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Evolving from Thought Leadership Executive to Independent Advisor | Dan Pontefract

Evolving from Thought Leadership Executive to Independent Advisor | Dan Pontefract | 380

The advantages of maintaining corporate relationships even after you’ve left an organization.

An interview with Dan Pontefract about his journey from Chief Learning Officer at Telus to starting his own firm.

What if you could change fields – without losing the relationships you’d made at your current organization?

Many thought leaders start their careers working for an organization or company. Some begin by writing about culture, leadership, and developing content for the organization, or, thought leadership may be a passion that they follow on their own time. But what do you do when you’re ready to take on thought leadership as a full-time practice? Do you have to abandon the relationships you’ve made in your career?

Our guest in today’s episode is Dan Pontefract. Dan is a TedX speaker, and author of two really special books; Lead Care Win: How to Become a Leader Who Matters, and Open to Think: Slow Down, Think Creatively, and Make Better Decisions. He is also the Founder and CEO of the Pontefract Group, a firm that aims to improve the state of leadership and organizational culture.

Dan talks about what it was like to start his thought leadership career as the Chief Learning Officer at Telus, while writing a personal blog on culture, leadership and learning. From there, he began writing for the leadership channel at Forbes, and sharing his ideas through keynote speaking. When Dan felt his role as CLO had reached its natural peak, he proposed a partnership with Telus. He created an external consulting business, focusing on sharing the same culture changes he’d achieved with Telus – and his thought leadership took off!

Dan shares how he navigated being a public thought leader while working at an organization; how he navigated that relationship; and how he worked with Telus when he was ready to expand beyond their interests. He kept the relationships he made at Telus, and expanded beyond them – while not losing the connections he’d already made.

If you’re a thought leader who wants to move from working in an organization to developing your own firm, Dan’s insights will prove invaluable. Be sure to listen in!

Three Key Takeaways:
  • It is possible for a thought leader of a company to have a public profile. However, you should ensure that the public persona does not develop at the expense of your internal work.
  • If you have a good working relationship with a company, there is no need to separate as your career advances. Find ways to keep the relationship mutually beneficial.
  • Writing thought leadership for a personal blog can be a gateway to writing for larger publications, or even getting a publishing deal.

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.




Peter Winick And welcome, welcome, welcome, this is Peter Winick, I’m the founder and CEO of Thought Leadership Leverage, and you’re joining us on our podcast today, which is Leveraging Thought Leadership.

Peter Winick Today my guest is Dan Pontefract, coming in all the way from British Columbia up in Canada. Dan is a multiple TEDx speaker, a four times author, probably going on five sometime soon. The founder and the CEO of the Pontefract Group, an esteemed member of the Thinkers 50, and the former chief evangelist officer, NCLR to tell us. And before we go any further describing how great he is, let’s just dove in and talk to him because he’s sitting right here. So welcome, Dan. Thanks for coming on.

Dan Pontefract Peter the legend, the Thought Leadership legend. So cool to be here with you.

Peter Winick This is great. So, you and I have gotten to know each other fairly well over the last several months, and in spite of that, you chose to come on. So, thank you for lowering your standards for a few moments. So, your path is an interesting one. Not totally uncommon, but a little bit different than normal in that you’re basically a high performing exec at a big telecom and during your time there, among other things, you develop your thought leadership. You started speaking both as part of the job and as part of your passion. And now, here we are several years later and you’re on your own show. Maybe let’s start with sort of how that journey came, because you could have continued to be an incredibly successful exec, but then you sort of pulled off of that, right? So, let’s talk about sort of that transition.

Dan Pontefract I guess I needed to stay married. That’s the number one reason that I would have to get out of Denise’s hair. Right? So, I even probably starts a little bit earlier. I thought I was an educator. I guess I am an educator. So, I started out teaching high school for two years when I was three twenty-four. That led me to then realize I wasn’t probably that good at helping children, but maybe adults. So, I switched to higher ed.

Peter Winick Which are kind of like large children.

Dan Pontefract They are. That’s true. Yeah. With all amygdala, it’s all amygdala, no prefrontal cortex. So, that wasn’t for me. It really was an irrational decision making, although most executives are irrational so that maybe you’re right. So, then I got into higher ed, and I was about six years and I said, “OK, well, maybe I need to be actually in the real world outside of higher education.” And so I joined what eventually became SAP. And so 2001, through basically seven years, I was in high tech as a as a leader, helping organize the organization with its internal culture, its development of competence and the external revenue generating consulting arm of education services. So that led me to 2008, and I was having some, I would just say probably issues with SAP trying to like what the heck is culture? And they didn’t get it. And that’s fine. And so, yeah, a Canadian kind of telecom called Telus literally called and said, “Hey, we’ve got an issue over here. Why don’t you come join us and help us with our culture change?” I was like, “This is great.” Up until that point, Peter, I wasn’t doing really anything publicly, so I had talked a few times, you know, with my ICP hat on publicly in a conference or what have you. But I didn’t. I didn’t have a book strategy. I didn’t have a writing strategy. But when I joined Telus, I literally said to myself, |All right, here’s an opportunity. Here’s an organization that’s, you know, 50,000 people. You’re coming in as chief learning officer. Maybe you should be public about your work. And so surreptitiously, I sort of would write starting out with my own blog that I finally started about culture change, about leadership, about learning, about organized –

Peter Winick So, when you say, say “public.” I want to sort of understand that. Now did you mean public lowercase p like these 50000 employees are my audience per se? Or the more broadly speaking public of whether they’re Intel employee or part of the general population? I can be writing to – to them.

Dan Pontefract I wrote to Earth.

Peter Winick To Earth, dear Earth.

Dan Pontefract Dear Earth. This is all.

Peter Winick So, before you did that. No. Okay, so you go so. Were there any – pushback or, you know, raised eyebrows from the powers that be at? The firm said, “Hey Dan, this is your day job. What are you doing all this other stuff?” Or were they cool with it or is it? Did it take some coaxing because there are so many sort of thought leaders that are, and I say, stuck. You know, they don’t have the permission. They haven’t figured out how to navigate that public piece of it.

Dan Pontefract I have always believed in the adage, Peter, that they slapped wrist after the fact is far better than a hand cut off up front.

Peter Winick So forgiveness, not permission.

Dan Pontefract I didn’t seek out permission in which to be sort of public. Now I wasn’t spilling the beans on company sales. But I would. I would use the experience of culture change, leadership, learning, organizational dynamics right in my writing and then eventually my speaking. So again, because

Peter Winick that’s in essence a laboratory for you. Because what’s interesting about this is that you’ve got older people that are strictly consultants that live in the more abstract, theoretical or embedded. So you’re coming across emails and meetings and stuff every day. That probably was, oh, that’s fodder for a good blog. If I wouldn’t change some names to protect the innocent or whatever, but like, wow, here’s a real thing. Right.

Dan Pontefract Exactly.

Peter Winick Yeah.

Dan Pontefract Yeah. And it was, and it still is because we can do what I do these days. But it’s the same model is that when you’re a spy in the camp, if you will, so long as you don’t detrimentally use names and figures to the chagrin of their personality or personality disorder, you can use these experiences and examples as exemplar to what is working and what’s not when you’re going through culture change, you know, organizational building and so forth. So I never thought of it the way as you just adroitly discovered or pointed out or there was a living lab. Yeah, yeah. You know, so it became lots of fodder.

Peter Winick Now what point? Because I sort of know where the story ends but is today and we’ll get to that moment. At what point do the powers that be go, Hey, this is good. We should encourage this, this this dan guy to do this. This is actually good for him. Good for us. Good for. The impulse there is really no downside. How did that come to be?

Dan Pontefract I mean, again, not asking for permission. I was just writing and speaking and then, you know, as my writing lifted from not just writing for me, but, you know, then for somehow reached out and said, Hey, would you like to be a writer on our leadership channel? I was like, Oh, that’s a good idea. Yeah, that’d be pretty cool. And then, you know, I wasn’t taking any money from Forbes. I wasn’t taking any money from the speaking gigs because I was gainfully employed by us. That’s kind of a conflict of interest. But I just, yeah, I started getting more opportunities and more requests until one point exactly like they tell us, realize that I was a, you know, contributor to Forbes, which is a news media outlet. And then it was down really to sort of chat with you about, you know, you look good. And that’s OK. I was again. I knew it was going to come at some point. So, you know, then it was, hey, you know, make sure you’re not outing a customer, you know, don’t.

Peter Winick Yeah, right, right.

Dan Pontefract So again, it was a pretty collegial relationship. And again, as I’m speaking now, now I’m speaking about some of the actual Telus examples. So now Telus, in the middle of some of my keynotes would be like, a 15 or 10 minute case study of here’s where we were. Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s how I was going. Here’s what you might want to do,

Peter Winick Right, which is good for them. So now at what point do you wake up and say, “Oh, you know, I love Telus, I’ve had a good run here. These are good people, but I really want to do the Dan thing.”

Dan Pontefract So it’s a great question. And again, I can answer it by a two level approach. So as I’m chief learning officer and now I’m five years into the gig, we’re now 2013, I’ve realized that I’m probably at my best ‘before dates’ for, you know, good internal changes and someone else needs to take the reins. I don’t believe in holding on a position for perpetuity purposes. I pitched our CEO and our chief corporate officer the idea that we launch an external consulting business of culture change.

Peter Winick And what was in essence, a cost center inside – because I want I want to stay here for a minute. So you basically said to the CEO, you met him where he was, Hey, we’ve got this culture change thing, which is a cost center with plenty of benefits of it. Whatever it would, you would it be OK with your boss if I made some money off of this call center?

Dan Pontefract Exactly. So it’s certainly not just a Dan thing. There’s so many people that contribute to this culture change, tell us. But yeah, you’re in essence saying, OK, hey, clients of Tellis, of which from the enterprise side, you know, there’s tons of them. We’re open for business to help you with your own culture change now. So could that be recognition? Could that be performance, learning, leadership, whatever? Right? And so can we assess where you’re at and help you see where your blind spots are and fill in the gaps? All of that became my next five-year stint at the organization.

Peter Winick So, now you’re an employee whose day job looks more externally facing? Go lead this consultancy, which is really the capstone of the work that you’ve done there and the market really validated to wow, tell us, does this so well? We want to do it sort of the tell us way, whatever they might think. That’s really interesting. Yeah. And then the next and the next chapter is sort of totally parting ways, but keeping a rapport there in a relationship.

Dan Pontefract Yeah, if we if we stick in a 2013 – twenty eighteen era first, my first book came out in 2013, not coincidentally, with me becoming much more external. So that book was about culture change called Flat Army. And then I wrote another one in 2016 about purpose, another one in twenty eighteen about thinking. So, it was quite strategic for me to sort of start up this external, you know, troubadour outfit of men and women going out with me to help with culture change released three books, you know, somehow figure out how to do four TED talks and then continue this –

Peter Winick Building – and all that, you’re building up, brand Dan, if you will, still fulfilling your fiduciary obligations to the organization. So, mean it’s a win all around, right? Win for you, win for them, win for the clients of this new consultancy and. You know, the byproduct is elevating your own personal brand, but not at the expense, because I think there’s a lot of folks that leave a corporate world to go into the thought leadership world. And when you look back on their last year, two or three in the corporate world, it’s a little gray and fuzzy in terms of where their allegiances lie. And that’s not the case here, which is kind of,

Dan Pontefract Yeah, well, and then so now we fast forward to 2018 just to find that really salient point. You know, as I am leaving the organization at the end of the year, the CEO asked me to essentially stick around not on a full time basis, but to help in two ways. One is, you know, I launched something called the Telus MBA for Telus team members, and I’m still the director of that kind of on in the gig economy part time basis to get caught up. Exactly. And you know, we this this past week, you know, we’re recording this for this past week. We just finish up cohort three and started cohort four. And I’m very much happy and privileged to be a part of that kind of ecosystem of team members. So I’m still affiliated, if you will, with tell us what the Telus MBA. And then I’m on a sort of another retainer with them that they can tap into me as they see fit to work with their clients. They serve this, plop me into their world.

Peter Winick If you’re enjoying this episode of Leveraging Thought Leadership, please make sure to subscribe. If you’d like to help spread the word about our podcast, please leave us a review and share it with your friends. We’re available on Apple podcast and on all major listening apps, as well as at Thought Leadership Leverage dot com forward slash podcasts.

Peter Winick Stay there for a minute because this is, I think, a really important point here, and you’ve done so many things so well in this journey. I think this is critical is people’s brains. The way people tend to think is binary. I’m going to work for them or not. I’m going to do this or I’m going to do that. And maybe it was this deliberative strategic book, but you know, the concept of making your former employer your first client? I mean, you’re not the first one to figure this out. A lot of people forget, like, if they don’t, they’re afraid to have that conversation or they don’t think about it. But it’s like, Wait a minute. As an employee, they love me, right? It wasn’t like, Oh, it’s time for your story. As a one time for me to go, I wasn’t getting my needs met blah blah blah blah blah. Nor was it, Oh, there was a new regime or reorg or any of these other things, right? Like, Hey, how about how about we just redefine this relationship? I want more time to do more. Damn things. You want some of my time as it meets your objectives. I’m cool with that, right? You’re cool with that. Let’s redefine it. And I think that’s beautiful because it gives you a some stability of a baseline, you know, first client that covers expenses. There’s no ramp up for you. They get you at Ameritech. So, so yeah, I guess my long-winded question is how come more people don’t think that way?

Dan Pontefract I guess analogously, I kind of liken it to a husband, wife or husband, husband, wife, wife who have had a child and they divorce. But they still have to be amicable in order to raise the child, even though they’re in separate houses. So analogously, tell us in divorce our full-time relationship. But somewhere in there is a child and we’re working together on serving the needs of, you know, that particular child. To answer your question, I don’t know, to be honest. And for me, you know, you hear of some people talk about, oh, your first anchor client when you go on your own. And I get the metaphor of that. But here’s you know, 10 years of my life working with some really cool people and why not be able to still serve them and their clients ultimately, if you will, by virtue of the relationship that was built up and goodwill over 10 years? Why binary leave doesn’t make sense to me, to be honest.

Peter Winick Well, no, I I admire the way that you’ve been able to navigate that and do it in a way that’s not. Self-serving, I mean, there’s a level of self-serving, obviously their client, but it’s not like, oh, you’re using them to build the brand or whatever. Right? Cool. So now we let’s go into sort of book land for a little bit because you’ve done this four times. What what is different in your view, in the sort of landscape of publishing and all that today than when you wrote your first book?

Dan Pontefract Wow, holy smokes. Because we’re getting close to 10 years for me in between writing the first book and writing this fifth book that I’m contemplating. So I started out by being approach from one of those aforementioned keynotes I did in the audience by an editor from Wiley. And this was circa probably beginning of 2012, and someone had the editor came up and said, You know, you’ve got a really good story. Great style. It seems I’ve ever thought about writing a book and we’re like, Yeah, it’s like, OK, let’s sign you up, let’s get a book and do it. And so that was magical and surreal because you’re just doing a talk and next thing, you know, you’ve signed a Wylie contract.

Peter Winick But I was so interesting because so many authors have this, this vision of, Oh, I’m going to get an agent and then I’m going to do this and then I’m going to do that. And you know, and then that doesn’t happen and you’re here. You are giving a keynote. Something tugs on your elbow and says, Hey, let’s can we have a little chat over here? And done. Just kind of cool.

Dan Pontefract And it is. It was ultimately very cool. And I am still to this day friends and in the in the grace of guide guiding light of the editor in in my work and dawn of your listeners, you’re amazing. But that said, you know, the machinations of the corporate world are things that I both observe research and then, you know, sometimes sucked into and Wylie was one of them.

Peter Winick Right?

Dan Pontefract So, you know, I became slightly jaded by one of the big five publishers that basically treated me like a number and didn’t believe in me. And sure, they published the book, but I didn’t want to be a no. So, you know, they have right of first refusal on book tour, as any publisher really does. And I said, Look, can I not do this with you? And they’re like, Sure, you’re crazy. Like whatever. So happily, found my way into what is now, I think, affectionately known as the hybrid publishing world where I partner with a group and back in Canada called Figure one publishing. And you know, they make two types of books. I make business books and they make sort of coffee table like beautiful books. And I wanted that marriage of great salian editors. I could understand what a business book is and make them beautiful. And so I’ve been with them for the past three books and one more coming out.

Peter Winick That’s fabulous. Very, very cool. So as we start to wrap up a little bit here, my instincts are. There are a couple of folks out there listening right now that are like Dan, circa whatever, 2005, 2008, 2013. Yup. Good jobs, good companies. Having fun, there might be an itch. There might be something where they build something internally that their instincts are telling them, Wow, there’s more to unleash here. If I can get them out there, more impact than the limited audience of my fellow employees. What might you counsel them to think about? Do not do, consider, etc.?

Dan Pontefract You know, the interesting thing is, you know, I look at someone who’s been a mentor of mine, like Roger Martin, who was dean of the Robyn School of Business for 12 years out of your team and in the midst of him being a dean without a Ph.D. kind of first time ever for a business school here, he was not only coming, coming out of the monitor consulting world, going into academia, but saying to himself, I’m going to write some pretty damn good books during my time as Dean. And of course, as we all know, he’s got a plethora of great books that came out during that time. So where I’m going with this is that I think it’s totally irresponsible. If you’re a thought leader and a thinker to suggest that you can’t have a public persona, that you’re intellectual kind of curiosity can be made available out there in the external world. And if you’re employed by an organization, imagine tell us or rotten and shutting down me or Roger. What does that say about the organization’s culture? What’s it say about you and your role in that particular organization? So if you’re being reprimanded or handcuffed, you know, frankly, you’ve picked the wrong horse, so make sure you’re doing everything you can to have that right. Decision on the right role in order, but

Peter Winick there are some caveats there, but there are some caveats are and we didn’t touch on it. I’m sure your performance was super high, right? In terms of the things, your KPIs, what you say. But you know, it wasn’t like the day job was suffering, so you can go out and become a country music singer. That’s not cool. Yeah. So you’ve got to perform at the highest levels in the highest standards to earn the right to get a little bit of wiggle room.

Dan Pontefract Exactly. So don’t throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Do your job, do it well executed so they can’t question you. You know on anything that you are doing, quote extracurricular early outside of the of the business.

Peter Winick But and I think, you know, if I look at the thought leaders that I know that have made that transition, each and every one of them were top notch at their day jobs. There wasn’t any of them that were sort of in that middle, you know, quartile or whatever kind of pedaling along because there wouldn’t be a tolerance for their like the doing all these things. But, you know, don’t really do his job really well first before he becomes an author, a speaker or a rock star or whatever.

Dan Pontefract And you know, I guess some of those people are they get they get found out, they get called out. It’s pretty easy to see those that are fixated on their external persona, right? Rather than that external persona almost becoming an outcome of the good work that you’re doing in role.

Peter Winick Exactly. Except one, it’s almost a public version with the appropriate constraints or confidentiality May two to reach a different audience. Well, this has been fun any other parting pearls of wisdom. No pressure, but we’re expecting something profound here.

Dan Pontefract And I would just say, you know, it seems like and I’m not suggesting I’m a success. But when you think about the 13 years since I joined, tell us in 08, as of this recording, it sounds like an overnight success, but it’s hard work. You have to write, you have to speak. I must have published 200 pieces and done 200 talks before it actually started to amount to anything like a book deal or, you know, a TED talk request or what have you. So I would just urge you to do the hard work. And remember, that is unless you are Simon Sinek with three circles and a TED talk, there’s no real overnight success, right?

Peter Winick Well, thank you for that. I appreciate your time. I appreciate you. Joining us today and sharing your story is a great one. So thank you so much then.

Dan Pontefract Thanks for all you do, Peter. Best to you and to Bill. Thanks.

Peter Winick To learn more about Thought Leadership Leverage, please visit our web site at Thought Leadership Leverage dot com to reach me directly. Feel free to email me at Peter at and please subscribe to Leveraging Thought Leadership on iTunes or your favorite podcast app to get your weekly episode automatically.

Peter Winick has deep expertise in helping those with deep expertise. He is the CEO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Peter on Twitter!

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