Written by: Nick Kirby
Is ‘thought leadership’ really a business holy grail, or just more meaningless business jargon? And are companies who claim to be thought leaders nothing of the sort? Nick Kirby investigates
Want to be a thought leader? You’re not alone. It seems like every company these days wants to ‘demonstrate thought leadership’. It has become quite the marketing buzzword in recent years. If you’re not a thought leader, it seems, then you are completely out of touch, mired in the past, a veritable dinosaur. But as with all buzzwords, the more it is used, the more its value becomes diluted – after all, it just isn’t possible for everyone to be a thought leader, even if they claim to be one.
“I think the phrase has been utterly devalued,” says Joel Kurtzman, Senior Fellow at the Milken Institute and Managing Director of the Kurtzman Group. “It’s used for everything now. There are thought leaders of ice cream flavours! Every company has its thought leaders. And in many cases, the thought leaders have no real experience in the industry they are supposedly leading. They have barely scratched the surface in terms of their reading, their knowledge or ideas. And they are rehashing the past. At best, the term has really been watered down.”
Quite a cutting assessment – but Kurtzman is a man who should know, seeing as he is widely credited with creating the phrase ‘thought leader’ in the first place back in the mid 1990s, while he was Founding Editor of strategy+business. Having received the Global Indira Gandhi Prize in 2000 for his work on thought leadership, and having served as Global Thought Leader at PwC, there’s no doubt he knows his thought leadership onions. So just how does he define the moniker ‘thought leader’?
“We decided one of the showpieces of strategy+business would be a feature on someone really influential in the world of ideas, whose take on the world was important and whose influence was growing. The first of those was CK Prahalad – a great management thinker, economist and analyst,” he explains. “For me, a true thought leader has to have some new important ideas that are worth sharing and that have real application. We aren’t talking about academic ideas that might be brilliant but don’t have a direct application. When I think of thought leaders, I think of people who are coming up with creative new insights that can be applied.”
What’s in a name?
And herein lies the rub. Not everyone has the same definition of thought leadership. Michael Brenner, Vice President of SAP Global Marketing, says: “To me, thought leadership is simply about becoming an authority on relevant topics by delivering the answers to the biggest questions on the minds of your target audience. While it can include your unique perspective on hot topics relevant for your customers, the key for me is that the agenda is set by your audience. They determine what the questions are. You simply need to answer them. So your level of authority is really determined by how well you answer those most important questions.”
Cynics would argue that if the most important question to your client is ‘what is going to be the hot new colour in interior design this season?’ then how can you really call yourself a ‘thought leader’. Are you on top of fashion trends? Yes. Are you a thought leader? Maybe not.
That said, one of the common strands that often comes up when looking at so-called thought leadership is Brenner’s point about relevance to the target audience. It is one that is echoed by Andrew Haigh, Executive Director, Client Propositions at Coutts & Co, who takes the point one step further.
“There are a lot of organisations that set themselves up as thought leaders, where their customers have no real need for that,” he explains. “We don’t expect our local supermarket to be a thought leader, for example. Assuming you have a real need from your customers for thought leadership, you need to make it relevant to them. You need to bring people together to have the ideas, and then it needs to either start a dialogue or be used as an ongoing dialogue with your customers.”
This thinking is similar to that of Daniel W Rasmus, strategist and author of Listening to the Future. “Thought leadership should be an entry point to a relationship,” he says. “Thought leadership should intrigue, challenge and inspire even people already familiar with a company. It should help start a relationship where none exists, and it should enhance existing relationships.”
Kurtzman agrees. “I like to think that when you’re using thought leadership from a business perspective, it ought to deepen the conversation between the company and the client or customer,” he explains. “It should deepen that conversation in a way that the client has never thought about before. And it should cause a reaction like ‘I need to have a deeper, closer relationship to that firm because these guys are smart, they can really help me, have thought about my problem and how to solve it’.”
Blowing your trumpet
While there is some disparity between different people’s ideas of what thought leadership is and isn’t, simply claiming to be one isn’t enough without something to back it up – and yet this seems to be a common mistake made by some companies. Kurtzman believes that far too many firms go around trumpeting about how they are thought leaders, when they are nothing of the sort.
“There’s been such a huge degradation of the term that, for example, people often consider brochures as thought leadership publications,” he explains. “They’ll do a very minimal case study without analysis and call that thought leadership. Obviously you can use thought leadership to sell ideas or products or services, but it has to be real thought leadership to qualify.”
In some cases, companies who claim to be thought leaders are merely taking old ideas and dressing them up, pretending they’re new and useful ideas. Equally, some are merely giving opinion and making out that this is a kind of thought leadership. The plain and simple fact, in Kurtzman’s view, is that if you want to be a thought leader, merely rehashing old ideas simply won’t cut it.
This all begs the question whether companies are so desperate to be seen as thought leaders and ahead of their closest competitors that they could actually be damaging themselves and their business if they don’t deliver. In a time when companies are under pressure to emerge from the economic downturn in as strong a position as possible, should they really be putting all their eggs in the thought leadership basket?
“Right now I think, more than ever, companies are in need of ideas that work, that are innovative and that differentiate them,” says Kurtzman. “And if they don’t get that, there’s going to be backlash against the organisation that’s just selling rehashes of all it has sold in the past.”
“There’s a danger that thought leadership becomes something like a must-have handbag,” says Andrew Haigh. “You need to have that fashion accessory for your business. There’s a bit of a herd instinct – companies think they need to do it because other firms are doing it. But unless it’s relevant and what your clients expect, it’s pointless. Companies have to look at whether this is a fundamental part of their business. It can’t be something they want to do just to look smart.”
Kurtzman is of the opinion that companies need to have a reality check when it comes to thought leadership. “I would say that organisations can be thought leaders for short amounts of time, just like individuals,” he says. “You simply can’t have an individual that is continuously coming up with brilliant new ideas that are groundbreaking one after the other. They may come up with some every few years, or one or two in their lifetime, say, but not all the time – brilliant new ideas are not a commodity. And that applies to businesses too..”
Haigh points to the fact that Coutts actively avoids using the phrase thought leadership. “We try not to use it if we can – there’s a danger that it can come over as arrogant. There is no monopoly on good ideas, so any organisation that believes they have somehow got that monopoly is blind to the realities of the world.”
If you’re not sure whether you’re a thought leader or not, there might be one simple statement to consider: ‘To be a true thought leader, you need to be sure someone is following’.
Are you a thought leader?
In their book #Thought Leadership Tweet: 140 Prompts for Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign, Dr Liz Alexander and Craig Badings put forward 140 tweets designed to lead to an effective and robust thought leadership platform. Here are just seven of them.
What is your organisation’s definition of thought leadership? How does that differ from being trusted advisers or subject matter experts?
Thought leaders imagine a desired outcome then ask what has to happen to achieve it. They play ‘what if?’ backwards. Do you?
A hallmark of true thought leadership is the confidence to take the route that 99.9 per cent of industry experts don’t even see. Will you?
The creators of your thought leadership aren’t necessarily the right ones to communicate it. How will you handle this?
Thought leaders ask ‘why?’ a lot more than ‘what?’ or ‘how?’ Are you asking the right questions at the start?
How has your thought leadership campaign gone so far? What has it done for your brand? What measures support the anecdotal evidence?
Thought leaders are brave, explore areas others don’t, raise questions others won’t, and provide insights others can’t.