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Discovering Thought Leadership | Mark Smith

 Discovering Thought Leadership | Mark Smith

Making the leap and standing up a thought leadership function.

An interview with Mark Smith about transitioning your role into thought leadership.

Few children say,” I want to be a thought leader when I grow up.” So, when did you realize this was what you wanted to do with your life?

Every thought leadership practitioner comes from a unique background. Most began in other roles, following twisted paths that unexpectedly led them into thought leadership. When your organization needs a formal thought leadership position, how do you take people from disparate backgrounds and successfully stand up that new function?

To better explore this transition, we’ve invited Mark Smith. Mark is Director, HR Thought Leadership at the Society for Human Resource Management (also known as SHRM). Mark’s background includes a Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and years of consulting in Human Resources, so he’s got the right background to help us answer this question! 

Mark started his career at SHRM by leading a team to develop certification exams for HR. This research led Mark off the beaten path into marketing, social media, and sales – all the while continuing to lead his team. Eventually, Mark’s boss recognized that Mark was doing incredible work outside of the scope of his position, and created the title of Director, HR Thought Leadership that Mark holds today. As the first official thought leadership role in the company, Mark was tasked with creating the responsibilities, roles, and tasks that the position would require, and building it into a meaningful part of the organization. He had to discover ways to bridge the gap between their important research and the audience he hoped to reach.

Mark further shares his ideas about white papers. He tells us that they’re not a great medium for the average audience, but those papers, infographics, sound bites, and more, can be shared on social media to offer people simple ways to take action toward more complex ideas.This is a wonderful conversation about standing up a thought leadership position. From the first steps of writing a vision for the role, to seeking mutually beneficial partners to collaborate with and reach larger audiences, Mark’s got amazing insights that can help you do the same.

Three Key Takeaways:

  • Research often sits to the side of business goals. Thought Leaders need to bring that research to their audience in an actionable way.
  • Organizational Thought Leaders need to navigate the complexity of silo’ed teams, develop buy-in, and get everyone on the same page.
  • A fast way to grow your thought leadership reach is to collaborate with complementary partners – especially those whose work doesn’t share the same audience.

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 Many people shift into thought leadership from other roles and backgrounds. And I want to explore this transition process more deeply today. I’ve asked Mark Smith to join me as you’ll soon hear he earned his Ph.D. in organizational psychology, worked as a researcher and then found himself drawn into the world of thought leadership. Mark is now the Director of H.R. Thought Leadership for the Society of Human Resource Management, which is often known by its acronym, SHRM. In today’s conversation, we’ll talk about stumbling into thought leadership, how to make the leap and how to stand up a thought leadership function. We even talk about building good connections internally and externally. How can thought leadership become a good corporate citizen?

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

Mark Smith Thanks for having me. I appreciate you having me on.

Bill Sherman So, 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 twenty one that that I entered it. And frankly, it wasn’t just later part twenty one 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’ve been working in H.R. Consulting for years and eventually found my way to SHRM, that’s the Society for Human Resource Management. And there I was helping to lead the team and the certification exams. And so we certify HR folks and there are long 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, a 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 – which is what my title was. So eventually, after doing that for a few years and the theme 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, OK, you’re now the head of our thought leadership in the organization, and we’re going to put you in the research group. Okay? And that was really the first time I had heard of a thought leadership in 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 as I Googled what is thought leadership and it kind of came up with some things 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, 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 describe – that process of curiosity, when you were the director of the assessment development, right?

Mark Smith Right.

Bill Sherman It sounds like your curiosity was pulling you out into, OK, what do I need to know about comms or what do I need to know about marketing, about this exam? So, was it 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, what you start to get into the where does this take you? What are the benefits here that naturally lends itself into kind of a marketing conversation? And then it was a matter of translating the research results into more of a marketing message. And at that time, where our marketing group was going through some transitions didn’t have much help. And so I eventually said, Okay, well, I’ll just start writing marketing content and things myself.

Bill Sherman Well, then 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 an H.R. consultant, there was a lot of there’s 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, OK, we did this research. Maybe we correlated this thing with that thing. We found statistically significant results and we were sort of pleased with that. But there was no real, you know? Again, so what associated with it, it was just kind of OK, that was sort of nice to do.

Mark Smith Well, and research can sometimes sit sort of on its own, in a bubble rather than connected to the organization and its purposes, goals and mission, right? And so I think one of the things the thought leadership can do is 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 thought 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 there 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 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 “OK, 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 this. 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 H.R. professionals, H.R. executives and then at Robert 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 and psychology programs, professors in our management program, they’re not one of those people that we care about.

Bill Sherman So let’s talk about – as you’ve sort of shifted into the thought leadership role, what is it that has shifted in terms of the questions that you’re asking, the content that you’re creating? How is your perspective shifting?

Mark Smith Yeah, as I said when I got into the role, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, I wasn’t sure what the expectations were. And because this was this was a new specific role for SHRM, I would say sure, we’ve been engaging a lot of thought leadership, but there was no sort of named director of thought leadership or no one with thought leadership in the title. And so then it became, OK. If that’s to me now, what does that mean and how can we frame this? Because I can just start doing stuff, but it’s not going to really be meaningful unless people look at me as this is my specific responsibility or I start to do very, very tangible things that people can see and they go, Oh yes, I recognize that that’s thought leadership. That’s what leadership looks like. And so, so for me, I know the first thing I wanted to do was write out what the vision is, what really at the broadest level our responsibilities are and really what our products might look like.

Bill Sherman So talk to me about that vision. What is the vision for the thought leadership function?

Mark Smith Yeah, yeah. So I’ve really started to sketch this out, and for me, it’s the coming up with the new ideas and the new direction again. We’re not a new organization. We’re not an organization for research or for new initiatives or marketing or anything like that. But what does thought leadership look like for me at SHRM? And so that was coming up with the new ideas and the new directions of things really navigating the organization because, you know, we need communications, and we need marketing and we need the other folks in research and we need all of the executives to kind of be on board. And so. Understanding the players involved and who needs awareness, who needs approval, who are the people who are going to be sort of saying these words at the end of the day, which is also important and then creating, creating not again, not the long form research report, but creating the toolkit and creating the little infographics and the things that people will see online and the 30 second bytes that people are going to going to take and use and hopefully do something with.

Bill Sherman Well, and I think about those 30 second bites, I go back to USA Today when they first published the infographics in the 90s in the newspaper, and everybody was mocking and deriding them. Right? Now – that’s a preferred mode of delivering smart ideas. And it’s an entirely different way to say, how do I use good data visualization or good storytelling skills to create a graphic that explains a sophisticated concept?

Mark Smith Yeah, 100 percent. I was just I was working on that even earlier today is taking some of our recent research and instead of having paragraphs of text associated with tables and maybe associated with some sort of bar graph or line graph or something.

Bill Sherman And maybe a few footnotes or something there, too.

Mark Smith Yeah, exactly. And so how did how to change that into an infographic that maybe has like a one sentence summary somewhere along the side, but the core of the message is right there in that graphic. And the good thing with that is the fact that people can take it and they can share it in social media. And that’s the way that people are going to see something these days. I envision most people are going to see the results of our thought leadership research through bits on LinkedIn, not through reports that SHRM puts together, that live on our website, and require people to come to the website, go to the page and download it. I just don’t think that’s how they’re going to consume that.

Bill Sherman Especially if those reports are gated now, right? People are going to be more hesitant to give away their information because they’re like, OK, what am I trading in exchange for this? I don’t know if I want this 50-page report. And so, I look at the long form, whether it’s a white paper or book or any other longform piece that’s once you’ve gotten permission in lean in from your audience, the who, someone who wants to know more, who really wants to do the deep dove. Many people may look at the infographic and say, Yep, got it. Thank you. That’s what I need.

Mark Smith Yeah, yeah. And that’s how we’re looking at it, especially if to create a nice, polished long report is going to take you a heck of a lot longer than put in a couple of graphics together. I mean, where’s the benefit there? A lot of times I don’t see it now. That being said, there are certainly topics that that need the long form that that need that level of detail that somebody can go in and look for the very specific answer to the question that they’re interested in. But by and large, they’re going to look for us to digest the things that we have done. To think about, what’s the important component of it, what’s the storyline associated with it? And just give that to them

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 Leveraging Thought Leadership dot com.

Mark Smith So, how much of the work and work product are you creating and responsible for translating research versus how much of your role is curation? Helping pull in ideas from others are encouraging them to create.

Mark Smith As I say in so we’re doing a lot of the research and we’re doing going in the direction of new areas within H.R.. So I’m envisioning more in the future. It’s going to be curation at this point. I’m still sort of trying to establish myself as the OK, here’s the director of thought leadership. I look at I need some, some successes and then and then I can. Frankly, I think they’ll probably trust me to be more in that organizer curator mode where I can bring up the most important things that other folks are doing.

Bill Sherman Well, and you’ve used a concept twice implicitly that I want to call up. One with the vision document, where you said being able to share that with others, which is a form of socializing around and getting buy-in for where thought leadership sits in the organization, what it does, where it does not get involved and how it becomes a good team player within SHRM as an organization, right? And then there’s the second level of socialization where you said, OK, when we put thought leadership out into the world, those people who find that infographic on LinkedIn, you want them to be able to share it to a colleague or mention it in a meeting. And so, this ability to socialize ideas seems like you’re doing that both internal and external.

Mark Smith Yeah, I think that that’s entirely true and really important. That’s not something I think earlier in my career that I would have thought about or recognized. And I like to think that, you know, throughout your career, you you’re learning stuff, you’re recognizing where you naturally go, and you can either continue to do those things or you can you can see where the trends are and then at some point sort of play against that. I’m more of a I can I can make my work kind of fit in wherever, and I have intentionally not done that here. This was what I needed to do. What was clear about what was my and what was the thought leadership groups. And then again shared that around and made sure, OK, we’re all on the same page with this. And then, yeah, and that’s an internal thing and an external thing.

Bill Sherman So from a meta perspective, not Meta the Facebook company, but in a talking about thought leadership, what I find and the intersection with SHRM is when we have a conversation of what does a formal thought leadership function look like, where does it sit? What is its responsibilities? I would say over the last couple of years, an interesting trend that I’ve seen as more and more organizations are hiring each week for people like you, director of thought leadership and the organization- organizations right now, are having to navigate, where does it sit? Who is who’s the champion and then how does it play well as a corporate citizen with established roles?

Mark Smith Yeah. And again, we’re, you know, actively right now sorting that out. And, you know, I would like to think, OK, thought leadership at SHRM, you know, we can be the new ideas and kind of that kind of thing and other folks who worry about sort of the deadlines and the project management stuff. And of course, you just can’t farm that out, that you can farm it out, but you probably farm it out to your own detriment again. It’s probably my natural tendency to not push a lot of things on the dates and just making sure stuff gets done. But that’s important and well, we’ll have to continue to do that. So yeah, it’s working with others playing nice. But making sure that we do get things done. We do get things done in a timely manner and making sure everybody is sort of on the same page on the same page with that. And I think as I talk about some of these other things, the other thing for us when I was told was part of thought leadership it had to do with partnerships and partnerships with other organizations. And so there, you know, we can talk about curation there even more broadly than that. What’s internal to your own organization? Because us as SHRM, we’re known as, you know, the H.R. association. There are other organizations that are big and have nice reach that don’t overlap with us at all. That they may be doing, you know, good research, you know, and the bar associations may be doing good research or the American Medical Association, and they may be doing like good workplace research that our members would never see. And then accordingly, their members would never see serve research in and trying to sort of figure that out from a partnership perspective as well, because that’s a great way to extend our reach too, is to find other organizations that are complementary but don’t share the same body.

Bill Sherman And I think one of the things that comes to me time and again is many of the problems that are worth solving through thought leadership are too big for one individual or even one organization, even if you’re a large organization to solve, right? So we talk about the future of work and what the workplace will look like. Even as large as SHRM, influential as SHRM is, you’re still just one voice in that conversation. It’s a voice that needs to be heard. But the more that you can align with others through research and partnership, the better.

Mark Smith Yeah, yeah, I think that that’s right, and that’s what is necessary. And when I look at new ideas and new directions that we can go, it’s probably not just looking at, OK, what? What does what does the community think and what does the community want to go and what are useful things for them? It’s going outside of H.R. and figuring out, OK, well, where do the do the finance association, where do they think that we’re going to go and what’s new and different for them? Because, you know, at the end of the day in organizations, we’re all working together, whether you’re in an H.R. or you’re in sales or you’re somewhere else in the organization. You know, the good ideas may come from them or they may come from somewhere else. And it’s a matter of, you know, taking it, figuring it out and making our work together.

Bill Sherman So, I want to as we begin to wrap up, ask you a question and to jump a couple years back into the past in doing so. So, I want you to envision yourself as you were responsible for the assessment process, doing thought leadership, but not aware that you were doing thought leadership and evolving that way. What advice would you give yourself at that point? Now that you’ve seen where this has led? So how would you advise someone who’s perhaps today doing thought leadership but not aware of it?

Mark Smith Yeah, that’s a good question. I think my first response is for me would have been be aware of what you’re actually doing. I was sort of going into the areas that I thought were interesting and the areas that I thought were underserved. And so that’s sort of where I was. I was filling the niche there. But what I find is there are lots of lots of things and lots of areas in whatever team that you’re on that that need to be done and you can wait for somebody to say. Yes. This is your responsibility. You can go ahead and do it, or you can just sort of start working on it. And that’s how I ended up here. And again, it wasn’t intentional. But if I’m going to ask for permission to do something that’s going to take too long and then more voices are going to want to be involved than ever would have been involved before. And so – do it. Look outside of where you currently are. So again, as head of exam development ended up, where I thought I could be most useful was dealing with folks on social media, which is definitely not exam development, crafting, marketing messages, dealing with folks in communication, how to how to email effectively to potential candidates. Again, definitely not. And development was areas that the team needed. And so did that serve me? Well, you know, I don’t know people said, Mark, you’re not doing exam development that that’s your job. But I think what I was doing was playing the role that needed to be played in the team while exam development was still getting done. So I look back on that whole process and in two ways one, I wasn’t doing my job, but two was I was doing the job that needed to be done.

Bill Sherman Well, and with that, I have spoken to many people like you who have seen a gap and gone to fill it and then realized, Oh, I’m solving problems and I’m practicing thought leadership without even realizing what I was doing right? And that ability to look behind you, it’s easier to see the red thread when you look behind, rather than to look ahead and go, Oh, this is what I’m doing and where I’m going, right?

Mark Smith Yeah, yeah, 100 percent in the moment, I certainly wouldn’t have said, Oh, I’m engaging and thought leadership. That’s what I’m doing. All of the crazy elements of that.

Bill Sherman So, Mark, I want to thank you for taking time today and stopping by to talk about your transition into the world of thought leadership, and I wish you and SHRM a whole lot of success. If someone wants to get in touch with you, how did they do that?

Mark Smith Yeah, you can. You know, you can look us up. Sure. So as our dot org and then you can feel free to contact me, you can just email me directly. Mark Smith at SHRM dot org.

Bill Sherman Thank you, Mark.

Mark Smith All right, thank you.

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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