Advocacy v. Leadership

Deconstructing Thought Leadership: With the right focus, corporate executives can be effective advocates for breakthrough ideas

Thought leadership is a hot topic today. In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, the term came to the forefront as CEOs across the country took a vocal stance on political action. More commonly, however, CEOs become thought leaders remarking on ideas specifically related to their businesses, and for this piece, we will concentrate on how CEOs can carve out and amplify such business-focused topics.

For CEOs (and their corporations), thought leadership comprises two roles – origination and advocacy. For reasons both personal and institutional, very few aspirants will become recognized originators of breakthrough ideas.

Many more CEOs have the potential to become leading thought advocates – adopting those breakthrough ideas and getting them attention and approval in the public marketplace and in the corridors of power. Both roles are essential and – in the public eye – they’re often indistinguishable.

CEOs, as a group, are very smart people. They’re good communicators. But very few of them are thought originators – most who carry that label are academics, creatives, consultants, journalists, politicians. Why so few business leaders? Partly, it’s because those other groups are paid to deal with breakthrough ideas. CEOs have a lot of other things on their agenda.

Other reasons contribute to the paucity of CEO thought leaders. Some CEOs just don’t think that way; their instincts and skills lie in other areas. Some corporations don’t want the risk of going out on a limb and possibly being wrong. Some boards don’t want their executives to be celebrities or public figures. Some bureaucracies cannot get out of their own way: all those approvals, schedules, budgets. Ideas happen when they happen, and if they look and sound too corporate, they won’t go far.

That said, for thought advocates, the CEO chair is today’s “bully pulpit.” It should not be wasted. CEOs are advisors to governments. They speak for their industries. They are forces in their communities. They strategize. They mobilize. They facilitate. They collaborate. They are communicators at the highest level. Whether they originate breakthrough thoughts, or recognize those thoughts in others and advocate for them, thought leadership is within their compass. Putting forth good ideas, from whatever source, ought to be on the menu for any CEO who cares about building her or his company’s reputation and advancing its business goals.

It’s worth restating some business rationales for thought leadership. We’ve seen thought leadership rally an industry to a common position; influence a public policy debate; mobilize an employee population; excite a customer base; attract investors; create broad public curiosity; and any number of other corporate-useful consequences. Other communications strategies can help achieve these goals, but well-conceived thought leadership has a special role to play. By definition it says the company and its leadership are thinking about what matters to a broader public, not just the corporate bottom line.

The standout thought leaders and advocates of recent history, those executives that play a disproportionate role not just in talking about important topics, but also in making them happen, demonstrate the value in pursuing thought leadership.

Howard Schultz gave us “emotional connection to the customer” and “exceed employee expectations,” two thoughts not generally associated with coffee shops — until Starbucks came along.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon told “60 Minutes” he’d be using drones for package delivery. Late night comics had a field day. A few years later, drones were everywhere, on the fields of commerce as well as the fields of combat. It wasn’t Bezos’ first breakthrough idea.

Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX got us all excited about electric cars and space travel, then told us we really need to do something about how we store energy. And how we don’t.

Eric Schmidt of Google tells us “Big Data is so powerful nation-states will fight over it.” Cybersecurity is already top of mind in ways we wouldn’t have predicted a few years back. Is cyberwar the future?

Some corporate thought leaders and advocates emerge by happenstance. Some are planned. There are steps to facilitate that process.

First, assess CEO comfort level: Do they have provocative ideas just waiting to be voiced? Are they open to advocating ideas created by others? Are they good with formal public speeches, testimony and the like? How about media interviews, private meetings, one-on-ones? Are they thick-skinned or hyper-sensitive?

Second, assess corporate comfort level: Does the board of directors approve CEO voicing leading-edge thoughts? Do corporate constituencies (legal, regulatory, sales, finance, HR, communications, IR) have concerns about thought-leadership consequences?

Third, identify the targets that matter: Where, if anywhere, will there be value to having an audience hear and consider a new idea – and also consider the source of that idea? Sometimes, just being talked about in public in a new and positive context is enough. Other times, a smaller, opinion leader audience is the target – and what that audience wants to hear is narrowly defined.

Fourth, look over the horizon: Corporations already know what the usual suspects are saying and thinking. The best stimuli to fresh thoughts are often off the beaten path. Sci-fi novels have led to new platforms, New Age gurus to new HR procedures. Look also below the horizon: there are frequently leadership ideas-in-the-making floating around the e-mail system that haven’t made it to the C-suite.

Fifth, test market ideas: Bounce them informally off trusted relationships. If a CEO is to be a thought leader, those contacts may be a good starting place. But don’t over-test, or someone else might own the idea. And don’t test via social media, or someone else will either definitely own the idea, or will definitely have poisoned it.

Sixth, do a roll-out: But do it differently. Natural-born thought leaders talk about their ideas with just about anyone. By the time anything formal happens, the people who matter most already know what they need to know. In a planned process, the first targets have to be those who will likely be asked for comment. Once they’ve been reached, a normal process can proceed.

Seventh, accept soft results: Leadership thoughts, especially from corporate sources, rarely have immediate consequences. The best metrics in the short-term are most often anecdotal: do the customer relationship managers report interest in expressed thoughts, or even a change in attitude, from their everyday contacts? How about government relations staffers? HR? IR? Media relations? If people heard, and were intrigued, it will show.

Finally: four key “don’ts”

  • Don’t ignore the possibility that you could fall victim to events that call into question your credibility.
  • Don’t forget that raising a CEO profile too high can tempt the media to do what they do quite well: pulling people off of pedestals.
  • Don’t settle for corporate-speak: have a “real” and distinctive voice if you can.
  • And don’t drop your effort too soon. Effective thought leadership takes time as well as ideas.
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