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Bootstrapping Thought Leadership | Adam Zuckerman

Bootstrapping Thought Leadership | Adam Zuckerman | 382

The personal approach to building your unique thought leadership voice.

An interview with Adam Zuckerman about using storytelling and social media to build thought leadership.

Anyone with the right academic training can understand research materials and data points. The struggle comes when we try to use that knowledge to move people to act. How can we fuse personal experiences with statistical information, to connect with people and get them excited about the future?

Our guest today is Adam Zuckerman, 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. They work to make organizations more resilient, more motivated, and capable of amazing things.

Adam shares insights about crafting a unique voice for your thought leadership. He used a personal approach, sharing his narrative and using storytelling skill to add emotion to cold, academic numbers. Through this approach, he connects thought leadership to business development – and enhance employee performance.

When it comes to employee experience, WTW has a host of technological tools at its disposal. Adam knows that technology has become increasingly important to employee satisfaction and engagement. However, he firmly believes that a smart organization’s focus needs to remain on people. He tells us how he uses technological data to identify employee needs, and then spur action to address and solve those problems. That’s what sets orgs apart from their competition.

We also explore Adam’s growing love for social media, particularly Linkedin, a platform he had previously all but written off. At the suggestion of a co-worker, he started to use Linkedin as a platform to share his ideas, and quickly realized it is a powerful tool for sharpening content, building your network, and discovering new ideas.

This conversation is a delightful exploration that ranges from crafting your thought leadership voice to integrating technology into employee performance. Be sure to listen in!

Three Key Takeaways:

  • Leaders who encourage their employees to believe in themselves create a stronger work environment.
  • Customer and employee experience are deeply related. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers.·
  •  Posting thought leadership content on social media is a great way to sharpen the content and see what resonates!

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!


Bill Sherman What happens when you want to launch thought leadership for your business unit, but you don’t have the resources or budget available? Well, you face a choice either you wait until the stars align or you find a way to make it happen. Today, I speak with Adam Zuckerman. He’s at Willis Towers Watson, and he’s passionate about employee engagement, as you’ll hear. He’s a psychologist, served as a practice leader, and now is the product lead for the Willis Towers Watson employee engagement software. Adam posts some of the most insightful thoughts about employee engagement on LinkedIn. So he’s one of my regular must reads in the morning. I’ve invited him to talk about how he bootstrapped thought leadership for his firm’s employee engagement software, doing so as a team of one. We talk about his passion for his work and how that fuels his ability to create thought leadership. And we talk about the impacts he’s seen through his thought leadership work.

Bill Sherman I’m Bill Sherman and you’re listening to Leveraging Thought Leadership ready. Let’s begin. Welcome to the show, Adam.

Adam Zuckerman Thanks, Bill. I’m happy to join you today.

Bill Sherman So one of the things that I’m excited to talk to you about is how you have intentionally shaped the voice of your thought leadership. I know you have training as an academic and that you look at a topic employee engagement, which can be very quantitative, but you often use a personal approach to storytelling. And if I can put you on the spot a little bit, I want to relate to something that you posted this morning as we’re recording about your experiences when you were 11 at sleepaway camp. If you could maybe summarize that story and then let’s sort of dig into it from a thought leadership perspective.

Adam Zuckerman Sure. Yeah, thanks for that. Well, that post was about a summer when I was 11 years old. And I volunteer for something called survival, which of course, subsequently became a television show, having nothing to do with that. But this was years before this was 1980, I think. And they had a program, a sleepaway camp called survival, where you would leave the camp and they would take you off into the woods and leave you there for 24 hours. They give you some basic training about how to build a shelter and so forth. And you got very limited supplies and they would basically drop you off. And if you made it 24 hours, you come back 24 hours. And if you if you had made it, then you got this cool necklace and you had survived. And so, I volunteered to do this in retrospect unwisely, but it seemed kind of cool and it was a total disaster. I didn’t pay attention to any of the training they gave, and I wound up. It wound up raining. I mean, torrential, biblically raining all night long, and I hadn’t prepared at all. And it was it was a really incredible, indelible kind of enduring experience for me. And I remember with great clarity, they gave you a whistle, a plastic whistle that you blow in case of emergency. You know, the camp leaders weren’t that far away. Obviously, it seemed like it when you’re a kid. But and if there’s a problem, they come and get you. And when the rain came, I blew the whistle like you wouldn’t believe. And I and a guy came out and said, What’s the problem? I said, I want to go home, go back to camp, you know, right now. And he wouldn’t take me. He said you can do this and the post was about that experience and how and I did do it and I did make it. And in retrospect, how much I valued it and I valued him and what he did right, which was he kind of believed in me more than I believed in myself. I was panicking. I was essentially in tears. And he was saying, No, it’s all right. You can get through this. And he was right. And so that’s what the post was about. It was about leaders who believe in employee sometimes more than they believe in themselves and how powerful that can be.

Bill Sherman So what I loved about that at the end is I realized as I got older, I wanted to be that leader, right? And so, you were speaking to the experience of your younger self and then connecting it to who you wanted to be today. Talk to me in terms of the conscious choices you’re making in creating the voice for your thought leadership because, as I said, it could be sort of very academic or very metrics oriented. You’ve led with story and you’ve led with narrative that seems a choice.

Adam Zuckerman Yeah, I mean, it is, and I think to me part of it is, you know, I’m a frustrated writer and it’s to some extent and I know that, and I know that story resonates with people. But I mean, that’s also just how I experience it. It’s how I experience work and in the world. And so, yeah, I have academic training and I have extensive training statistics and methodology, and that’s all valuable. But ultimately, I do think, you know, it’s the experience we all have and the emotions that we all have around work that really are important and may make the difference. And you know, I mean. I wouldn’t exactly say this, but it is a little corny, I suppose, but I mean, all the academic literature and all the research is adds tremendous value. But to me, a lot of the best decisions and the right kind of judgment is intuitive. You know, it’s sort of, you know, you know what to do in the moment. And so, I guess that’s partly what I’m relying on as well, right, is just the research and all that. And all the statistics are great and inform, you know, creation of best practices and all the rest. But ultimately, I think it comes down to your own experience and your perspective, and a lot of that is sort of, you know, more fundamental than and even the research and the quantitative data.

Bill Sherman So a friend of mine who uses the example that often research provides data and validation for things which are intuitive, but you’re not certain of? And I think making that invisible instinct visible, whether through story or data, is really some of the heavy lifting work of thought leadership.

Adam Zuckerman Yeah, I agree. I think the data makes it the data confirms it. As you say, the data validates it, but the data also makes it, you know, sort of requires that it provokes action. I mean, we do employ surveys for companies all over the world, and I’ve done this work for a very long time, and very, very, very rarely do I come in and run an employee survey and share the results with executives and share something they didn’t already know. Mm-Hmm. I mean, and the thing you know, they pay a lot for the service and they put a lot of effort into it and it’s valuable. But at the end of the day, most of what we come up with, they already know it validates it, it quantifies it, it puts it in front of in a way that provokes action. And that’s where a lot of the value is right. It’s not necessarily saying, here’s something you really had no idea was going on in your organization. And we’ve uncovered it. The fact is, you know, a lot of these things already we’re putting we’re putting some language around it in some terms around it that allows you to understand it maybe a bit better. And focus and focus is action. And that’s really what all that data does, I think.

Bill Sherman And then also helps you identify where do you apply effort, what’s going to help as well as then, if you can track on a longitudinal basis, you can say, OK, my gut says it’s getting better. Is it just me or my believing annect-data because I talked to three people?

Adam Zuckerman Totally, totally right. Totally right. I mean, it allows you to to decide among all the things you could work on, what are some of the most pressing? So it does allow you to prioritize, which is so critical given how busy everybody is. And yeah, it allows you to size the problem to track it over time. But fundamentally, I mean, I have colleagues from years ago used to say, we’re sort of in the work that I do. We are motivational speakers with data. And I think a lot of ways that that is true, right? And it’s and the reason it’s such a valuable process because it’s data about the individual specific to the individual, their company. So it’s one thing to say, you know, only 30 percent of employees are engaged. It’s another to say only 30 percent of your employees are engaged. And we know that because we just asked them, like last week. That is a lot more power. So but but you know, the reality is, in both cases, the leader already knows they’ve got an engagement, probably already knows the number. You know, most people are not engaged because they work with these people. Like it’s not a mystery, but it makes it concrete and specific and it validates it. And as you say, it allows you to track it over time and identify what are some of the leverage we could pull or push to address it?

Bill Sherman Well, and if I remember the studies correctly and you, you know, probably better than I isn’t employee engagement a ceiling to customer experience as well? So your employees or your customers will never be more satisfied than your employees?

Adam Zuckerman It’s a great way to put it somebody. Somebody said, I think was Richard Branson, said the customer’s not number one, the employees number one, and they’ll take care of the customer. And yeah, I mean, they’re intricately tied together and the employee experience and the customer experience. I can’t think of any better way to improve the customer experience than through the employee experience. So yeah, that’s been proven over and over again. We have tons of data on that question, as do many others. But yeah, that that is a critical aspect of customer experience is the employee experience.

Bill Sherman So how did you get into the world of employee experience? And specifically, one of the things that I see in our conversations and in your the work that you’re producing and thought leadership is you have a passion for it. So where does that come from? Talk to us a little bit about the journey. How did you get into leadership specifically around? Experience.

Adam Zuckerman It’s a great question, so I my background is in psychology and in college. That was my major. And to me, it seemed just like, I guess it does for everyone when you have a passion. I wondered, why wasn’t everybody doing this like it was? So it was so obvious and immediate and sort of real to me, like, yeah, I want to think about people and why they do what they do. I mean, that was. And then the other field was always, you know, I always want to relate it to that. So why not just go right to that? You know, like I study history and think about how it relates to people, but I just want to study people. So, that was, you know, always kind of central to what I was interested in intuitively, naturally and applying it to the world of work seemed a very natural thing. I went to NYU for my Ph.D. in social psychology, which is the most interpersonal field of psychology in some ways. And just being in New York, being around all those businesses, this was the 90s and at the time, you know, business was cool and interesting, and the economy was great. And so it made sense to apply what I was interested in, which is people and why they do what they do and how they experience the world to the world of work. And so, you know, I came out of graduate school and joined a boutique firm in Chicago that was doing exactly this kind of work. Was it relatively new at that time? It was still early days for this kind of work where the very notion of surveying employees and listening to what they say and actually doing something about it was not an obvious thing to do. And to raise your hand at a Fortune 500 company, say we should do this and spend money on it. You know, it was still a wasn’t a radical notion, but it took some, some guts. And I joined this company that was all about that. And the leader was very charismatic and believed in it and believe in the fundamental idea of giving voice to employees. And I basically stayed in that job for the last twenty-five years now, the company has grown. It was acquired, it merged with another company. So all kinds of things happened that gave me new experiences, new resources, new colleagues, new clients. But I’ve really been doing more or less the same kind of thing for 25 years, and I haven’t gotten tired of it at all because every organization is different. The issues are different, the employee experience is different, it continues to evolve. And to me, it’s endlessly fascinating.

Bill Sherman Well, and one of the things I really enjoy in seeing your work is that passion comes through and shines brilliantly. So, you’re now at Willis Towers Watson and you served as a practice leader for a number of years on the business development side. Let’s connect thought leadership and business development. And I’d be curious on hearing your perspective on leadership from the BD world.

Adam Zuckerman Well, it’s interesting because particularly in this field, so technology has really played an increasingly important role in this whole process in understanding the employee experience, which often relies on surveying employees or otherwise sort of tracking their behavior and analyzing it. And so technology has become more and more important and really, in many ways taken over in terms of this activity. So to be an employee experience expertise. You know, it’s often synonymous with really being an expert in the technology, which is why I, in the last few years transitioned into this product leader role. But what’s interesting to me about it is that ultimately, it’s really about people. I mean, it’s not about technology. So, I had another colleague, you say you can’t automate your way through engagement, and I think that’s a really concise way to put it. I mean, you know, yes, technology is critically important. If you’re going to survey employees, you want to do it in a technologically sophisticated and advanced way. And if you’re going to understand employee behaviors, you’re going to have to understand what they’re doing on outlook or what they’re doing. You know, their work lives are fundamentally about technology. But to really understand the employee experience and to really, I believe, take action way that’ll improve, it requires an understanding of people fundamentally not technology. And so, I think actually technology has kind of been overemphasized in in a lot of this work. And so, in sales, you know, to me what resonates in the success that I’ve had, what tends to resonate with prospects and clients is, yes, you know, they want to know that you got bona fides around technology, but they want to understand how you think about the employee experience and they want to know that you’re that you provide value outside of technology. To me, that that is a differentiating factor for Willis Towers Watson. And I think what’s most interesting to me and I think what’s? Still really valuable to clients and what resonates in a sales country,

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

So, one of the things, and you and I had a conversation on this, was that you made the 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 watching, but it’s a small group within that company. And so, like anyone, I’m sure you can imagine, yeah, 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 this. 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 hadn’t really used much. I thought it was a job, primarily just a job posting, you know, site, really.

Bill Sherman And since you hadn’t basically changed jobs in 25 years.

Adam Zuckerman Exactly.

Bill Sherman Like, Hey, that’s not to me, right?

Adam Zuckerman I had no need for it whatsoever. And she said, no, it’s where people who 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 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 putting out there. I mean, it’s been a really positive experience 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 in 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 miss 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 LinkedIn, 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 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 to present it 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 he use jargon, people? 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 contact in any context. So I mean, it’s been great training in a way, right? How do you craft a message that will 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. You talk about, have

Bill Sherman You talked 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. And you may go, “Oh, I had a brilliant post, and it was such a great idea, but nobody clicked the ‘see more’ button. Right?

Adam Zuckerman Totally, 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? I mean, so like, there’s some phrases and sort of techniques, if you will, that interests me to some extent, but less more of 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 So let me ask you a question in terms of this sort of approach of thought leadership, have you seen or is it still early days impacting results in terms of the product and business and opportunities?

Adam Zuckerman We have absolutely already had opportunities that we would not have otherwise had real like leads, but a tremendous number. I mean, it’s not like an avalanche, but we have had leads that we would now otherwise not have had a healthy percentage of those have converted. And we’ve also but we’ve also had opportunities that we would normally have, but had people recognize us. Now I’ve had people say, Oh yeah, I’ve seen your stuff on LinkedIn, and it’s actually really powerful. I mean, it’s a it’s a valuable addition to, you know, your sort of raw presentation and credibility.

Bill Sherman So and one of the things that I think is cool is when you have a prospect who’s been following you, they come to you at the time when you know, they have budget, they’re in a buying cycle and they start quoting what you’ve posted.

Adam Zuckerman Right?

Bill Sherman Is absolutely fantastic.

Adam Zuckerman Totally. Yeah, I completely agree. I mean, it’s what’s really interesting to me if I really study, it is like if my colleague had suggested this to me, it would have completely passed me by. And I wonder how I could share the word, you know, share these ideas with more people because it just feels like an opportunity that’s not as utilized as it could be. And in fact, that’s one of the other things that’s happened is I’ve had a lot of colleagues reach out to me saying, Hey, I’ve seen your stuff. You know, how do you do that? Who helped to do that? When did you start doing that? And I’ve helped them along, and I’m very happy to do it, and that’s been really rewarding to see. And I’ve also had some marketing people now come back to me in my own company said, you know, let’s maybe we can tweak now. And I said, “Listen, I started this on my own. It’s been totally organic. I’d really like to just leave the voice as it is. I’m happy for you to reshare it, but I don’t want to make it too corporate, you know, I think that’s part of the value.” And then it’s been what we’ve done.

Bill Sherman So. It would be an entirely different story. We opened with the story of you at 11.

Adam Zuckerman That’s right, that’s not coming out of Willis Towers Watson corporate

Bill Sherman Right, you can’t corporate brand that story, right?

Adam Zuckerman That’s right. Right.

Bill Sherman In the same way. Exactly. I think one of the things the thought leadership offers the opportunity. If you have the courage individually to share part of yourself and step out alongside the brand and be seen as a voice of the brand, but not the brand is you can share pieces of yourself in a professional way and setting that people would never have seen, but they get to know you in an entirely different way.

Adam Zuckerman Totally. And that’s an that’s an endlessly fascinating discussion I’ve seen on LinkedIn, which is people saying it’s become Facebook or something, or it’s people are shared too much personal stuff. Should you share personal? And to me, to me, there’s a clear I think there’s great value in sharing personal stuff, but to me, there’s a very clear way to do it. And we’re not to and it’s hard for me to articulate. But when I scroll, I see it. I see this seems really just personal and sort of not maybe that relevant, but I see other stories that are and I think, you know, if there are lessons and you can connect them to the workplace, it’s great. It’s more powerful. I do sometimes see people just seemingly sharing about something personal. Maybe it’s not as it probably. But that’s a very interesting line that is evolving and it’s important to, I think, navigate that that properly.

Bill Sherman So, one of the things that I want to as we start wrapping up here sort of emphasized is you took on the de facto role of head of thought leadership for the product and said, OK, this needs to be done. No one else is doing it. I don’t necessarily have budget, but we’re going to make it happen. I want to ask you this question. I’m certain not only in Willis Towers Watson, but also in other organizations, people who are product owners or who are responsible as a practice lead there in a similar situation. What advice would you give them as they start on that journey?

Adam Zuckerman Yeah, it’s a great question, I mean, I guess I would just. I would encourage them as strongly as I could to try just to just to try it, you know, not to. There’s a million reasons, you know, not to do it, but I feel like once you once you get going, there’s a momentum and an excitement and an interest that takes over. And starting with a lot of things, it’s sort of the hardest part. You know, it’s the old the idea of, you know, if you wait, are you ready? You never you never do it. You got to do before you feel ready. And then and then, you know. And so I think starting really is the hardest part, and I encourage people to explore it and post and not all of them will experience the way I have, but a lot of them will. And I think that’s that might be the biggest hurdle is just getting started.

Bill Sherman I think for the people that I’ve spoken to when they’ve taken on that role of de facto head of thought leadership for their product or their offering, there’s a bit of surprise and delight when it starts getting momentum and they go, Oh, this is a new way to talk about this. And it feels authentic. It is me.

Adam Zuckerman Yes, it really is exhilarating. You’re totally right. I mean, it sounds silly, and I’m sure for younger people. You know, they’ll be like all, of course, that’s the way their lives are, but there’s a generation of people like me who are still very much active in the workplace who didn’t grow up with that. And I mean, I once had a I’m embarrassed to say I once had a client actually send me an invite for Facebook. Our friend, however, works and not on Facebook, but I replied and I said, like, this is early days, I said, isn’t Facebook for teenagers or people stalking teenagers? And I and I, you know, I because I just didn’t, I didn’t get it. And, you know, like I said, I’m still not I’m still not into Facebook, but I missed that whole thing and I would urge people who are of my generation to rediscover it because it is. It can really be special and really powerful. And it’s easy to dismiss, you know, when you’re older, but it is a new way of talking to people. You’re right.

Bill Sherman So, one last question, if you hadn’t made this started this journey. What would you have missed and what would be the impact of?

Adam Zuckerman Well, the thing is, you know, what it’s interesting is that. I think. I’ve reflected on this that I would have wasted time in other ways, in other words, in other words, what LinkedIn is really great for is it feels that we all have time in our days where we’re not totally focused on the job just naturally. And so, you know, you might check the ball scores or you might check the news or whatever, and I would have done a lot more of that, which is wasted time. And instead, I filled it reading interesting things about what’s happening in my field and contributing to that. It hasn’t really taken any more time. Truly, I mean, it takes some time on the weekends, which but that would have been ways to do, you know? So, what it’s done is it’s filled what is already empty space with something of value, in my opinion. And that’s, you know, something that I think I would really regret if I hadn’t discovered this.

Bill Sherman Adam, I really have enjoyed this conversation, and I want to thank you for joining us today.

Adam Zuckerman Thanks very much. I’ve enjoyed it as well.

Bill Sherman If you’re interested in organizational thought leadership, then I invite you to subscribe to the OrgTL newsletter. Each month, we talk about the people who create, curate and deploy thought leadership on behalf of their organizations. Go to the website 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.

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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