It has become a business buzz term, but thought leadership is more important than ever, and CEOs could be missing a trick by letting their misconceptions about it hold them back
While thought leadership offers brands the most authentic way to get noticed, it can be a daunting prospect for many CEOs. Fears of having nothing to say or saying the wrong thing often hold business leaders back from sticking their heads above the parapet — it seems safer just to leave it to the marketing department. But finding your voice — and becoming a respected name in your industry — is easier than you think.
We spoke to 12 leaders to dispel the myths around thought leadership and find out how they use thought leadership to benefit multiple areas of their businesses.
What is thought leadership?
Thought leadership is the developing and sharing of opinion that challenges the status quo. CEOs can engage in thought leadership to become visible figureheads for their companies, as well as for their industries. Thought leadership can drive organisational change, industry reform and help set the news agenda nationally, bringing many opportunities. Thought leadership comes in many forms, from speaking at conferences and sharing views with the media, to publishing whitepapers and hosting round tables.
Myth 1: thought leadership is all about CEO ego
A common reason business leaders dismiss the idea of thought leadership is because they see it as seeking personal publicity. They think being a visible CEO is simply about having a big ego, but this is far from the truth for most CEOs in the public eye.
What these leaders understand is that being able to put a face and a name to a company can significantly increase trust in it. “I think it’s really important for employees and external stakeholders to have a single figurehead who clearly communicates the business’ overall vision and purpose publicly,” says Carl Arntzen, CEO of Worcester Bosch. “People like to relate to an individual, not a whole company. As the voice and image of Worcester Bosch, it’s part of my job to put out the correct values and promote the culture and messaging we are developing.”
Steve Kingston, Regional CEO and Head of UK at Infosys Consulting, adds that CEOs who use thought leadership to position their companies as forward-thinking can have a big impact on recruitment: “Really authentic thought leadership has helped elevate our brand in the market, and start deeper dialogue with the kinds of employees we want to attract. This has become an invaluable approach for our business, as our recruiting pipeline has become much richer.”
In addition to being a smart exercise in employer branding, which helps to bring on board the best talent, thought leadership also enables companies to attract investment and partners. Toby McCartney, CEO of plastic roads company, MacRebur, says: “I’ve used opportunities like TedX Talks to spread our environmental message. The first, which I did at the University of Cambridge, has been viewed more than a million times online.
“This has helped us raise nearly £4 million in investment and persuade people in the private and public sector to make a positive choice to help the planet by using our products.”
Meanwhile, for CEO of Parklife Festival, Sacha Lord, speaking out has led to political opportunity, enabling him to represent the interests of his industry as Greater Manchester’s first-ever Night Time Economy Adviser.
“Without my background and outspoken opinions over the past few years on the improvements needed in the nightlife sector, this role wouldn’t be in my hands, and possibly may not have even existed,” he says.
Myth 2: I can’t be a thought leader because I’m not a real “expert”
You might be the CEO but you’re not an academic, you don’t have a long list of professional qualifications and haven’t carried out years of research, so you’re not an expert, right? Wrong. Expertise comes in many forms and simply through running your business and being active in your industry you will have gathered many learnings.
It’s a fallacy that you must have letters after your name to have a viewpoint worth sharing. Your experience is valuable says Mark Tighe, CEO of specialist tax consultancy Catax: “You can only be credible if you realise the value of the knowledge you have that others don’t. What you think is common knowledge is often far from it.
“That’s where imposter syndrome comes from and it happens to most people after a decade or more in any industry. You achieve an element of mastery that means crucial judgements and intuitions come so naturally, and so quickly, that you think everyone sees the things you do. That’s not the case and this epiphany is what you harness when you become an effective thought leader in any field.”
Sandro Forte, CEO of Forte Financial Services, adds that you don’t have to be an accomplished speaker to benefit from thought leadership: “Most audiences look for great content, not a polished delivery,” he says. “In fact, being ‘real’ is the most effective way of connecting with an audience.”
According to Malcolm McPhail, Group CEO of Life Leisure, it’s all about believing in what you’re saying: “I’m never the cleverest in the room when I’m giving talks on staff empowerment or boosting fitness levels in struggling neighbourhoods and my blogs and columns share page-space with writers far superior to me. But I tell you what, I get hugely positive feedback, respect and exposure because I believe in what I’m saying and I have a track record of delivery.”
Myth 3: Thought leadership is just marketing, it’s nothing to do with me
There is a lot of confusion between thought leadership and marketing. While thought leadership is a form of marketing, it’s not something that can come from the marketing department — it starts at the top.
“While marketing works like an engine, powering the way forward for a business, thought leadership is the driver behind the wheel,” says Tahir Farooqui, CEO of Canopy Rent. “A passionate leader is an advocate a business needs to ensure key stakeholders and potential customers are on board with a clear, shared vision — the engine alone cannot do this.”
Sam Jordan, EVP of Manifesto Growth Architects, adds that a thought leadership marketing plan is less rigid than a typical marketing plan: “Time plays a huge factor in successful thought leadership, as opinions need to be reactive, malleating to changing relevant circumstances in the wider world. In contrast, once locked in, a marketing campaign will likely run its course with similar or only slowly changing key messages at its core.”
Dynamic thought leadership simply can’t come from marketing and PR people, says Chris Sheppardson, CEO at EP Business in Hospitality — it has to come from those at the coalface.
“Most of my insight comes from in-depth conversations with other senior leaders,” he says. “Whether it’s about workplace culture, emerging talent, entrepreneurship or business evolution, where there are common themes or patterns of debate, there is usually an issue to raise.”
And when you’re tackling the real issues your industry is facing — especially if your company offers a solution — the power of thought leadership for demand generation emerges. “At human+, giving talks or contributing to articles on subjects like digital ethics and the future of work has proven to be one of the main ways we generate leads,” says David Biden, CEO at public sector automation consultants human+. “In particular, having a quarterly high-profile speaking slot has proved invaluable for our business development.”
We all know people buy people, which is why a CEO’s unique personality should always be evident in a brand’s thought leadership. As Johnny Warström, CEO of presentation platform Mentimeter, concludes: “I often think about our brand as a person you would like to sit next to at a dinner party.”