We tend to associate thought leadership with experts, industry hotshots and startup founders. It can help establish them as an authority within their field, and lead to increased sales and awareness. Think of some of the greatest leaders in recent years — from Apple’s Steve Jobs and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, to Disney’s Bob Iger and Teen Vogue’s Elaine Welteroth. What do they all have in common? They’re highly established thought leaders within their industry.
While thought leadership is undeniably critical for these individuals, it’s not just for founders and C suite execs. Anyone within a company — from juniors to longstanding veterans — has the potential to build a reputation for themselves as a thought leader, benefiting both their long-term career prospects and the company they work for. It really is a win-win.
But what exactly is thought leadership? Let’s start by taking a look at the classic definition from Joel Kurtzman, who coined the term in 1994. Kurtzman said: “a thought leader is recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate. They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.”
Just over 25 years after Kurtzman brought thought leadership to the mainstream, the term has subtly shifted to include a wider array of employees, rather than purely focusing on the individuals at the top. Popular marketing website HubSpot shares this definition: “a tactic content marketers use to build credibility for themselves or leaders in their company”. This mirrors a wider business trend of businesses actively encouraging employees to work on their thought leadership efforts, based on an understanding how this can benefit both the individual and the company as a whole. Let’s take a closer look at this. How exactly does thought leadership benefit employees? And how does it benefit their company?
If you look on LinkedIn today, you’ll see that the posts that do well are generally not posted by companies, but by individuals. The reason for this is simple: we’re naturally more interested in personal stories. We’re far more likely to feel a connection and engage with updates about what people in our network are doing, and stories about the challenges they’ve faced and how they overcame them. We’ll remember these stories when we see a mutual friend or colleague, and might even continue to discuss the post with others offline. But most people in our networks don’t post very often - if at all. Simply sharing your work-related stories (and the odd general anecdote), as well as insights in your field helps set you apart and builds your personal brand. This will not only help you grow in credibility and confidence, but it will also help you grow your audience over time. As you continue to post and your network continues to engage with your content, more people in your subject area will notice you and will want to connect with you as well. Over time, you build a reputation for yourself as a thought leader within your specific field, whether that’s machine learning, urban policy, or anything in between. On LinkedIn, two thought leaders come to mind: Dan Murray-Serter, and Allie K. Miller. Dan is the founder of brain food supplement company Heights, and also hosts a UK-based business podcast. He’s a regular on LinkedIn, sharing his thoughts on everything from branding to mental health. Dan’s a great example of a typical entrepreneur thought leader - and is a good example to follow for anyone who runs their own business (or is thinking of starting on). His content is candid, and he regularly shares updates on his business’ progress with their BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals).
Allie K Miller, on the other hand, is just as successful a LinkedInfluencer - if not more so - but there’s one key difference between her and Dan: she’s an employee of Amazon. Her career includes time spent at various startups and later IBM, and she’s currently Global Head of Machine Learning Business Development, Startups and Venture Capital at Amazon. Allie has 1.3 million followers on LinkedIn (!) and shares everything from developments in the world of artificial intelligence, to her favourite resources for startups. She’s a great example of how employees within a company can still continue to work on their personal brand through establishing themselves as a thought leader - and LinkedIn provides a handy, low-effort way to do this.
Having a following is incredibly valuable and will likely have a positive influence on your career and salary prospects. Companies are increasingly on the lookout for ‘LinkedInfluencers’ (try saying that after a glass or two of wine). Brands can be thought leaders in their own right and thought leadership isn’t exclusive to LinkedIn, but having faces behind the brand actively building their online following reinforces the efforts of the company.
Thought leadership can benefit companies in all kinds of ways. The most obvious benefit is that it differentiates your organisation. Consumers want to align themselves with brands that share similar social, political, and moral values to them - and so the first step is actually making sure they know what a brand’s values are. Brands need to have a clear purpose or mission they’re working towards, and are expected to speak out when something happens in their industry or in society that goes against what they stand for. Showing to the world how you’re leading the charge in tackling issues your organisation cares about helps build awareness of your brand and can sway potential customers or clients to work with you instead of the competition. Thought leadership can also have a positive impact on workplace culture, fuelling opportunities for employee engagement. Every employee wants to feel like their employer cares about them - and encouraging thought leadership from within is one way to demonstrate this. If possible, companies could go so far as to work thought leadership opportunities into their learning & development efforts, offering workshops on topics like writing, public speaking and social media. It doesn’t take much, but once you’ve established yourself as a thought leader, you’ll be reaping the rewards for years to come.