by John Edwards

7 steps to becoming a thought leader

Aug 27, 201810 mins
CareersIT LeadershipRelationship Building

Learn how to help your career, your organization and the IT community by sharing your expert knowledge with others.

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Credit: Thinkstock

You’re the sort of person who likes to solve problems. Co-workers and colleagues come to you for advice, ideas, insights and solutions. You also enjoy being a mentor, someone who doesn’t mind investing his or her time in order to help people achieve their goals.

Congratulations. Whether you realize it or not, you’re a thought leader, an authority whose IT expertise is frequently sought and, sometimes, rewarded. Now that you’re aware of your distinct status, perhaps it’s time you put your talents to work in a way that will promote your organization — and yourself.

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Positioning oneself as a thought leader opens the door to multiple benefits, says Patrick Turner, CTO of Small Footprint, a custom software development company. “While it can certainly help you find that next step up the career ladder, it can also help you build a great team in the recruiting process,” explains Turner, who has positioned himself as his firm’s top thought leader. “People today look to companies where they can learn and grow professionally, and seeing thought leadership in a company can be a big draw for good people.”

A thought leader can also help an organization differentiate itself from the competition, alter customer expectations, change purchasing incentives and engage individuals at a higher level. “[You can] set the agenda, start conversations, lead a movement and shape the future of your field,” notes Pete Weissman, founder of Thought Leader Communications, a firm that helps executives and organizations become recognized as industry thought leaders.

Becoming a thought leader requires “a unique vision for the future of your field, actions that make your vision possible and a rollout plan to share your message with increasingly larger audiences,” Weissman says.

Here’s how to get started.

1. Hone in on one area of expertise

Chances are, you possess expertise in many IT areas. Yet to become a successful thought leader it’s important to zero-in on a specific topic, preferably a fresh technology that’s currently immersed in FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt).

Find a niche where you have credible expertise, unique talent and passion, Weissman suggests. “What in your background or life experience gives you a unique point of view?”

“It’s better to focus on a narrower field of credible insight that you genuinely have, versus trying to write, speak and socialize on every ‘stretch’ topic that comes by,” says Tom Resau, a senior vice president and leader of the cybersecurity and privacy Practice at W2 Communications, an IT marketing firm. “For example, in my field of cybersecurity, it is tempting to jump in with a tweet on every data breach in the headlines.” Yet cyber risk is a vast and varied discipline with specific nested issues impacting security practitioners, C-suite stakeholders, end users and many others. “If someone’s IT career places them within one of these domains, that is a great place to begin gathering some thoughts to offer,” he notes.

It’s also important to provide insights that are not overtly self-promotional. “A thought leader must have credibility or he or she cannot be a thought leader,” declares Judith Hurwitz, president and CEO of Hurwitz & Associates, a technology strategy consulting, market research and analyst firm.

2. Develop a unique perspective

The best opinion leaders have deep experience in a given topic area or industry, and also the ability to communicate their knowledge to others, explains Jason Cohen, founder and CTO of WP Engine, a WordPress managed hosting provider. Cohen speaks and writes frequently on company growth and other issues. Unique insights are required. “True thought leaders say something that others are not saying, otherwise it’s not leadership, it’s parroting,” Cohen says. “It doesn’t have to be ‘disruptive’ or ‘counter-culture,’ but it does have to be new,” he adds.

Spell out what’s broken in your field and your plan to fix it, Weissman suggests. “Appeal to universal values,” he advises. “Run your draft by friends and colleagues for feedback; keep refining it until it’s unique enough to attract attention, disruptive enough to upset the status quo and powerful enough that others want to sign up.”

3. Consider your content platform

The best way to get started as a thought leader is to produce media you control, such as YouTube videos and social media notes and comments, Cohen states. If your thoughts are insightful and useful, viewers and readers will share them on their own media platforms. “By having a corpus of content of your own that others have validated with their own media, you have the social proof to apply for industry event speaking opportunities and network extensively across your industry,” he says.

Turner agrees. “The marketplace looks to leaders who are expressing an opinion and writing about how they see the world of technology,” he observes. “This will likely parlay into speaking engagements and other ways to get recognition.”

While few budding thought leaders have the ability to create high-quality YouTube videos, the web is full of powerful, yet easy to use social media tools that can be easily leveraged to deliver informative, insightful content and connect with other thought leaders. Something as basic and simple as organizing a local Meetup group can provide a springboard to becoming a widely recognized thought leader.

“The non-negotiables for presenting your ideas/content are a blog, a website for your personal brand, Twitter and LinkedIn,” states John Baker, CTO of DeployBot, a code development tools provider who enjoys bringing colleagues up to speed on the latest IT technologies and practices. Twitter, he notes, is an ideal place for beginners to extend a personal brand, build reach, connect with followers and grow a follower base. “Tweet a minimum of twice a day — share ideas, pose questions, prompt engagement,” he suggests.

Whatever the platform, Baker recommends creating a content plan based on consistency. “Consistency breeds followers,” he explains. “Whether you create two or ten pieces of content a month, you should be consistent, use quality images and include anecdotes so your audience is able to form a connection with your story/experience,” he advises. “This yields engagement and brand loyalty.”

4. Develop relevant, compelling content

Start by determining the type of audience you want to reach. Are they mostly technology professionals, business executives, government managers, academics or something else? “This impacts the way you frame issues and the optimal channels for your message,” Resau says.

The best thought leaders are constantly challenging their audience with compelling ideas and questions. Content doesn’t have to be lengthy, but it must offer fresh ideas, Hurwitz observed.

Be as honest and specific as possible. Most IT and other experts have only a limited amount of bandwidth available for extracurricular networking and thought-leadership activities, so having a well-defined outline of what is most important can help optimize content and delivery. “Start with a couple of informal LinkedIn posts to socialize a few topics among your network and peers,” Resau proposes. “That can be a great way to gauge what the audience is looking for.”

“Ensure an agnostic approach to technology rather than focusing on just a favorite provider or simply what’s new and shiny,” Turner says. “Finally, always look at technologies from the perspective of adding value to a business rather than just engaging a technology because it’s the latest thing.”

5. Connect and spark conversation

Pursue personal networking with energy and enthusiasm. “If your goal is to become a thought leader in business, target the top-tier business conferences and publications, which are attended by and read by other leading professionals,” Cohen says.

It’s important to connect with influencers and other key players in the tech industry, Baker advises. “Don’t ask anything from them, just focus on sparking conversation … to get the relationship-building started.”

Try to ladder-up. “Pitch yourself to the city or state conferences of an association,” Weissman recommends. “Succeed there, and then ask them to recommend you for their regional or national conferences.”

6. Stay current — but selective

IT is evolving rapidly. To avoid appearing outdated and ridiculous it’s essential to keep pace with the latest developments in your area of specialization.

A successful thought leader needs to stay on top of what’s happening in his or her sector to ensure that time, money and resources are invested for maximum impact. “Have one big vision that doesn’t change, but provide new examples and actions as often as you can,” Weismann advises.

Try to add something new in every speech or publication. Elon Musk, for instance, offers a unique vision for electric cars. “That big vision doesn’t change, but he constantly makes new announcements that reinforce the big idea,” Weissman explains.

There is no specific quantity of content a thought leader should produce. “You do not want to appear dormant, but you also don’t want to look like a candidate for elected office with a hot take on every issue,” Resau observes.

7. Cultivate a following

Successful thought leaders have a group of dedicated followers, a fan base that will follow them across social media platforms as well as through articles, blogs, books, videos and live events. Building a following requires a significant amount of time and effort, particularly during the early stages when you’re trying to make your voice stand out as something that’s worth paying attention to. “Look for ways to make news,” Weissman suggests. “Can you reveal a new investment or approach in one of your talks?”

To ensure that your voice is heard by the right people at the right time and in the right places, it’s essential to have a focused strategy. “There are few accidental thought leaders, most of them got where they are by constantly playing up their strengths, building the right relationships and continuing to develop and evolve their craft,” Cohen says.

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