Achieving Thought Leadership
By Gary L. Geipel, Jeff Winton Associates Consultant
Business leaders can achieve thought leadership in the public arena even if they are not the CEOs of
major companies. The result can be enhanced levels of influence – to shape public opinion and public
policy, for example – beneficial not only to the individual leaders but also to their organizations’
missions and bottom lines.
No switches simply can be flipped to achieve thought leadership, however. It requires a determined
effort from an executive and from a supporting team – and often a considerable amount of time marked
by ups and downs along the way.
Speeches at selective conferences or venues (rather than pay-to-play events), opinion articles in edited
publications (rather than company or self-published comments on social media), and conversations with
independent reporters and podcasters are ways of establishing a business executive’s credibility and
prestige on serious issues – and perhaps getting noticed by other opinion-shapers and by policymakers.
Obtaining such “selective,” “edited,” and “independent” opportunities is by definition not easy. But
there are several ways to make success more likely:
Know why. Executives and their teams should embark on a thought-leadership effort with a clear understanding of the reasons why they are doing it. It may be to move the needle of expert or public opinion on a matter of concern to the business. It may be to change or repair an organization’s image. It may be to help establish a principle or strategy as a new norm. In any case, establishing the goal is the first step in finding the right path towards it.
Be bold. Statements of the obvious or echoes of an existing chorus are not thought leadership and almost never will break through in selective venues or publications. Business executives seeking thought leadership must be prepared to say and/or publish ideas and viewpoints that are courageous and unconventional.
Seize the moment. If an executive’s message can be linked to an event or issue of wider concern, then it will stand a much greater chance of being given podium or publication space – and ultimately of being widely noticed and discussed. An ongoing legislative debate (“so far Congress failed to consider x”), a widely reported news event (“doing y might keep this from happening again”), or even a significant anniversary (“this points to the importance of z”) are examples of such openings.
Specialize. The more that executives can claim unique experience, expertise, or insight on a topic, the more likely it will be that their views will break through. A business leader who is a cancer survivor or a patient’s caregiver, for example, will be more likely to get attention for recommendations on health-care policy. A CEO who ran logistics in an earlier role will be taken more seriously on supply-chain issues. A human-resources leader who is a naturalized citizen will have a higher level of credibility when discussing immigration policy.
Repeat with a twist. Executives should not (and will not be able to) give the identical speeches or publish the same articles over and over. But they are well advised to stick to a small range of topics and to reinforce their key messages in new ways. Established thought leaders rarely are gurus who express opinions on anything and everything. Instead, they are taken seriously because they stick to matters that they deeply understand and have reflected upon previously. Business executives seeking thought leadership should follow the same approach.
Determined efforts at executive thought leadership can be game-changing for the individuals and
organizations involved – often helping to enhance reputations and opening doors to roles in industry
associations and other arenas. It will not be easy but may well be worth it.
Gary L. Geipel is a veteran of executive-communications and external-relations roles in the biopharmaceuticals industry. In addition to his work with JWA, Gary currently is a policy researcher at a think tank and teaches writing and international affairs in a highly regarded graduate program.