Secrets of Successful Executive-Level Thought Leadership

One of the hardest parts of engaging a new customer or transforming a business’s reputation is starting the conversation. Thought leadership — when done well — provides a foundation that can open doors to high-level conversations, but the concrete impact on the business is challenging to track. Working with LinkedIn, Edelman analyzed how thought leadership affects sales and found that its effects extend far beyond a bump in publicity. After viewing thought leadership from an organization, 55 percent of C-suite executives offered to provide their contact information to the organization, and 42 percent reached out to the organization to follow up on the material. The effect of thought leadership is even greater for organizations seeking business partners. Nearly two-thirds of executives invited organizations to participate in a request for proposal after seeing its thought leadership. On the flip side, low quality thought leadership can harm; about a third of respondents said a company’s thought leadership directly led them to not award a piece of business to a company.  So how can corporate executives, and their communications teams, ensure they are creating relevant and meaningful thought leadership that leads to connections and sales?

  1. Have something interesting to say

To be effective and compelling, thought leadership must have a point of view. This may seem self-evident, but too often corporate thought leadership reads like a high school research paper: full of facts, but without clear insights and thought-provoking ideas. While the research indicates that audiences value timeliness and relevance more than originality or novelty, that’s not a reason to discount the latter. Ideally, thought leadership should illustrate something surprising or counterintuitive that could only be recognized because of how you and your organization view the world.

Ask yourselves: What do we as an organization see that our clients or customers do not? What about our business provides an unusual perspective on the world? This may or may not be directly linked to products, but it will always be reflective of the company.

Beth Comstock, Vice Chair at GE*, has often published commentary pieces and case studies that are packed with personal insights and her perspective as a leader of a constantly evolving conglomerate. She infuses her thought leadership with her own experiences to provide a compelling and unique glimpse into tectonic industry shifts. The result: thought leadership that engages readers, while making GE look smart as well.

  1. Say it personally

Good thought leadership requires the direct engagement of executives at the top. For thought leadership to be successful, it cannot be delegated exclusively to a marketing team or agency. Especially when creating byline pieces or commentary, an executive’s personal voice will lend credibility to the insights. Choosing the right topic, asking relevant questions, conducting targeted research and weaving together a viewpoint all contribute to an effective final product.

Dan Schulman has led this charge as CEO of PayPal*. Dan has set a vision to define the future of money and regularly shares his experiences about the different ways that a cashless society will operate. Through a mix of storytelling and research, Dan and PayPal are propelling a shift in how consumers interact with money.

Some executives draft their own commentaries, using plane trips or setting aside time during the week to write. In those cases, their teams can help focus the topic, bolster bylines with relevant facts and anecdotes and provide honest feedback to the executive.

Most executives, however, delegate much of the writing to their teams—but that doesn’t mean delegating the ideas. It’s important for the writer to spend time with the executive and conduct a mini-interview to ensure the end result will reflect her vision and ideas.

  1. Showcase the results — and repeat

Part of the value thought leadership provides comes from sharing it. That, too, takes a personal touch. Executives can help to connect thought leadership indelibly with the company.

Some of the strongest connections around thought leadership occur during conversations about shared passions. The power of McKinsey’s research and leadership on women and diversity in the workforce comes, in part, from the commitment its own senior leaders have made to sharing their personal experiences of mentoring and supporting women’s careers.

Bob Moritz, US CEO of PwC*, has sparked conversations within his own company, with his clients and with the broader public by continually pushing his teams to link diversity goals to business results. He speaks publicly about the importance of diversity and ensures the company releases its own reports.

Releasing a report is just the starting point. An ongoing mix of commentary pieces, online video, small group conversations with clients, and speeches are what bring thought leadership to life. These moments of real engagement transform thought leadership from an intellectual exercise into a marketing tool.

Justin Blake is global lead, Executive Positioning.

* Edelman client