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Accidental Thought Leaders

I’ve yet to meet a five-year-old child who says, “I want to be a thought leader when I grow up!” It’s not a career that many of us aspire toward. When I reflect on two decades of work with thought leaders, I realize that most of them became so “accidentally.”

As far as I know, there isn’t a college (or graduate) degree program which teaches you how to be a thought leader. Nor can I remember seeing any job board advertisements looking for “entry-level thought leaders.”

Most people take a circuitous path into thought leadership. It usually happens when you get offered your first non-paid speech or a chance to write an article for a professional magazine. The quick hit of recognition—a round of applause at a conference, or a few likes on LinkedIn—and you say, “Maybe I can do something with this!” But where do you go from there?

  • Take a leap into professional keynote speaking;
  • Write business books to validate your expertise in the marketplace of ideas; or
  • Run workshops, and perhaps even bring on a couple facilitators.

In each of these cases, you—and your ideas—get validation in the marketplace. People are paying real dollars to hear your insights. However, this is the point where people get stuck, because accidental thought leadership can only bring you incremental growth.

Sure, next year, you can sell a few more speeches or deliver a couple more workshops. But that means more travel, and more nights away from home. You could write another business book, but few ever produce game-changing results for their authors.

Thought leadership is a content business. It’s about packaging your ideas into purchasable products, and then developing marketing and sales channels for those products so that you’re selling your content (rather than your time).

If you feel like your thought leadership has reached a plateau, here are a few questions to consider:

  • Short-Term: How can we sell more of the content we already have?
  • Mid-Term: How can we package our ideas in formats that make buyers say, “Yes!”?
  • Long-Term: How do we build our marketing capacity, so that we’re not simply selling our time?

Thought leadership doesn’t require certificates, degrees, formal business plans, or an SBA loan. But it does require planning, strategy, and an understanding of content marketing.

Thought leaders are successful when they stop relying on “accidents,” and instead develop buyer-tested products and a solid marketing plan.

What does your content model look like? Take a 3” x 5” and a Sharpie. Give yourself five minutes to write it out. And then ask yourself, “Would an enterprise buyer or a learner see the value?”

Bill Sherman works with thought leaders to launch big ideas within well-known brands. He is the COO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Bill on Twitter

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