Thought leadership means different things to different people, but for the C-Suite it is increasingly a means to an end: a more competitive reputation.
A consensus is forming as to what makes a thought leader, namely, an individual, or organisation, that changes attitudes and behaviours.
It is an exacting standard and few brands, businesses and leaders reach that position. But before talking about becoming a thought leader, let's address some popular misperceptions.
First. Thought leadership can be confusingly referred to as a 'style' of leadership. This typically translates into a notion that because the CEO has done something 'radical' such as hosting a webinar, or introducing an open-plan seating arrangement, he or she is a thought leader. This confuses stylistic tactics for substantive leadership.
Second. Thought leadership is also regarded as articles by board members that 'boldly' voice a point of view on something other than the minutiae of the sector. In truth, this typically amounts to an ad-hoc, reactive, statement about an issue already leading the news.
Third. Thought leadership is most commonly referred to as a 'piece' of something — typically market research. Think of a survey of 'opinion leaders', on the topic du jour. Often coupled with an unremarkable analysis of the results, rather than genuine insights.
All three fallacies labour under a misapprehension, that they 'lead'. In truth they rarely articulate and advance a leadership position; they do not change the attitudes or behaviours of stakeholders; and, as a result they do not create or set an agenda that others follow.
It is time for CEOs to ask more searching questions of themselves, their advisers and for communications folk to stop misleading, or flattering themselves.
Why? Thought leadership works. It can deliver strong, competitive positions, generating value for stakeholders.
How? Thought leaders define themselves, rather than being defined by their critics. They are more appealing to investors, media and policy makers. They enjoy commercial advantages because they enjoy more access to decision makers; and can leverage their reputations in current categories and enter new markets.
Research amongst opinion formers in the USA, Latin America, Europe and Asia (conducted by TLG from 2010 to 2012) reveals some striking results. Primarily, there is a high-degree of consensus about the benefits — and behaviours — of being regarded as a thought leader.
Of the top five benefits, three stand-out: ‘Most admired’, ‘most authoritative’ and tellingly, ‘most trusted’.
These are powerful findings as they highlight opinion formers — drawn from business, politics, academia and media — irrespective of culture and geography, share a common perspective about corporate reputations. So CEOs can invest in thought leadership and a local or 'global' approach and be confident of positive outcomes in terms of reputation.
This begs two key questions, so what is thought leadership and what does a good campaign look like.
First. Thought leadership. It can best be summarised in three ways: thought leadership is:
1. Strategic not tactical.
2. In the DNA of the business, not outsourced to one person or department.
3. The organising principle of the business and the defining proposition.
In other words, it cannot be reduced to a 'piece' of research, or anything else for that matter.
If it is limited to an ad hoc report it is nothing more than that. It cannot be the preserve of an individual as it needs to define the organisation. So it should be reflected in the culture and driven from the top.
Equally, it cannot be divorced from the core of the company, grafted on by a clever, or expensive, marketing campaign. As this will lack authenticity and therefore credibility with core audiences.
So in discussing how brands become recognised as thought leaders it is very important to establish the leadership position — without which it is impossible to run a meaningful campaign.
In my experience, opinion formers typically sub-divide successful thought leaders in one of three ways.
The 'category leader'. Think Apple. These businesses leverage product innovation to generate leadership and competitive advantage. Their higher purpose is to improve customer experience and when they excel at this their brand is regarded as a thought leader, by opinion formers, almost, the world over.
The 'issues leader'. Think Unilever or Britain’s John Lewis Partnership (JLP). These businesses leverage an aspect of 'how' they do business to generate leadership and competitive advantage. Their respective higher purpose is to improve the employee experience and environment. Unilever do this through their innovative approach to sustainability, JLP through their commitment to creating a deeper and wider stakeholder economy.
The 'values leader'. Think Patagonia or Whole Foods. These businesses compete on — and leverage — an entire approach that is distinctive. Their higher purpose is effectively to reinvent ‘how’ to do business.
Further to this there are three key behaviours that help to define genuine thought leaders (TLG/Henley 2008 research) and need to be accentuated in any campaign.
First, they 'innovate', in terms of what they bring to market, or how they approach a key issue. Second, they display ‘Integrity’, in terms of activity and how they do business. Third, they exert ‘Influence’ — by default or by design — in terms of the behaviours of competitors, peers and customers. So CEOs with aspirations to improve their brand reputation can pursue the '3i's' and take a thought leadership approach.
To conclude, successful thought leaders can enjoy an enviable status as 'most trusted' brands. If business' want to enhance their 'trust' rating, they should pursue a thought leadership strategy, rather than focusing merely on becoming 'trusted'.
In short, trusted brands can go out of fashion - and business. thought leaders do not go out of business, they become market leaders.
Malcolm Gooderham is head of thought leadership at FTI Consulting's Strategic Communications division.