Thought Leadership Strategy

How to Build an All-Star Thought Leadership Roster

By Joey Held

When the sports world went on hold due to COVID-19, fans everywhere turned their attention to ESPN’s ten-part docuseries, The Last Dance. The episodes focused on Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls dynasty, but they also dove into different parts of the roster, from coach Phil Jackson down to rookie Scott Burrell. The documentary showed how this team was built perfectly for sustained success. The players brought their individual strengths to the court and triumphed as a group.

Constructing your thought leadership roster is no different. Sure, an NBA championship isn’t on the line, but thought leaders play a key role in defining and guiding their field by sharing their expertise and forward-looking ideas. When a company has strong thought leaders, it raises its credibility, authority, and sometimes even its value.

But thought leadership isn’t easy. It takes time, effort, and strategy to build up an effective public platform. And more often than not, it calls for a whole team of people working behind the scenes to support that platform. If you’re in the beginning stages of rolling out your company’s thought leadership program, or simply want to grow its presence, start with finding the right people for your roster.

Five Characteristics to Look for in Thought Leaders

1. They have deep expertise

A thought leader is undoubtedly an expert, but where their expertise lies can vary. It can be on a certain topic or job function – such as sustainability, artificial intelligence, or electrical engineering – or their industry as a whole. Thought leaders may even be experts on leadership itself, like a CEO who knows how to successfully navigate a company through hard times.

Thought leadership simply doesn’t succeed without that strong expertise. There’s another bonus, too: with knowledgable thought leaders, their ideas will come naturally. This means less of a burden and time commitment on their end when you reach out with opportunities like a contributed article or media interview.

2. They bring a unique perspective

If everyone in your industry said the exact same thing, thought leaders wouldn’t exist. Even more, forward progress would take a serious hit. The best thought leaders form their own ideas, opinions, and predictions — they bring something new to the table.

There are a couple ways to think about unique perspective, and both are important in building your roster. Some thought leaders get their unique edge through continuous learning. They seek out research as it’s released and engage in frequent discussions about their area of expertise. And some thought leaders bring a unique perspective from their experience or background. People of different races, cultures, ages, and identities may see a problem or opportunity through a different lens than others in their industry. These are powerful points of view to include on your thought leadership team because they can lead to big breakthroughs in lieu of iterative progress.

3. They’re passionate, strong communicators

Think about a conversation you’ve had with someone where you both were interested in the topic. The conversation may have been about advertising, basketball, or your favorite jazz trumpeters, but you were both engaged and brought something to the table. You likely parted ways feeling exhilarated and energized.

A thought leader can’t succeed without passion. They don’t need to jump off the walls and yell at people, but if they aren’t excited about what they’re saying (or writing), why would anyone else be?  

Powered by that passion, a thought leader can share their message more effectively. When communicating, their vision should be clear, their ideas well thought out, and their call-to-action motivating for their audience.

Luckily, thought leadership doesn’t come in only one form. A naturally charismatic and outgoing thought leader might be perfect for delivering a TED Talk. However, if public speaking isn’t someone’s jam, maybe contributing to the company blog is a better way to communicate their insights.

4. They welcome debate

A strong thought leader welcomes debate, as it shows a willingness to evolve their way of thinking. As Dr. Jaime Kaluga, mental health counselor and life coach, puts it, “Thought leaders are open to learning new things, seeing ideas and concepts from different perspectives. To go beyond your personal and basic scope of understanding, you must be open minded to new experiences and thoughts.”

Even if a thought leader doesn’t agree with another stance, it’s critical to understand it. Tackling a topic from a new angle can help strengthen their own insights.

5. They don’t shy away from difficult times

It’s easy to be front and center when things are cruising along. A true thought leader needs to step up during tough times, too. A steady presence – while still offering valuable advice – is critical.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented situation, and responses have ranged from shaky to inspired. The ones that are honest have resonated the strongest. Sometimes that means answering difficult questions, like “Why have business leaders not treated community health as a business imperative prior to COVID-19?” Or maybe it’s offering a blueprint for leaders in times of crisis.

When people don’t know what the future holds, they turn to reliable voices in the industry. If a thought leader stays silent in challenging times, they’re letting their audience down.

Who to Include on Your Thought Leadership Roster

Now that you know what characteristics to look for, which players will be on your company’s thought leadership roster?

Your mind might immediately jump to the C-suite, and that’s a great place to start. They’ve likely picked up strong expertise throughout their career and can speak at length to certain topics. Chances are they’re also more comfortable with public speaking and have a larger network of people interested in hearing and sharing their opinions.

However, the C-suite shouldn’t be your only stop. Take a tech company, for example. Chances are the CEO won’t know the ins and outs of DevOps tenets or how to thoroughly explain app containerization technology in easily understandable terms. But an engineer sure would. Thought leaders in any area of the company can step up when given the opportunity. Look across your organization for subject matter experts (SMEs) who can promote different business units, perspectives, or areas of focus. Taking a broader stroke across the company will also open up your roster to a more diverse pool of talent.

How to Find Your All-Stars

Performance and business development consultant Annette Kramer notes every business has thinkers and followers. The thinkers are the ones who can inspire others, changing their minds or actions to follow their principles and achieve a similar level of success. But pinpointing those thinkers requires some legwork – especially in a large organization.

Start small. Your most visionary executives or most knowledgable SMEs are likely well-known at the company and easier to identify. From there, consider the voices you might still be missing on your roster. Who isn’t being represented? If you need more thinkers, try looking for the people who share smart insights on social media or have their own blogs. Your thought leadership bench doesn’t need to be huge to be successful.

Then, work with your team to keep a constant eye out for additions. If you notice someone displaying characteristics of a thought leader or see great potential, reach out to their team leads. They’re communicating with each other daily, and they’ll have a better sense of the person’s abilities.

Setting Your Team Up for Success

Now that you have your roster, get out your clipboard. It’s time to draw out your X’s and O’s. How will each thought leader contribute to your overall thought leadership program? What position will they play? You might be tempted to go to the CEO with everything, but they likely don’t have the expertise to speak to every topic or the time to give to each opportunity.

When you’re planning out who will do what, consider these factors:

  • Subject. If the topic is business leadership or the future of your industry, your CEO might be best suited. But when diving deep into a technical subject, turn to the proper SME.
  • Audience. Think about who the content, article, or session is trying to reach – and who they’d want to hear from most. For instance, an investor audience might want to hear from company leadership while a tech reporter could be interested in speaking to your CTO.
  • Voice. Whose perspective is needed most on the subject? Consider the voices already dominating the conversation and whether your company can offer a different point of view.
  • Medium. You’ll also want to look at where this thought leadership will be taking place or the platform on which it’s being published. Outlets like Fast Company or Entrepreneur typically share insight from C-level executives, while InformationWeek looks for expertise from IT professionals. For events, consider how comfortable people are speaking in front of a crowd. A webinar or panel session can be a good starting point to help someone gain confidence. 
  • Time commitment. A keynote could require weeks of prep and several days of travel, but a blog or contributed article might only require a few hours of review time from your thought leader. Make sure you understand your team’s availability when planning out an editorial calendar.

A Collaborative Effort

At one point during The Last Dance, Michael Jordan reflects on his former teammate, Scottie Pippen.

“I didn’t win without Scottie Pippen, and that’s why I consider him my best teammate of all time,” Jordan says. “He helped me so much in the way I approached the game, in the way I played the game. Whenever they speak Michael Jordan, they should speak Scottie Pippen.”

Even the greatest player of all time can’t do it alone. Thought leadership is no different. By assembling the proper roster, you’ll find your thought leaders will all play off each other, building a platform that will take your organization to new heights.