Hear about a worthwhile job posting and you will often find that a “thought leader” is desired.
Is this a bit of pompous biz talk or does it signal a different level of professional activity being required?
To be clear, if you want to make a mark in your work life, you really do have to do the specific actions that thought leadership requires, whether you are in business development, HR, finance or operations. And being a thought leader is not just a requirement of director or C-suite level jobs. You won’t get to those levels unless you start being a thought leader from very early on in your career. Stop thinking about thought leadership. Take action.
Think about a leader in your field, either in your company or at another. How do they differentiate their professional standing so that you notice? There are commonalities and they start early in a career’s arc.
What Thought Leadership Involves
It’s not a secret that much admired people in an industry or profession display common patterns of behavior. Here are three critical behaviors that thought leaders exhibit, in addition to being good at their jobs. I’ll list them first and then explain the recipe for success in each:
- They network constantly, know a lot of people, and as a result, own a reputation as having an extra level of expertise;
- They do a lot of public speaking, they do it well, and add substantive value for the audience;
- They write articles and then later get quoted (expert commentary).
None of these steps require that you have the services of a PR consultant or agent. Let’s put these actions in an historical perspective for your career.
Network and Be a Host
You get your first real job and you are one of many. In your industry sector, there are outside organizations for people doing what you do. Join at least one, volunteer for a committee and take an active role. As you serve on a committee and attend meetings, act like a host, meaning, make attendees feel comfortable by asking questions about them, not by talking about yourself: “What brings you here?; Tell me what you do?; Do you get a lot of value from these meetings? Who are your best types of customers/clients? What do you like to do outside of work? I’m going to get a drink. Can I bring one back for you?” Hosts make people feel at home. Just about everyone who goes to a meeting outside of their company is scared to walk through the door.
When you ask others about what is important to them, almost everyone responds by asking you questions in return. You get to know each other and if you have a reason to extend your relationship because of common goals or just plain likeability, make a date to meet for a meal or a coffee. When you build a network of colleagues this way, you have not only new friends, you have a sounding board for issues you face, you have referral sources for new jobs and customers, and more importantly, you become known. You are no longer faceless in your industry.
Speak and Then Write About It
All business, trade and professional associations exist to educate their members. This is done by having speakers and conferences. If you don’t have the credentials to be a speaker, offer to source the speaker(s) or panels of speakers. You gather incredible, long lasting gratitude by asking someone to be a speaker. As you gain work experience and gratitude credits, offer to be a speaker and be formative in treating necessary topics in novel ways, not the usual way.
For example, in speaking about an industry wide issue, take a sample survey from other members or suppliers to the industry who are implicated in the issue. Use the results to build valid speaking points. Or, include another member or supplier who has a particularly interesting approach. Sharing a stage by including other speakers is just as reputation building as being the only speaker. As your reputation builds, you can progress from speaking at the local chapter to hosting an industry wide conference on a much larger stage. At the same time, your reputation as an “expert” speaker evolves to other groups. Plus, you have those gratitude points to call upon.
Public speaking is one of the most feared human activities. Repetition and practice beforehand decreases the fear. Use your phone and video your presentation. If you need outside help, send yourself to Toastmasters.
Write it Up!
Writing an article after a speaking engagement not only collapses the labor hours, with industry publications and social media, you can multiply your audience reach. Write short, tell the big points first and then add detail. Let readers see the whole picture up front and want to see the colors.
When you find reporters writing on your industry, add your voice, your thoughts and your willingness to share your expertise and your contacts. Every reporter needs the next story. And every leader needs to be quoted.
Don’t think too long about being a thought leader. Now’s the time.