Storytelling with Thought Leadership | Adam Zuckerman, Mary J. Cronin, Michelle Mellon, and Christopher Brace
Connecting storytelling to thought leadership. A compilation of advice for using storytelling for…
Happy New Year! This episode showcases the best of our 2022 podcast. Listen in to hear some great insights from four amazing guests:
Kelly Wright is the Founder of Culture Driven Sales which helps companies create exceptional cultures. She is also the President and COO of Gong, a company that analyses customer facing interactions to deliver the insights needed to close more deals. Kelly helps us connect thought leadership and sales. We learn why companies want to work with thought leadership partners that will challenge them and create a better environment for sales. Kelly shares what sales can do to aid in that goal and the tools they’ll need to succeed.
Kimberly Ellison-Taylor is an experienced accountant and active member and CEO of KET Solutions, a consulting firm focused on business growth, innovation, strategy, transformation and inclusive leadership. Kimberly has served on a number of boards and shares how thought leadership can help you prepare for such a position. Being a thought leader means having a broad perspective and an insightful, distinct view to share. Kimberly also shares how you can help the board identify gaps in their knowledge, patch them, and then use that knowledge to serve their market both internally and externally.
Mark Smith is the Director, HR Thought Leadership at the Society of Human Resource Management (aka: SHRM). Mark has a Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and years of experience in Human Resources consulting. Mark holds the first thought leadership position at his company and was responsible for building the role from the ground up. We learn the steps he had to take to make it a meaningful position within the organization and how he discovered ways to bridge the gap between the important research they were conducting and the audience they hoped to reach.
Adam Zuckerman is the Product Leader, Employee Engagement Software at Willis Towers Watson, a company offering data-driven insight-led solutions in the areas of people, risk, and capital. In the last couple of years Adam has focused more on the visibility of thought leadership for the product. One of the ways he is accomplishing that is through social media, specifically LinkedIn, a platform he had previously ignored. Adam shares ways to use the platform as a powerful tool to build relationships, discover new ideas, and hone your content.
If you need a strategy to bring your thought leadership to market, Thought Leadership Leverage can assist you! Contact us for more information. In addition, we can help you implement marketing, research, and sales. Let us help you so you can devote yourself to what you do best.
Join the Organizational Thought Leadership Newsletter to learn more about expanding thought leadership within your organization! This monthly newsletter is full of practical information, advice, and ideas to help you reach your organization’s thought leadership goals.
And if you need help scaling organizational thought leadership, contact Thought Leadership Leverage or reach out to Bill Sherman on Linkedin!
Bill Sherman In thought leadership, good ideas are worth repeating and great ideas even more so. So as we begin 2023, I want to wish you a Happy New Year and share with you some curated moments from my conversations about thought leadership last year.
Bill Sherman In this compilation episode, you’ll hear from four people who practiced thought leadership for their organizations.
Bill Sherman Kelly Wright, the President and CEO of Gong.
Bill Sherman Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, the CEO of KET Solutions, former Executive Director of Finance, Thought Leadership at Oracle, Former Chair of AICPA, and Independent Board Director.
Bill Sherman Mark Smith, the Director of H.R. Thought Leadership at Sherm.
Bill Sherman And Adam Zuckerman, the product leader for employee engagement software at Willis Towers Watson.
Bill Sherman I’m Bill Sherman and you’re listening to Leveraging Thought Leadership. Ready? Let’s begin.
Bill Sherman Let’s start with thought leadership and sales. How do they connect in your in your mind? You come from a sales background. So is it this thing that sits on the side? Is it something that’s important for sales? How they connect?
Kelly Wright Well, Bill, I think a lot of sales people don’t really quite grasp how powerful thought leadership can be in selling. And it actually, if you look at the top sales leaders and the top sales people, they’re really great at thought leadership. Because if you think about what a good salesperson does is a good salesperson is able to tell the story of what is the status quo and then be able to articulate what are the challenges with the status quo and why there is actually a better desired state which is different. And to be able to craft that narrative and to do that storytelling, to say, Hey, this is where you are now, and here are the challenges with the now, but there is a better way and it’s over here. That’s what salespeople are doing. And sometimes people get so focused on their stock track, there’s the playbook. I’m going to push our features and functions. That is what salespeople often do. But that’s not the top best way of sales. The top best way of sales is crack the story about how there is a better way, and that, in my opinion, is almost one in the same as thought leadership.
Bill Sherman So the way that I described the leadership is around senior, around the corner into the future, figuring out what’s important and then bring that idea back to people today who need those insights and guiding them on what they need to do. And I think you can make a very similar sort of framework to thought leadership is sales in some way. It’s selling a vision of the future.
Kelly Wright Yeah. It’s selling a vision, a future, and it’s challenging the status quo. So it’s not only selling the vision of the future, it is. Sometimes people will have an ally view of the future, but they think they’re on that path already. And if you’re going to sell something, you need to drive someone to actually do a change and to evolve and to transform. And that’s what salespeople are doing. So that’s not the kind of on the first. The second part is, is when you think about. Great salespeople and what customers are looking for. These have evolved over time. It used to be that companies would just go to a company or a vendor because they want something very specific. But now the world is so competitive and there’s so many different options that companies don’t want to work with the vendor who’s just going to sell them a widget or a service. They want to work with partners who they see as thought, leadership partners who are going to challenge them, who are going to make them better, who are going to teach them, who are going to lead and thought. Leadership helps to create this framework, to lead, to transform, to challenge, to up level. It’s not just about, hey, this is what I do. Let me show you my features and functions. It’s about, hey, we want to partner with you together to take you to someplace better to help you transform and improve. And thought leadership is one on one with how we work on that sales journey.
Bill Sherman So let’s talk about in terms of developing sales and sales culture, which I know is something you’re passionate about. How do you make that connection to sales folks who are just starting out on that journey to help them realize that their responsibility isn’t the feature and function, but that storytelling and perhaps even the three stories they need to be able to tell.
Kelly Wright Yes. Well, if someone’s early in their journey or even early with the new company, the first things that a salesperson will be interested to know is, hey, what? What are the features and what are the functions? But if that’s we as sales leaders or as company exacts or sales managers or enablement, whoever, that all we give the salespeople, that’s what they’re going to go sell the features and the functions because that’s all that they’re equipped to have. So I think that the responsibility is on everyone who’s equipping those new sales folks to be able to be really thoughtful about what is the mission, what is the vision of the company, what is the strategic narrative that we’re trying to tell and to make that a bit more pointed? Companies spend so much time focusing on the what in the hell? What is it that they do? What are their features? What is their product? What are their services? How does it work? How can you integrate it? How can you launch it? How can you implement it? And that actually is the easy part because it’s very tangible and tactical to talk about how to do that. The much more challenging part is to be able to tell the story of Why does this matter? Why do customers even care? Why is this important? And because that is hard and everyone is moving so fast. Sometimes companies will skip that part. And so then new employees come in and they’re just given the what and how. But if we can give everyone and frame that story around the why, why does it matter? Why should companies care? What is the set of beliefs that you must have to actually be able to transform and change in the way that’s really important to you? Not only does that help in terms of our selling, it also really helps to create a unified sense of purpose for our employees, for our company, and for all of our customers who want to be part of our journey with us. And so that whole unified purpose, mission, vision that needs to come first before we focus too much on the wet and the how. And if you think about with thought leadership, that’s what thought leadership is doing, is saying, hey, what is this new story? What is this narrative? And then you fold everything else underneath it.
Bill Sherman The first area that I want to dive in on is thought leadership and the board. And so you’ve served on a number of boards. And I want to ask you a couple of questions. One of them being just thought leadership help prepare someone for a board position.
Kimberly Ellison-Taylor It absolutely does prepare you for board position because when you’re on the board, whether it is corporate or volunteer board, you’re there to provide oversight over the risks, the performance and high level of the operations of the organization. You’re trusting that you’ve hired the organization has hired the most amazing leader possible, but the board’s role is to really provide that additional fatal flaw oversight. When you’re a thought leader, that means to me at least that you have a broad perspective and maybe a differentiated view on a particular topic, let’s say technology or let’s say finance that you then in turn can offer as it relates to those roles that board members play. And I think it is a very critical alignment between having that unique perspective of thought leadership and your role on the board.
Bill Sherman So let’s dive into that relationship between the board and the senior leadership team, right? So if you are looking at fall leadership as a function, because I know you’ve served in a functional capacity as thought leadership, and we’ll dove into that too. But if you’re a board member and you want to make sure the executive team is thinking about the leadership, what sort of questions should you be asking and how do you identify is there a gap that needs to be filled or are they looking in the right places? What goes through your mind?
Kimberly Ellison-Taylor So many thoughts, Bill, because there’s so much going on. So I don’t presume that the executive leadership team has the bandwidth or the time to maybe read all the things that I’m reading. So it could be just as easy as the Association of Certified Professional Accountants will put together news articles about what regulators are doing, what small businesses it could be, what’s happening in business and industry, and it could be specific to an industry for which I’m on the board of. And I may say to whatever the leader is and say, hi, I just saw this amazing article from the Association of Certified Professional Accountants. And I’m wondering if you saw this as well. And if you did, what do you think about this as it relates to the new strategy that you discussed last week? And so I think when you’re on a board, you’ve mastered the art of asking questions. Can you walk me through this? Can you share with me your thoughts? What are you thinking as it relates to that? Have you taken into account these new industry trends that have been occurring? And so you’re asking questions in a way that is definitely noting that bright neon line between the day to day operational roles and responsibilities that they have versus your oversight role as a board director.
Bill Sherman Well, and I love that in terms of the relationship to ideas that may be coming from the outside into the organization. And many times, a leader may have their focus on day to day operations. Right. And so doing that environmental scan and saying, are you aware and how does that relate are great questions to ask. Let’s flip that as well. And let’s talk about the organization’s own unique thought leadership, the capacity to add to the conversation, to clients, to customers, to the market they serve, whomever. How are you thinking about an organization developing its own thought leadership when you’re on the board? What are you looking for?
Kimberly Ellison-Taylor I think that role is critical and I think it’s critical, Bill, because I’ve been in the role where it’s important to have a point of view. I think it’s a part of member value. I think it’s a part of the customer or client value proposition for why they are engaging the goods and services of that particular organization. I think it shows that there are leaders who are credible, have experience and capability. I think it shows how you’re differentiated versus your peers in that particular industry. I think it’s important and it’s critical. And it also would lend itself to a little more benefit of the doubt as it relates to emerging trends. Because with a thought leader perspective, then we already know you’re thinking about what’s happening with ESG. We already know that you’re thinking about how students are learning, for instance, or memberships are being formulated and member value. We already know that you’re thinking about it because you have a point of view. And I think that shows not only the board directors, it shows stakeholders as well as customers and clients that you’re out in front and you aren’t looking around corners. You’re not just waiting for the industry to move along on its own.
Bill Sherman If you are enjoying this episode of Leveraging Thought Leadership, please make sure to subscribe. If you’d like to help spread the word about the podcast, please leave a five-star review and share it with your friends. We are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all major platforms as well as at LeveragingThoughtLeadership.com.
Bill Sherman I’m looking forward to talking about thought leadership with you in a couple of instances. And the first one that I want to focus on is your experience of entering the world of thought leadership, because I think it resonates with how a lot of people and professionals are moving into the field. So I’m going to ask you the question straight up. How did you come into the world of thought leadership?
Mark Smith Yeah. And first off, I’m pretty new to this world. So it wasn’t until the later part of 2021 that I entered it. And frankly, it wasn’t just the later part, 21 till I entered it, but until I even really realized what it was. So my background, I’m an organizational psychologist. And so that’s what I have my Ph.D. in industrial organizational psychology and I had been working in H.R. Consulting for a years. Eventually find my way to Sherm the Society for Human Resource Management. And there I was helping to lead the team and the certification exams. And so we certify H.R. Folks in their lung exams as part of it as the head of the exam development team. I ended up doing a lot of research, a lot of research about what makes a successful examinee of research just in the field in general, but also then then getting into the marketing side. And frankly, there are lots of things that I ended up doing and was interested in that was marketing. It was communications. And. Pretty far afield from the director of exam development, which is what my watch is, what my title was. So eventually after doing that for a few years and the team was growing and everything, my boss had said, You know what, you’re really not doing director of exam development. You’re kind of doing some other things. And, you know, why don’t we change your title accordingly? So it was a little bit of back and forth there, but they said, okay, you’re now the head of our thought leadership in the organization and we’re going to put you in the research group. I said, okay. And that was really the first time I had heard of thought leadership and a like in a traditional position title. And so as people are wont to do, my first thing I did was when they told me that is I googled what is thought leadership and it kind of came up with some things and as you know when you Google something like that, you know, you’ll find some things and you’ll find some things are a little weird but yeah, I think ultimately I came to the conclusion is, oh, this is something I am I’m comfortable with. It’s something I’m familiar with. I may not have called it thought leadership, but maybe I should have been calling it thought leadership.
Bill Sherman And what you described that process of curiosity when you were the director of the assessment development. Right. Right. It sounds like your curiosity was pulling you out into, okay, what do I need to know about calms or what do I need to know about marketing about this exam? So it was a curiosity or another thing that pulled you into those aspects.
Mark Smith I mean, it was it was curiosity and it was need. I was doing some of the research about like what makes an effective examinee or what are the benefits of being successful in our exam and then our certification. And there once you start to get into the where does this take you? What are the benefits here that naturally lends itself in to kind of a marketing conversation? And that then it was a matter of translating the research result into more of a marketing message. And at that time when our marketing group was going through some transactions, didn’t have much help. And so I eventually said, okay, well, I’ll just start writing marketing content and things as well.
Bill Sherman Well, and that moves you from sort of the theory or the concept level to an applied level of how do I take these ideas and then use them to create greater impact, right?
Mark Smith Oh, yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I would say for a while in my career when I was in H.R consulting, there was a lot of, there was a lot of research being done and it was, I don’t know if it was research for the research sake or it was, it was like validation research that we kind of felt obligated to do. And there was no aha. There was no kind of so what associated with it, there was just like, okay, we did this research, maybe we correlated this thing with that thing and we found statistically significant results and, and we were sort of pleased with that, but there was no real budget. So what associated with it, it was just kind of okay, that was sort of a nice to do well.
Bill Sherman And research can sometimes sit sort of on its own in a bubble rather than connected to the organization and its purpose, goals and mission. Right. And so I think one of the things the thought leadership can do as a function and I want to talk about it as a function with you, not only from what you’re doing, but since you’re inside of Sherm. Looking at the fall leadership function from an organizational perspective, I think is important too. But here you’ve got to bridge the research out to the audience that needs to hear it, right? It can’t just sit in a white paper or on the shelf somewhere.
Mark Smith Oh, yeah, very much so. In fact, before I started in term so maybe five years ago or so, we had a research team and we were we were producing a number of white papers and, and they were more longer form white papers. You would look at them and from an academic perspective you could sort of it checked a lot of boxes. Oh yeah. They, oh the sample size was good and they, they talked to a lot of different people. And, you know, the report itself was very comprehensive and it showed everything that was asked and all of the results. But you would spend a fair amount of time digesting that. But at the end of the day, there was no, okay, now what? What am I going to do with this?
Bill Sherman And how do you make it actionable to someone who’s on a busy schedule, has limited time to sort of check and assume that all of the research hangs in. They want to assume somebody else has gone through, done the research, and check that box. Now, what do I do?
Mark Smith Right. Yeah, right now. Absolutely. And I’m a I’m a big proponent of everything that we’re doing, everything that we’re producing from like a content perspective. It always needs the so what message associated with it properly at the beginning and at the end. But just to go through a research exercise and then report on it. The academics are like that. But that’s really not who our audience is. Our audience is our professionals. H.R. Executives and then at a broader level, general business executives and kind of everybody else in the workplace. Those are the people that we’re trying to affect. And as I list those people, professors in psychology programs, professors in our management problem, they’re not one of those people that we care about.
Bill Sherman So one of the things and you and I had a conversation on this was you made a decision. Over the last couple of years in terms of focusing more effort around thought leadership for the product and being visible. Would you talk to us a little bit about how that idea came to be and then how it manifested?
Adam Zuckerman Yeah, absolutely. So. So I’m part of a very big company. It will start. Watson, but it’s a small group within that company. And so like anyone, I’m sure you can imagine, you know, there’s always a challenge to get resources and attention. And so I experienced that. And so, you know, a colleague said to me, I can’t take credit for they said, you know, we could try to fight and get our marketing dollars, you know, with all the other parts of Willis Towers. Watson And we should do that. But also, you know, there’s no reason we can’t do our own marketing and tell our own story using social media, which is, of course, changed everything. And she introduced me to LinkedIn, which I really, you know, I was on but I didn’t know had really used much. I thought it was a job, primarily just a job posting, you know.
Bill Sherman Site, really. And since you hadn’t basically changed jobs in 25 years, exactly. Like, Hey, that’s not to me, right?
Adam Zuckerman I had no need for it whatsoever. And she said, no, it’s for people are consuming content about the workplace. And so I checked it out and I was like, Yeah, you’re right. And so I started posting my ideas and I was really surprised and, and really thrilled at how interesting it was, the people I was able to meet, the connections I made and the stuff I was consuming as well as I was putting out there. I mean, it’s been a really positive experience and, and an organic one, you know, like I we have put nothing behind it. We have no funding or anything. I mean, I, I do it on my own, I, I write stuff on the weekends. I do it because I, because I first I started doing because I thought to help the business and it was a way to kind of get free marketing. But then I found out that I really enjoy it. It’s fun and I like sharing these ideas and I learn things when I just the act of writing stuff helps you in my mind, you know, helps you focus and clarify your ideas and then you get feedback and people share all kinds of things. So, I mean, it’s, you know, I kind of missed the social media thing in a way because I’m a little bit older. You know, when I grew up, we didn’t have all this stuff and so I didn’t really get it. But I get it. I get it now I get it with LinkedIn, that’s for sure. And I’ve also found this is not an advertising for Lincoln, but I found that the discourse is really civil on LinkedIn. I mean, you don’t see at least I don’t run into, you know, political disagreements and people being nasty and all that stuff. I mean, people are really open and, you know, share stuff and do it in a way that I think really healthy and productive. I mean, I’ve really been really impressed with how positive the environment is.
Bill Sherman Well, and one of the things in terms of that discourse is by putting ideas out there, not only the act of putting out the idea helps you polish it, but also you get this amazing feedback from people who engage, who help you either sharpen the idea or they share a story. And you can see the conversations ripples spread, which I think is absolutely fantastic.
Adam Zuckerman Totally. And I’ve got so many times when I’ve also gotten ideas for posts from reading things because they spark something in my mind and that leads to something. Yeah, I mean, I totally agree, but. But also I found that there are some general. You sort of. You know, I mean, it’s improved my writing generally, candidly, and my sort of presentation skills, you know, because it’s interesting. I mean, social media, it’s such a bad rap and there’s obviously downsides to it for sure. But I mean, one of the things is it’s a very it’s a really pure marketplace of ideas. Right? I mean, it’s incredibly pure marketplace of ideas. If you put something out there, you know, if it’s valuable, people can like it. And if it’s not, they won’t. And it’s on you to make it valuable. And it presented in a compelling way to think about how it’s being presented and make sure that it’s not too long. And, you know, it doesn’t meander and does use jargon people. And I mean, it’s all it’s really those are good rules of thumb in general, just in terms of how to communicate in a sales context in any context. So, I mean, it’s been great training in a way. Right. How do you craft a message that’ll have value and that’ll make a point, make it clearly get the right amount of attention. I mean, those are really useful skills in life.
Bill Sherman You try to have you talk about being scrappy. And one of the things that comes to mind in terms of that writing is when you’re posting regularly, you learn which opening lines catch people’s attention and which ones they just scroll past, right? And you may go, Oh, I had a brilliant post and it was such a great idea, but nobody clicked the Seymour button. Totally.
Adam Zuckerman Totally. The analysis of it is really fascinating to see what worked and what didn’t and how you can create. And again, I mean, some of that is, you know, sort of superficial and transactional in a way, but some of it is really deep, right? Like, what do people care about? What’s going to stop somebody? You know what I mean? So, like, you know, some phrasings and sort of techniques, if you will, that interests me to some extent, but less is more. What interests me is like, you know, what truly resonates, what is important to people, right? What is worth their time to read and why. I mean, that there’s so much to learn from social media that way, and LinkedIn in particular, that has just been tremendous.
Bill Sherman If you’re interested in organizational thought leadership, then I invite you to subscribe to the RTL newsletter. Each month we talk about the people who create, curate and deploy thought leadership on behalf of their organizations. Go to the website. OrgTL.com and choose ‘Join our newsletter.’ I’ll leave a link to the website as well as my LinkedIn profile in the show notes. Thanks for listening and I look forward to hearing what you thought of the show.