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Finding Your Niche & Becoming a Thought Leader with Bill Sherman

Source: Finding Your Niche & Becoming a Thought Leader – The Virtual CPA Success Show

Episode Summary

Are you a thought leader? Or do you aspire to be one in your chosen field, but don’t know where to start? In this episode we sit down with Adam Hale and Bill Sherman, COO and Thought Leadership Practice Lead of Thought Leadership Leverage to talk about how thought leadership gives an organization a competitive advantage and the important steps you need to take to become one.

Episode Notes

“In terms of passionate, absolutely essential as there’s a rule in the practice of thought leadership, that your audience will never be more interested in your topic than you. So you have to choose something that you’re going to be excited to talk about for the next five or 10 years.” –  – Bill Sherman
The finer details of this episode:

  • What is thought leadership?
  • What questions should you ask yourself before you start?
  • Steps you need to take before you launch your brand’s thought leadership
  • Thought leadership and its correlation to passion, relevance and responsibility


Jamie Nau: Adam and I are very excited about today’s guest, Bill Sherman from Thought Leadership Leverage. And he’s here to talk to us about his company, what they do and how they can help your business out. So Bill, I’d love for you to talk a little bit about your company and then we’ll take it from there.

Bill Sherman: Hey, Jamie and Adam, it’s good to be here. So I’m in the world of thought leadership and you might say, well, what is that? Is that a fancy name for content marketing? Is it something you pat yourself on the back and you feel proud of? Well no. Thought leadership is about taking ideas to scale so that you can produce impact. Whether that’s filling your sales pipeline, sustaining conversations with people, or influencing how people think and act. It’s a function that organizations use, big organizations, midsize organizations, even small firms, but it’s a powerful tool in the toolbox. I’ve been in this field for about 20 years as a practitioner. And in that time, I’ve worked with independent practitioners of thought leadership on the business side. So business school professors, speakers, consultants, who are doing some really fascinating work. As well as for large organizations who are looking and saying, how do we take our ideas from within the organization out to the world to produce impact and results?

Jamie Nau: Great. That’s a great intro.

Adam Hale: Would you say that, your thought leadership and thought leadership.

Bill Sherman: Very meta. But yes. I’m fascinated by thought leadership. How do ideas reach scale? I’ve had to do this for clients again and again. And over time, you start realizing that there are patterns, whether it’s an individual trying to get a message out there or an organization.

Jamie Nau: How do companies, I know a lot of people hear thought leadership and they think it’s a lot of work to get from where they’re at to become a thought leader in any area. Can you explain a little bit kind of the plan to get there and what steps it takes to really become a thought leader in any area?

Bill Sherman: So, the first place that I would start is you need to know who you’re going to talk to, right? because I’ve seen people make the mistake of, well, I’m going to post on LinkedIn or I’m going to create this podcast. And while it could be for anyone, you take content that could be interesting and specific, and you water it down so that you’re trying to get the broadest possible audience and then it is interesting and relevant to no one. So, step one, who are you trying to reach? Step two. What is the idea that you’re trying to communicate? Jim Collins wrote a book years ago called Good to Great. And he talks about the big, hairy, audacious goal. He calls it a Beehag and he says that those aren’t, you know, things like increase revenue by 4% this year, or launch a new product or service in Q2. It’s the big ambitious stuff to change the world. Whether it’s the moonshot for your company or an organization, you choose the thing that’s big. And I think of thought leadership is you choose a point on the horizon. That you want to sail to, and you recognize that getting there is going to be tough or that your clients and your customers are trying to get there, but they don’t know how. Thought leadership turns the invisible and the impossible into the achievable often through small steps.

Adam Hale: To Jamie’s point, whenever we think about thought leadership, a lot of times it’s in the context of what we do. A lot of times it comes to marketing, you know, everybody finding their niche. And then within that niche, understanding the vernacular of the, you know, the people that are there and then becoming knowledgeable in the area. Like you said, the goal setting of how to help them and guide them to where they need to go. I mean, oftentimes as a service professional, that’s the way I look at it is like helping other people get to where they need to go within that vertical. I know my partner, Jody, he’s written a couple books.

Bill Sherman: A common starting point for a lot of people is to write a book. So my first recommendation would be to start putting ideas out there. Start having conversations about your ideas, and you can do that on LinkedIn. You can do that on a podcast. You could write a book, but a book takes a long time and a long payoff, right? So, I’m a believer in what I would describe as minimum viable. Thought leadership, just like in the entrepreneurial world, you would go with minimum viable product here. It’s what’s the smallest idea and the smallest test that I could put out there to an audience. Maybe it’s speaking in front of a local group, whether it’s a group of your customers or clients or speaking at a conference, you get a chance to put the idea out and see if people lean in and they’re interested. They get what you’re saying, or if they’re confused. The worst thing you can do is focus on some big, large effort asset, whether it’s a book or a white paper, or that some event that takes you months to produce and then everybody scratches their head and goes, I don’t get it, or that’s not what I’m worried about.

Jamie Nau: You want to have a little bit of trial and error there. You’re not going to be perfect the first time.

Bill Sherman: Well, it is like thinking you’re going to go onto Broadway as your first time on stage. Not going to happen.

Adam Hale: I would think that it would have to be something that’s authentic and something that you’re passionate about. Something that gives you energy.

Bill Sherman: what I would say on in terms of passionate, absolutely essential. There is a rule in the practice of thought leadership, that your audience will never be more interested in your topic than you. So you have to choose something that you’re going to be excited to talk about for the next 5 or 10 years. And often you’ll be talking about the things which are the introductory 101. And you’ll be talking about those things over and over again. And they’re going to feel like big a-has to your audience. And you’ll be like, man, there’s this really cool corner thing that I’m thinking about. It’s really neat. And if you pull that shiny idea out and you lead with that, everybody glazes over and they get confused. So you have to be willing to meet your audience where they’re at with enthusiasm and passion about the topic. You’ve got to find the thing that you’re willing to teach. Just sort of like a teacher would be willing to go and teach addition and subtraction to first and second graders. There’s no new content that comes out year after year for teachers there. But it’s mind opening to a first or second grader, right? So you have to have that same sort of joy with your content.

Jamie Nau: So as you’re talking through this, I’m thinking of a couple different areas where you can be a thought leader. Adam already mentioned one which would be a vertical. Saying this is an industry that we’re a thought leader in. Another area, I’m thinking of this on the accounting front would be, you know, we’re experts in forecasting or some type of service that you could be experts in. Are there some other thought leadership paths that people go down?

Bill Sherman: So a lot of people wind up being what I would describe as accidental thought leaders. They didn’t plan it. Someone asked them to speak at an event or write an article, or they’re the one who does the internal presentations. And sometimes you stumble into an area of expertise. I’ve known people who have sort of realized they were practicing thought leadership after they published their fourth book. And, and you smile and you’re like, okay, but what’s the overarching story. One of the things that you want to do is to find that platform. It could be a vertical, it could be a piece of technology. It could be a pain point or a problem, or a vision of the future. The way that I define thought leadership is you’re peering around the corner into the future. You’re looking for risks and opportunities. And if you just stop there, you’re a futurist and that’s cool and all, but it doesn’t help anybody. So, you’ve got to figure out what’s important from that possible future. Figure out who’s going to care about it and bring that information back to someone today and say, here’s what’s important, and here’s what you need to do. Baby steps. And so that ability is based on trust. So you may be an expert in a domain that may be a technical domain, or it could be something broader, such as leadership. I’ve seen plenty of people who are experts in soft skills, for example, communications.

Adam Hale: That makes a lot of sense. So how is it that you help folks kind of work through this?

Bill Sherman: For my perspective, the place that it starts is with strategy, right? You either are going into this and you recognize, hey, we’re going to use thought leadership either to generate a competitive advantage, to sustain conversations with clients that may or may not be in a buying mode. Some organizations use thought leadership when they want to have a conversation where they can’t sell. And that could be with policymakers, or that could be with media and you’re not selling them, but you’re selling them on an idea, which is a slight nuance there. So, the first place you start is with strategy. Who are you trying to reach? What are you trying to achieve? What resources do you already have available? What skills or gaps do you need to fill? And often what we find when we sit down with strategy is a lot of people who practice, thought leadership have strengths in some areas. And rather than try to backfill, you find ways to amplify what’s already a strength. A lot of thought leadership practitioners who are technical experts are not marketers. They are not salespeople. And if you tell them, okay, you’re going to go out and sell your idea, they get a little bit of hives. So instead what you say is, okay, why don’t you use thought leadership if you like thinking about these topics, interview people for an article and those people happen to be prospects for what you’re trying to sell. Combine thought leadership and co-creation. With marketing and sales, for example. So, you figure out a strategy. And one of the things is that when it comes to thought leadership, I’ve worked with hundreds of thought leadership, practitioners and organizations. there is no one size fits all. one road for everybody. Some people, keynote speakers for example, I’ve had keynote speakers who back pre COVID would be 150 200 days on the road a year and say, I want to create an impact. I want to keep speaking, but please get me off the road so I can be with my family. How do I sustain my business from home? How do I have scalable assets? Other people come to us and say, I’ve written a book. I want to go out and speak on it. I’m happy to talk here or anywhere in the world. One person’s joy for thought leadership can be another person’s hell. And when you’re thinking about leveraging thought leadership across your organization, that could be you as the founder or the CEO, but you may have technical experts within your organization that you want to put on stage, and you need to make sure that when you’re asking that person to do something, it’s something they’re going to enjoy. So don’t ask someone who hates writing to write. Don’t ask someone who hates public speaking to go stand in front of an audience of 3000 people. It just doesn’t work, right?

Adam Hale: No, that makes a lot of sense. But I think that, sometimes whenever we’re especially working and, and I see this with agencies, too, agencies that we work with, and then also firms that we work with, the agencies usually sometimes they don’t have enough differentiation in them. I could say the same thing’s true about the CPA firms, but with the CPA firms they’re usually just kind of like, yeah, I know I have to have like a niche, but I’m not sure exactly what I want. You know what I mean? Like, I hear what you’re saying on the strategy part, but I can imagine that for some people you really have to, you know, pull that out of them. They need help rediscovering, maybe just reinventing themselves all together on the front end.

Bill Sherman: And it depends on whether you’re working with an individual or an organization. I often think about personal branding. A lot of us have encountered that idea and been told, yeah, we need to build a personal brand. And those are not only your reputation, your past experiences, your successes, but are you easy to work with? Are you on time? Are you someone who dottles and all that? A personal brand is to you as your ideas belong on a platform. And what you want to do ultimately is figure out what ideas you have and put the ideas on stage so that other people can say, oh, you need to talk to this organization because they know how to solve this type of problem. They’ve got expertise and ideas in this area. If your ideas are hard to describe. If it takes more than a couple sentences, if you need paragraphs or a page, your friends aren’t going to make referrals. They won’t know what you do. You’ve got to be able to distill your platform down what your ideas are about in two sentences tops, and so that they can help spread the word for you That’s where allies and ambassadors come in.

Adam Hale: What do you do going forward then?

Bill Sherman: There’s a couple different layers on thought leadership. Thought leadership has, I believe in narrow casting rather than broadcasting. And we talked about this before of if you try to be relevant to everyone you’re relevant to no one. So on narrow casting, you pick who you’re trying to reach and almost imagine you’re in the office sitting down one-on-one with them. So whether you’re creating a video for them or an article. Make it relevant to someone. Put it against an editorial calendar and put that content out, but always have your target audience in mind. The problem is that a lot of people start creating a container like a podcast. For example, you guys are hosting one. I’ve got one as well. It’s easy to think about a podcast and go, shoot. I need to find a guest. Let me go get somebody because I got to fill this container this scheduled show that I’m going to put out. Instead you have to think about your audience and say, what problems do they have that they’ll be interested in hearing about, and make that the focus of filling the container rather than focus on the container And so sometimes you wind up having implementation that is very hands on in thought leadership. It’s one to one, VIP almost if you will, where you know that if you reach this decision-maker and you influence them on how you’re thinking and they accept it, big things happen, right? Not only for them. But for you. And so those can happen in conversations at dinner, they can happen between your sales team and the buyer. They can also happen of, hey, I was thinking about you, and I recorded this video. I’ll often do something like that. Where in a conversation over the course of the week I record a video customized for one person. I don’t mention them by name. But it speaks to something we talked about. Usually, it’s something I think about after we get off a call and I record it. What I then wind up doing most often is I’ll put that on LinkedIn for people like them. So, I get scale from the same asset. It’s created with one person in mind, but usable by many.

Jamie Nau: When you mentioned earlier, the allies and advocates, it sounds like there’s two tiers to that. There are the ones that you already have, right? Those are the people you’ve already worked with. And then I think it sounds like your next step is to go create some more, right? So you already have three or four that you’ve worked with in the past, and then just one by one try to create them. Then just grow from there because you’re going to have that one relationship that’s going to go to three or four because they talk to people about you and it’s just going to grow from that. Is that what you’re saying?

Bill Sherman: Absolutely thought leadership leans on strategic account planning. There are groups and individuals that if they understand your thinking and they understand the ideas you bring to the table. Good things will happen. And rather than just leave that to chance and abstract and someone sees what you put out into the world, how are you going to get those ideas in front of them? They may be current contacts that you already have. People that know and love you. Maybe you worked with them in the past as clients or colleagues at a former job or whatever. That’s great. You can go to them, and they know, and they’ll listen. But you also have aspirational folks, people that you know that if you could get this idea in front of them, you’d be invited to bid on a project, or you’d get an opportunity or have an advantage with the competition. And that’s where you dream big. And then you start saying, how do I get to them? Who in my network already knows people like them? Allies open doors, ambassadors speak on your behalf. And sometimes you’re interested in creating a movement. And sometimes you’re just trying to get to that one person that can transform your business and open a new account string.

Jamie Nau: I think a lot of people listening to this too, are probably thinking, wow, this is a lot easier than it sounds. A lot of people think about this topic and are like, oh, I have to go up and speak in front of people. Or I must write a book. And you’re saying the one-on-one conversations are key. I think people hearing that will think, I can handle a couple of one-on-one conversations, because to be honest, if you blow one of those, you’re always going to have another one. You know, even if one doesn’t go well, you can use it as a practice and keep doing it until you get it refined.

Bill Sherman: Absolutely. I want to jump on that, Jamie, because you hit on one of the things of thought leadership, which is absolutely essential. Whether it’s a conversation in a one-on-one or you post something on LinkedIn. There’s an old saying that the newspaper is the first draft of history. Now, I don’t know how many people are buying newspapers in print anymore, but I think of LinkedIn or a conversation as a first draft to fault leadership. And whether you’re on a phone or in a meeting, what I always do is I keep a notebook with me and a post-it pad. One of the twos always by me. And there’s a small part of my head that is listening to the stories I tell. The data, the examples, the metaphors, how am I making this idea visible and accessible to the person I’m talking about? I listen for what worked or what didn’t. And after that conversation, I make a note because if I don’t learn the lesson in conversation, I’m going to be reinventing at fire every time. I’m going to be trying to find a new metaphor, a new way to explain it. I’m not going to go, that one works really well with this type of audience. I’m building my library of stories. Thought leadership is storytelling.

Jamie Nau: So as you’re saying that I’m actually thinking of our CFOs, you know, and how they have those conversations. When we hire a new CFO, sometimes it’s very complicated to get them up and running and the reason is because it takes a while to build those stories. When I’m in a financial statement meeting and I’m trying to explain a concept, sure I can just explain it technically, which accounts are good at, but how can I explain it, so it makes sense for everyone? And I can explain this concept cause I’ve done it a thousand times,

Bill Sherman: And I can choose which story I use based on my audience, right? Is the person I’m speaking to someone who’s going to lean into a sports metaphor or are they going to go glassy-eyed when I pull out a sports metaphor, right? And there’s both types of audiences, you need to be prepared. Obviously choose the stories you tell, because if you’re a windup doll that always tells the same stories, you’re going to blow right past your audience.

Jamie Nau: Yeah. I think the biggest thing there is body language too. Like, you know, I can, I can tell you, like, if you were to mention, and Adam knows this, if you were to mention basketball, you could see me like lean forward and my eyes would light up and like, okay, I’m going to use a basketball example here. Where if you mentioned opera, I’d be like, what is this dude talking about?

Adam Hale: Fortunately, Jamie’s the one that only uses basketball whenever he’s telling stories. But no, I think it is important to also note and Jamie, you know, you mentioned the CFOs, it doesn’t have to necessarily be like the champion of the organization. It doesn’t have to be the visionary, like thought leadership exists in every role within the organization. I think that’s what’s misleading to a lot of people whenever they think about it. Cause they do think about the person that’s the keynote, or they think about the person that wrote the book. But I think it’s a great point that you can exhibit that in every role in an organization.

Bill Sherman: And on the everyone in the organization, where I’m seeing forward-thinking organizations, the ones that have invested in thought leadership and have been on the journey for a while. Instead of just saying thought leadership is the role of the CEO or this one super smart person who knows the recipe for Coca Cola or the KFC recipe sort of thing. What they’re saying is thought leadership is everyone’s responsibility. No, not everybody needs to write. Not everyone needs to speak, but it’s part of what we do to create a competitive advantage. And you might be asked to create thought leadership, you might be asked to curate it. Help elevate a good idea or help deploy it. Be that salesperson who in a meeting with your buyer talks about something that’s coming around the corner and help them think about the future

Jamie Nau: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I think a lot of that comes back to hiring too. I know when we hire, we’re always looking for people that are going to bring passion because you want your whole team to feel as passionate as your CEO does about what you’re doing. So, yeah, we’re getting close on time here. I am going to throw it to both of you for final thoughts. So, Adam, we’ll start with you and then Bill I’ll let you wrap up.

Adam Hale: Yeah, I mean Bill, I think that what you’re doing kind of this discovery is great. I think my final thought is that, you know, in having this conversation, it’s a lot easier to get started, and there is somebody that can, you know, folks like yourself that can kind of help get that initial thought train going. And then once that happens, it’s just a natural progression. It starts making a lot more sense. So, I guess I would encourage everybody to reach out and start thinking about that, being more intentional with it.

Bill Sherman: So, where I would leave it is, thought leadership 5 to 10 years ago didn’t have momentum in the same way behind it. Now it’s something where a lot of people are trying to figure out how do we make this a function in our organization similar to sales, marketing, or accounts payable, right? How does it fit within what we do? Over the last year I’d been doing interviews with heads of thought leadership, large organizations, small organizations on our podcast, leveraging thought leadership. And if you want to get a sense of how other organizations, I encourage you to check that out and get a sense of how others are doing it You can learn a lot from others, so you don’t feel like you’re the only one who gets it. And if you’re interested, come talk to me. I’m happy to talk shop about thought leadership at any point.

Jamie Nau: Yeah, There are a lot of tools, a lot of interviews, a lot of videos you can check out. I think people will be motivated after checking out your website. I appreciate you coming on the show. Hopefully a lot of people will hop on your website after. Thanks.

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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