Our last blog on thought leadership, “Why You Want to be a Thought Leader,” began by defining a thought leader as an individual or organization whose products, clients, partners, and even competitors recognize them as a leading go-to authority in their field. You want to be a thought leader because when you’re that go-to authority, your business propels forward. You are viewed as someone with valuable experience and knowledge in your subject area, and people desire to work with you and learn from you.
Becoming a thought leader requires more than just being an expert. There are numerous experts in the world, and though their knowledge may be profound, they often can’t scale up their business because they aren’t being recognized for thought leadership.
If you wish to become a thought leader, you need to build intellectual influence by practicing innovative thinking to develop a unique perspective on how to fill a gap in your area of expertise. You must authentically believe in your philosophy and be able to back it up with credibility and expertise. Then, you can disrupt the market and establish yourself as a thought leader in your field.
This post outlines the steps you can take at different stages of your business to help you become a recognized authority. Business can be categorized into four phases: the start-up phase, the growth phase, the business maturity phase (usually when businesses have existed for 5-10 years), and the reinvention phase (if you don’t reinvent, you typically sell or decline). There are different ways to leverage thought leadership throughout each of these phases, and this blog discusses what you should do during the first three. The key is to put yourself in the right place at the right time.
When you’re in the start-up phase, the first thing you need to do is get intentional about your online presence. The start-up phase is about cultivating your first relationships. Growing an online network is the fastest way to gain new connections. But what does getting intentional look like? First, decide where you want to establish an online presence. What are the best platforms on which to promote your business? Then, your task is to maintain an active presence on each.
Maintaining an active presence on social media isn’t as straightforward as simply posting content, because you want to grow your engagement. You must always be intentional about what you post. Ask yourself, “What type of audience will this post attract and what message does it send about my business?” You don’t need to write detailed content every day. For example, you can create a graphic of one of your favorite quotes and add a few sentences of copy that explain what the quote means to you and your business. You want to be intentional and consistent about where, when and how you appear. Promote your accreditations, important affiliations, and points of differentiation — anything that lends credibility to what you do. Sharing these things will build trust with your audience, and that trust is crucial to your success. As your engagement grows, your connections will also increase…and with more connections comes more opportunity.
Remember that your online presence is not limited to social media. For example, you could also choose to begin a blog. If you do decide to create a blog during the start-up phase of your business, you should be certain that you can set aside enough time to add entries on a consistent basis. If you don’t decide to begin a blog during the start-up phase, the growth phase is when most businesses should do this. You can choose to create a written blog, a video blog (also known as a “vlog”) or both. If you’re a better speaker than you are a writer, go with a video blog. If you feel more comfortable writing about your business, choose that route instead. Videos should be a part of your strategy no matter what, but you don’t need to use them specifically for your blog.
Once you have established your business and are beginning to attract clients, how do you continue that momentum toward thought leadership? During the start-up and growth phases, you can write case studies. The point of a case study is to write about the positive transformations your top clients have undergone while working with your business. Then, you can publish these case studies on your website and share links to them on social media. (Note: You will want to ask for permission before referring to any individual by their full name, but — barring a non-disclosure agreement — you can feel free to use business names and first names when referencing the work that you did together.)
The next step you should take during the growth phase of your business is to be a guest on podcasts. You can search for shows that discuss specific topics within your field, or you can be a guest on podcasts that aren’t strictly about your area of expertise but appeal to an audience that’s similar to the one your business aims to reach. Think creatively about how you want to present yourself on these shows, keeping in mind that the goal is to grow your visibility to ensure that your business always has clients in the pipeline.
Something else you should consider while you’re in the growth phase is contributing to other people’s blogs. You can be a guest for a blog interview, or you can do a blog exchange in which you and another blogger appear as guest writers on one another’s blogs. Again, look for people who are speaking to your target audience but not competing with you (i.e., they offer different services or products but work in the same or a related industry). My caveat here — in regard to both podcasts and blogs — is to pinpoint people who are either at the same stage as you or slightly ahead of you on their entrepreneurial journey. Don’t make it a habit to overreach, because getting turned down will wear on you over time. Instead, start gathering some wins to boost your confidence level! You could also apply to be a contributing writer for a publication. You may not receive compensation, but your “payment” will be the exposure you receive.
Another great way to gain exposure during the growth phase is to publish a book. There is a lot of credibility that can be gained thanks to book publishing, even if you self-publish. Yes, there are quite a few self-published books available that are poorly written, and this has, in some circles, left self-publishing with a bad reputation. That said, there are also many well-written self-published books that were written by people who are now viewed as respected authors. Alternatively, you can look for a hybrid solution, but if you know that you’re a good writer and you’re willing to put in the time and effort required to write (and thoroughly edit) your story, then don’t be afraid to self-publish.
Gaining media coverage is vital for achieving success, so if you have the opportunity to be on any local or regional television or radio shows, do it! Once you reach the growth phase, you will also have the opportunity to speak at regional and national events. When you’re in the start-up phase, you might have the chance to speak locally, but once you get to the growth phase, you’ll gain opportunities to reach a larger audience. You can also begin applying for awards and other recognitions. You may feel imposter syndrome when doing this, but the reality is that being up for an award exposes you to new audiences…and if you do win, you can rest assured that your hard work really did deserve the payoff! Then, you can use your website and bio to promote the accolades you’ve received.
Finally, when you reach the business maturity phase, the time has come to be increasingly selective. As a reminder, you should already be:
- creating a robust social media presence,
- promoting your accreditations, affiliations, and points of differentiation,
- publishing a high-quality blog,
- writing case studies,
- speaking on podcasts,
- contributing to other people’s blogs,
- writing for publications,
- publishing a book,
- earning media coverage,
- speaking at events, and
- applying for awards.
As you take these actions toward thought leadership during the start-up and growth phases of your business, you will notice your business ascending and getting closer to the maturity phase. Every step of the way, remember to vet your opportunities to ensure that they’re the right opportunities for you. Then, once you reach the business maturity phase, you’ll want to begin implementing many of these actions again, except doing so at a higher level.
What does it look like when a business moves into maturity? By the time your business hits maturity, setbacks will still occur, but they’ll tend to have a much smaller impact because you’ve learned how to manage the challenges that arise. Therefore, many people who own businesses in the maturity phase will focus on building the thought leadership of their team, making their team members the new “celebrities” of the business. The owner will begin to take a step back so they can become a thought leader of a different kind — one who can take credit for mentoring the people at the company so they could grow to be thought leaders themselves. This also frees up the business owner so that they only need to speak at high-status events and for highly ranked media outlets and publications that will compensate them for their time.
Many businesses sit in the maturity stage for years while others look to sell or reinvent. Staying in the maturity stage can make a business vulnerable, though, because another company may decide to do what you do faster, for less money or with a fresh new take. That is why even in maturity, businesses should always be focused on improvement.
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