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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Everything You've Wanted to Know About Thought Leadership (But Were Scared to Ask)


A few days ago, I was chatting with a friend, who is super smart—has-a-PhD-in-Chemistry-type-smart. I mentioned that I’d taken on a new client who had commissioned some thought leadership work. To which she said: “Great! But what is thought leadership?”

The thing about really smart people is that they’re not afraid to speak up when they don’t know something. And, our conversation made me wonder: How many other people out there don’t know what thought leadership is—but smile and nod when it comes up in conversation? My guess is a lot more than I realized. So, the question (apparently) on everyone’s mind is: What exactly is thought leadership?

Thought Leadership in a Nutshell

Thought leadership is a way for a brand to position itself as a leader in a certain field or sector by demonstrating its values or expertise.

The key verb here is “demonstrate.” So, if a business is trying to position itself as being an expert in technology, for example, it’s no good to simply say: “We’re experts in tech.”

You have to actually prove it. One way of doing this is to carry out and publish research.

Here’s how it works in practice:

Lawyers, accountants, and management consultants face a particular challenge; they’re already experts in law, tax, and consulting. People trust them to write contracts, prepare accounts, and solve problems. But when they want to grow their practices and gain new and different clients, they need to establish their credibility in the fields of their clients—and stand out from everyone else doing the same.

A simple way to do this is to demonstrate that the firm understands new developments in the selected field as well as upcoming challenges for the industry.

If a company tackles a research question that clients need answered, it’ll establish instant credibility. Therefore, startups looking for professional services will choose the company that seems to “get” their industry when it’s time to prepare their accounts.

To get a better idea, check out the websites of companies like PwC, Deloitte and EY. You’ll find thousands of reports, as well as research and analysis that evidences expertise in a range of sectors.

How Does it Work in Practice?

Thought leadership is not that different from content marketing. If a company has carried out some research, the facts and statistics that come out of it can be used in blog posts, op-eds, infographics, and press releases. These in turn provide fantastic content for Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Facebook posts.

Not every business can afford to commission original research. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t position itself as a thought leader. There is so much content already out there that the company can demonstrate its expertise by sharing and commenting on what already exists.

However, it’s important to have an opinion on it. Anyone can share a link. But if a business declares that something is (or isn’t) important and then delivers some analysis of why, it demonstrates that the people working there aren’t just following the news, but are on top of it and leading the way.

Why Should You Care?

Thought leadership isn’t just for brands. It’s a great way to establish yourself as an expert or leader in your field—and it can give you an edge whether you’re looking to advance in your current career or make a break into a new one.

For example, let’s say you’ve been working in human resources for a while, but what you’re really passionate about is diversity and inclusion. Up until this point, you haven’t had a chance to do any work in this area, so you’re struggling to score a job interview. Positioning yourself as a thought leader is a means of establishing your credibility and expertise in the field.

If you’re passionate about diversity and inclusion, I’m going to assume you already read about it—often. So, if you start sharing what you’re reading, on a blog, on Twitter, or on LinkedIn, others will start to see you as being a go-to person in the field.

If you demonstrate you have an opinion on issues like how to retain women, how to recruit a diverse workforce, and how to create an inclusive culture in the workplace, potential employers will start to take note. When you score an interview you’ll have a head start on other (possibly more experienced) candidates. You will have established yourself as an expert before you even walk in the room.

The world is hungry for people with drive, ideas, and vision. Thought leadership is a way of showing you have these things. And even if you decide that all this content creation, commenting, and sharing is not for you; next time you hear the words “thought leadership” casually dropped into conversation, you can smile to yourself, safe in the knowledge that you actually know what it means.