There is a moment when I'm talking to an expert about a topic that is meaningful to them and their eyes light up with an excitement that I feel too. This experience is intangible and unpredictable. It probably has something to do with mirror neurons. But all I know is that when they light up, I light up. I can see their passion, expertise and credibility channelled through this topic, and all I want is to hear more.
This is the work I'm doing with my customers - asking a lot of questions until they answer one with genuine gleaming enthusiasm that makes my heart beat faster. And that's the place from which we build their thought leadership.
It happened recently with a senior conservationist. She was talking about intersectionality in terms of feminism, and then in the next sentence about biodiversity of species. Then she said, 'I don't think we've given enough thought to intersectionality of species.' My synapses started firing. That's the conservation content I want to hear more of!
I went through the same exercise with a film-maker with decades of experience. She wants to help a generation of film-makers from disadvantaged communities find customers. As we talked about her different kinds of expertise, it became clear that not only could she help with matching, she could also empower them with the entrepreneurial skills of running a business that she's learned on the hoof. Pragmatism meets creativity! That's how you help create generational financial security. I want to read what she's got to say.
Is there a future for thought leadership?
I found some posts from 2017 and 2018 that declared thought leadership over
. But on a deeper read, what they seem to be objecting to is the phrase itself or how some people declared themselves thought leaders without demonstrating genuine expertise. There is a 2022 kind of content that I'm seeing on LinkedIn (it appeared on MySpace first, then in the blogosphere (mea culpa), then on Facebook, then Instagram and now seems to have migrated), where people mine their own lives, emotions and obstacles for material, likes and followers. It's a rich seam and it works. But it's a bit like ice-cream - fun for a minute and then you feel slightly ill.
My focus, however, is on expertise. Everybody has a niche and that niche is a combination of their expertise, passion and credibility. I love reading posts or listening to podcasts by people who are on top of their game, because I learn something from them. There is no point being on the internet for me, unless it's for some kind of deeper understanding. Superficial doesn't cut it.
If thought leadership is genuine, provocative, thought-provoking and demonstrates depth, then there is a future for it. The superficial kind will always morph and follow the next big platform.
Bridging gaps in corporate communications
Having recently exited the corporate world, I can see that thought leadership plays a key role for businesses too. It's become something of a bridge.
When I ran executive communications for senior leaders and Board members, we always worked closely with marketing. As we built out positioning for the leadership (and we always made sure the topics were genuine and relevant to them as individuals), we also kept in close touch with the marketing leads for the relevant business areas to ensure that the messaging and content we created was relevant to their marketing plays.
Boundaries between external and internal are porous now, so what an executive says externally needs to match closely to what they say to employees. Another bridge.
What executives are saying online can also become the basis for or part of an employee advocacy programme. Bridges everywhere.
Final thoughts on thought leadership
We might feel allergic to superficiality, or what looks like self-promotion. But if an expert or a leader's online content demonstrates their genuine enthusiasm for a topic (their passion), their depth of experience (expertise) and the fact that others recognise their expertise (credibility), people will follow and engage with what they say. It's definitely not over.