and Arianna Huffington as examples — they set strategic direction and vision for their companies, which in turn opened the door for other people in their company to talk to those points.
When you’re looking for thought leaders, it’s important to remember not to settle for candidates who exhibit only one or two of these traits. There are plenty of articulate, intelligent people out there... But not everyone is cut out for standing up and engaging with the public, and that lack of willingness is something that can’t be coerced.
The other traits your thought leaders are going to need are enthusiasm (for participating in the company culture and offering their own ideas to share); grit (they’re going to have to take criticism and face feedback about everything from their topics to their headshots and career paths); resilience (it’s possible that even after they fine tune their pitch, that they’ll get turned down the first few times, and they can’t be deterred by a few setbacks); and grace. Grace is deeply important when someone ends up in the public eye, because people will challenge your thought leaders (whether in person, on Twitter, or both) and they need to be able to hand it in a way that won’t drive them (or your CEO) crazy.
Sound like a lot? Maybe it is… but the bottom line here is that not everyone is the right person for this type of work. Choose carefully, have multiple layers of vetting, and be OK with the fact that not everyone is ready to be (or needs to be) a thought leader.
Supporting your Thought Leaders
So, you’ve identified your thought leaders. You may be wondering: what do they need to get the pan hot and the sizzle going? You can help your thought leaders succeed with cultural and foundational support.
Cultural support means buy-in from leadership, management, and the business as a whole.
Managers might not understand why thought leadership is critical to the overall business strategy. They might get frustrated by the time it takes to groom an employee’s public-facing persona. Managers need to understand that when their employees succeed, they succeed. Putting trust in a budding thought leader engenders employee loyalty with every growth opportunity, and managers should be reassured by leadership that it won’t reflect badly on their numbers if their employee participate.
When it comes to company-wide support for the thought leadership program, it’s important to make sure that everyone understands the potential benefits. It’s a good idea to showcase how how your competitors are using thought leadership to help build business, as well as the opportunities you have to establish thought leaders for your company, to get buy-in for the program at all levels. This should be done publicly, at all-staffs meetings, to get the whole company in the know about your projects. Then, conversations about the thought leadership program can continue on a team-by-team basis to help people understand the importance, and any hesitations can be addressed on a person-by-person basis. Connecting with people who are change avoidant is going to be your best strategy, to make sure their concerns are addressed in a way that does not make them feel singled out or cornered.
Functional Support for Thought Leaders
Functional requirements are the tactical elements your people need to survive the splattering bacon grease of people’s public opinion. Think of this as a standard support kit for your thought leaders — one that needs to contain:
Professional headshots. That means no family photos, no “in da club” pictures, no kitty cats, and certainly no crazy-eyed pictures. I highly recommend—nay, demand—professional headshots. Done by a professional photographer, professionally. Because professionals know things about lighting and placement and other things professionals know. Are you noticing a theme? Is the word “professional” ringing in your ears? Good.
Marketing Support. Thought leaders might be experts, but they’re not necessarily marketers. You’ll want to treat this as seriously as you treat marketing your products and services. A marketing team will help turn your thought leader into a powerful figure with a coherent message, by assisting in the following areas:
Bottom line: giving your internal thought leaders the tools to do the job right will mean faster ROI.
Continuing to Bring Home the Bacon
I'm a veteran digital marketer whose career has grown up with the Internet.