By Greg Wilkinson and Melanie Paradis

“A radical and transformative thought goes nowhere without the willingness to challenge convention.” – Malcolm Gladwell

You don’t need to be like Malcolm Gladwell (who grew up in Waterloo Region) to be a thought leader. You don’t even need to like Malcolm Gladwell. But what is a thought leader and why would you want to bother to become one?

Thought leadership means being known as an insightful thinker and leader in your business or space. If your business partners, suppliers, clients and financial backers think of you that way, it will almost certainly benefit your business. And because there are business benefits, you can include thought leadership as part of your marketing. You can consciously and deliberately build your reputation for being a strategic thinker.

Choosing to be known as smart

Consider your competitors or your customers. Who are the people you don’t know personally who are the smart players? Those are thought leaders. Somehow they are projecting how smart their thinking is beyond the people with whom they directly do business. Now some of that will be simple word-of-mouth and of course that is foundational to every reputation. But some of that reputation is likely earned by someone choosing to be known to be smart.

Choosing to be known to be smart. That’s worth repeating because it isn’t something business people usually spend time doing and it is a particularly un-Canadian business trait. But it is also a high-ROI marketing investment. Reputation is the single most important asset of most businesses. The evidence suggests that a corporation’s reputation and “brand” is built as much on stakeholders’ perception of “personality” and “values” as performance. Thought leadership is a high-leverage way to build that reputation and reinforce your brand.

How will it help my business?

What can thought leadership translate to in business terms? Most importantly, it increases visibility to stakeholders who make a difference to your business. If potential partners think of you and your business as leaders, you will have a better choice of partners. The same goes for clients, potential employees and suppliers.  The players who are perceived to be the leaders with the savviest insights are the players who have an edge when it comes to business development, deal-making and recruiting.

So fine, thought leadership is a thing, and a thing that could have benefits. But doesn’t that mean doing things that only a self-involved blowhard would do? Isn’t thought leadership just targeted bragging? Didn’t you just call it un-Canadian? Certainly it’s outside the comfort zone for lots of entrepreneurs who are focused on their product or service and getting it funded and out to market. But it’s also a relatively easy way to take an existing asset and turn it into an advantage for your business.

But aren’t you taking a lot of business risk by exposing insights that could help competitors? Yes, and therefore you need to have a colleague or outsider with cold eyes look at anything you think of publishing to ensure what you are sharing is meaningful to the audience but without unacceptable risk for you or your business. The risk is manageable.

How to make it happen

Okay, this is a business strategy that could have benefits. But how does it happen? It’s not likely that someone will call you and ask you to play a highly visible thought leadership role in a place where your stakeholders will see or hear it. You need to make the choice, make a plan and execute. There are lots of good examples of thought leadership happening in the tech community in Canada and locally.  Consider Stephen Lake of Thalmic Labs who recently wrote a great blog piece debunking the myth of higher salaries in Silicon Valley. Or Google’s Steven Woods who spoke up in November on how to build an innovation economy. The ideas they shared are helping the ecosystem and building on their individual and company brands.

Of course once the strategy has landed, someone has to actually do something.  Seeking out speaking engagements or submitting op-eds to publications are traditional tactics that still work and can be accurately targeted. But there are lots of other ways to get your thinking out there, through traditional and social media or owned digital content on your own website and other properties. There are more ways to be visible than ever before.

The short version is, say something smart and say it where there are stakeholder ears or eyeballs and you are instantly ahead of the game. So challenge a few conventions and, in the process, give your reputation a low-cost bump.

Greg Wilkinson is a Principal at Earnscliffe and an executive coach, strategist, facilitator and communicator. Greg has worked in senior roles in the private sector and trade associations in Canada and the U.S. before his advisory career. He is on the Board of Directors of the Toronto Foundation and the community activist group Safe Quiet Lakes.

Melanie Paradis is a Principal at Earnscliffe and a writer, strategist, and communicator. Melanie spends much of her time ghost-writing for clients and political campaigns, pitching journalists, and monitoring more news media than is probably healthy. She is on the Board of Directors of the Centre of Excellence in Mining Innovation and the Young Patron’s Circle Committee for the Royal Ontario Museum. 

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