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What Not To Do When You Launch Thought Leadership

Here are three mistakes to avoid when you launch a thought leadership program.

For Further Reading:

Five Characteristics of a Data-Driven Company

So You Want to Hire a CDO?

Why Continuous Intelligence Should Be a Key Priority for Business Leaders

My last two jobs were launching and running thought leadership teams at software companies. In both instances, we saw thought leadership as additive -- a way to tie product capabilities to more transcendent business conversations -- as well as an antidote to engineering-intensive customer conversations.

Nowadays, thought leadership is an emerging high-tech trend. Executives consider it, at worst, another potential revenue stream. At best, it can be a competitive differentiator.

However, just because a forward-thinking leader understands thought leadership’s potential doesn’t mean the company is ready to take it on. Here my new friend Leslie inquires about possible landmines:

Dear Jill,

I am a vice president with a large analytics and AI vendor. Our vice president of engineering recently forwarded your blog post, 5 Things to Consider Before Launching a Thought Leadership Team, to his peers.

Our executive team will be having our biannual offsite retreat this summer, and thought leadership is already on the agenda. Based on your piece, I believe having such a team would add value. Having said that, I suspect we’ll need to hire some outsiders because we have few people who fit the profile you describe. This might not go over too well with some of my colleagues, who are frankly overconfident in the qualifications of their staffs.

Your blog post was an interesting set of do’s. Would you mind sharing some don’ts as well?

-- Thanks, Leslie

Hi, Leslie. Your question reminds me of that quote:

We must learn from the mistakes of others. We can’t possibly live long enough to make them all ourselves.

Funny, yes, but also apt. I’ve seen plenty go wrong when companies try building thought leadership teams. Here are three mistakes to avoid before you consider launching your own thought leadership capability.

Mistake #1: Failing to define thought leadership

Many people conflate thought leadership with evangelism. Indeed, the “evangelist” job title seems to have taken off, especially in technology companies. Some tech start-ups have even designated a chief evangelist job title. (These companies also have code whisperers and digital ninjas.)

I consider thought leaders and evangelists to be two distinct roles. An evangelist is someone who proselytizes a product or message, often representing her company at conferences and industry events. Evangelists are typically smart, charismatic, and articulate. Most rely on company-sanctioned presentation materials and messaging that multiple people can deliver. (“Here’s our blockchain perspective and plan!”)

A thought leader is someone with original ideas that not only support company messaging but can offer a new perspective to the industry at large. An effective thought leader can document these ideas, defending them clearly, verbally and in writing.

Thought leadership is typically more specific than evangelism (see mistake 2 below), unraveling complex topics and establishing a unique point of view that can set the company apart. The evangelist burnishes the company brand through clear messaging. The thought leader does so with fresh ideas and approaches. (“Machine learning can complement blockchain processing, thus rendering transactions even more secure. Here’s how.”)

Mistake #2: Adopting a generalist approach

How many times have we heard an executive say, “Let’s just get a bunch of smart people in a room”? As a management consultant, I’m regularly asked to facilitate brainstorming and ideation sessions. Such meetings often end up being commandeered by extroverts seeking a platform but having no clear objectives.

True thought leadership requires an iterative process of independent thinking, testing, and vetting. (Rinse and repeat.) A thought leader relies on an understanding of a specific domain as well as having had on-the-ground experience working in that domain. This combination ensures that the thought leadership is grounded in execution and avoids becoming too academic.

For instance, a software marketing executive recently created a “Marketing Tiger Team.” His vision is to solve a big problem in order to prove that the team can eventually assume an enterprise thought leadership role.

The group’s charter? To raise marketing conversion rates using artificial intelligence.

As valid as the effort is, I’m not convinced this project will prepare the team to dovetail into corporate thought leadership. Smart as they are, the members of this group are really working on a special project in marketing, not on a new approach that can redefine the company’s AI go-to-market strategy.

Mistake #3: Trying to teach thought leadership

Another company assigned a full-time resource to teach employees how to be thought leaders. The resource himself was not a thought leader, but rather an intermediary, cherry-picking bright employees and coaching them on writing blog posts and submitting presentation abstracts to industry conferences.

Thought leadership can’t be taught. It’s a mixture of creativity, practical experience, communication prowess, and deep domain expertise. Trying to mold people into thought leaders is like trying to teach someone how to draw: the person will learn some new skills but is unlikely to morph into a modern-day Monet.

The fact is, you know thought leadership when you see it. It’s the woman in R&D who shadows customers, watching a business problem unfold and tweaking her code on the fly to solve it. It’s the consultant who devises an easier framework for data ingestion, offering customers the option of real-time access to streaming data as soon as they log into the cloud. It’s the product manager who sheds new light on a product’s differentiated functions and features, thus absorbing market share.

A Final Thought

Circling back on your suspicion that your company might need to recruit externally, there’s no shame in that. Consider it a vital part of your company’s evolution, ultimately a lynchpin of growth.

Good luck!


About the Author

Jill Dyché has advised clients and executive teams on their analytics and data programs for as long as she can remember. Longer, in fact. She’s the author of four books on the business value of technology and regularly talks to teams about what keeps them up at night. Ambivalent about analytics? Maddened by management? Constricted by your culture? Check out Jill’s Q&A column, Q&A with Jill Dyché, here.

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