Thought Leadership: Where the Real Action Is

Aug 18, 2003

When you look at architects, management consultants, bridge engineers, computer programmers, artists, or any other “professional” in the classic sense, there is always someone or some people who stand out as the thought leaders. They are the most quoted. They are the most requested speakers at events. They are the ones everyone else is talking about. They are the ones clients will pay big bucks for. They are the most successful people at the very top of their respective fields. Being a thought leader is really what any good consultant should aspire to. So if you accept the notion that becoming a thought leader is what all professionals really should be striving for, then the question becomes, “How DO YOU do it?” For starters, not everyone CAN do it. But if there is a continuum, with thought leadership at one end, and never being known for a single new idea on the other, I think EVERYONE has the potential to move toward the thought leadership end of this scale. Here’s my recipe for becoming a thought leader— or at least moving in that direction— in your area of interest and expertise: Pick a field that is narrow enough that you CAN become a thought leader. It has to be something you are really interested in and really passionate about, not just something you think is in demand. If it’s too broad, it will be much harder to ever have the depth of understanding that it takes. The idea is to know a lot about something, not a little about everything. Immerse yourself in the field. One way to be thought of as a leader is to actually BE a leader. The same applies to thought leadership. You need to continuously study every aspect of your field of interest in order to become a thought leader. Learn about the theories and thinking of those who are leaders in the field and other related fields. Reflect. Look for ways to relate what you are learning to your field now. Look for generalizations between what you are studying and what you are doing. Think about what you have learned and how you might be able to apply it to a problem or a situation. Seek out connections between various bits of knowledge that others might have missed. Create a philosophy about what you know and what you do. Test. Test your thinking in real-life work situations. See if you can validate what you are thinking. Refine your philosophy. Bounce your thinking off other people who you respect either inside or outside of the field. Write. Keep a journal of lessons learned and what is going through your mind on a daily basis. Maybe you should even put it on your web site. Use your journal entries for the basis of letters, newsletters, and other communications. Share enough of your thinking, frequently, in a tangible way that others who pay attention will begin to realize you may have some insight that not everyone else has. Teach. Teach other people what you know and how to do it. Start out with seminars at professional or industry conferences. Or teach a college course. Or if none of these opportunities are available to you yet, build and teach a course in your own firm and become a thought leader there. The important thing is to teach others, because teaching forces you to really organize your thinking. This is essential if you want to be a thought leader in the subject area. Speak. And don’t be afraid to share your war stories, experiences, and opinions, without feeling the need to validate them based on what someone else said. This is a major problem. If you want to be a rock star, you have to play your own music. You need to be familiar with the other guy’s music, but if you want to be an expert— a thought leader—in something— you gotta be willing to share that message in a forceful, confident, organized fashion. Speaking is one good way to do it. And don’t be afraid to charge. The more you charge, the higher your status. People who don’t pay don’t think what they are getting is as valuable as those who do. Look for opportunities to adopt a contrarian’s view. You cannot be a thought leader by going along with the prevailing thinking. If you are too conforming in your thinking, you will be a thought follower. For example, if you are a land planner who does residential work, take a stance against neo-urbanism. Or if you are an architect who designs hotels, take a stand against theming. Don’t take contrary stands for the sake of it, but look for areas where you disagree with conventional wisdom and can clearly explain why. Assert. Assert yourself internally, with your other project team members, and with clients. Don’t be afraid to share your observations or ideas freely with anyone who wants to hear from you. You could be the next Albert Einstein but if no one ever knows that you know anything, you will miss out on the chance to become a thought leader. Originally published 8/18/2003

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.