Take Your Business to a New Level with Thought LeadershipApr 12, 2021
Take Your Business to a New Level with Thought Leadership
Innovative business ideas don’t fall from the sky or suddenly appear on your doorstep. They come from people. Often, they come from leaders who combine their expertise with innovation in hopes of bringing attention and solutions to challenges faced by their industries. This drive for change serves as the foundation for new products and services, content that educates and adds value to the lives of those consuming it, and innovation that transforms business operations.
Who are these people behind these brazen efforts? They’re called thought leaders, and there’s always room for more among their ranks—including small business owners like you.
At its most basic level, the title “thought leader” often refers to someone regarded as an expert in their field who has a reputation of using their knowledge and insight to help others. This type of interaction often involves developing a relationship with peers or customers and delivering information to them in way that is thoughtful and educational.
Thought leaders often are seen as the go-to person for the latest industry-specific news and trends. People want to know what they think, how they interpret trends and research, and what they believe all that information spells for the future of the industry.
Reaping the benefits
The concept of thought leadership is one that has evolved over the years. More and more industries are latching on to thought leadership and using it as a driving force for innovation and business growth.
Being considered a thought leader can help business owners establish authority in their industry while attracting new customers and opportunities. In fact, there are many benefits to becoming a thought leader.
Thought leadership often puts the focus on new and exciting ways that a business can serve its customers and help it stand out from a sea of competition. It’s no secret that customers want the best product or service for their needs, but thought leaders take their messaging beyond simple descriptions and demonstrations. They educate customers on their industry, not just what the business offers. When they do focus on their product or service, thought leaders show customers that what they offer not only meets their needs but adds value to their lives.
It’s an approach that can pay dividends as customers regard thought leaders as innovative, knowledgeable, and—this is big—trustworthy. They perceive thought leaders to have authority in their industry and, therefore, trust their guidance and insight.
As a small business owner, you know that you are your business. Developing yourself as a thought leader amplifies you and your business brand. This can be incorporated into your marketing efforts. A positive reputation and a brand associated with leading-edge and visionary thinking can be the boost you need to put you above your competition.
Lastly, becoming a thought leader can positively affect your business’ bottom line. But it’s about more than reeling in new customers. Oftentimes, a business may undervalue its expertise and charge accordingly. However, thought leadership can add value to your company’s brand and reputation, and, in turn, convince customers that it’s worth it to spend more money with you than another company.
So how do you become a thought leader? Don’t worry, you don’t need to write a bestselling book or do a lecture circuit to claim the title. Becoming a thought leader is a process that can start small and grow with time.
The first step is identifying what thought leadership looks like for you and your company. What strengths can you leverage to build your reputation as a thought leader? Everyone is different, so while examing the efforts of other companies can be helpful, the point of thought leadership is to differentiate yourself from everyone else.
What can you bring to the table that no one else can? The answer is your expertise, which is unique to you and your career path. Others in the industry might have your same job title, but they don’t possess your experience and insight.
Here are some questions to consider:
- Does your expertise focus on a niche part of your industry, and do you believe it would benefit your customers and peers to learn more about it?
- Are there relatively unknown facets of your industry that you think others would find interesting and want to know more about?
- Are there complex processes in your industry that your customers are a part of that you could break down into approachable and educational content to help ease concerns?
- Are there new, exciting things happening in your industry that you don’t think see enough media coverage that you would like to elevate in the public eye?
- Do you think there are people in tangentially related industries that would be interested in learning more about your industry and how it interacts with theirs?
All of these questions can help serve as a foundation for your thought leadership journey.
The next step is finding avenues to express your thought leadership. Do you like writing or would you prefer to speak face to face with people through videos or presentations? Are you a creative that would like to connect through graphics and photography? All of these options are tools at your disposal and the way you combine them is unique to you and your business.
If you prefer to write, you could use blogging, letters to the editor, guest articles, and other pieces to position yourself as a thought leader. If you prefer to use your gift of gab, you can create a video series, host live-streamed chats, or even start a podcast (speaking of which, listen to The CoLab’s podcast episode on thought leadership here). If learning new skills is one of your strengths, by all means, find a new medium, challenge yourself to learn it, and share your journey with others.
No matter the medium, your outreach as a thought leader should feel genuine and play to your strengths as an industry expert. Part of being genuine involves sharing personal stories and inspiration. What drove you to start or own a business? What experiences and events brought you to where you are today, and what can others learn from your story? Storytelling is a key part of connecting with others, so put emphasis on it as part of your thought leadership process.
Remember, being a thought leader requires commitment and time, which may pull you away from other aspects of your business. This isn’t a bad thing if you have a team to delegate to but can be difficult if you don’t. To start, commit as much time as you feel comfortable initially and reassess your efforts on at least a monthly basis.
In addition to building up yourself and your capacity to act as a thought leader, you need buy-in from others to keep that status. After all, if you don’t have anyone that respects your expertise, can you call yourself a leader?
Connecting to customers and business peers through content creation is a great place to start, but you’ll need to build on that foundation by gaining recognition for your leadership.
One of the most straightforward forms of recognition is an award. It’s a no-brainer, right? People like the idea that they’re doing business with an award-winning company because it implies a high quality of product or service. Being honored by others in your industry boosts your reputation and helps establish your authority as a top performer in your field.
Trade associations and publications often seek nominations for awards recognizing contributions to their respective industry. Other organizations create lists recognizing innovative and influential industry members. You’ve probably seen articles with headlines such as, “10 Business Leaders to Watch” or “40 Entrepreneurs Under 40 Who Are Changing the World.” Often, these organizations solicit nominations through a public process, so the key to receiving this type of recognition lies in the connections you make. Rally your peers and nominate one another or task an assistant to fill out a nomination form for you. The point is your accomplishments as a thought leader can’t be recognized if you’re not telling people about them.
On a similar note, it’s difficult to be seen as a thought leader if you’re not putting yourself out there. Social media provides a platform for thought leaders of any kind. But, don’t forget about real-world opportunities. For example, if you enjoy public speaking then seek out opportunities to get yourself in front of an audience. Connect with your local Chamber of Commerce and see if it hosts events that feature rotating presentations from business leaders in the community. Think bigger and soon you’ll go from addressing a few dozen people at a luncheon to thousands from a conference stage.
Remember, thought leadership is a journey that starts and ends with you. It’s your business and if you want to attract the best clients, the best business relationships, and the best employees, you need to be seen as a leader. Not just someone with the title of leader, but someone who's willing to try something first and do things that other people aren't doing. Your thought leadership journey might start with small steps but expect them to bring about big changes.
Hungry for more thought leadership insight? Listen to The CoLab Podcast’s episode on the topic.