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Lessons from a Decade in Thought Leadership | Amelia Folkes

Lessons from a Decade in Thought Leadership | Amelia Folkes | 352

Establishing consistent messages through thought leadership.

An interview with Amelia Folkes about her work as a thought leader creating repeatable messages that can change the world.

Ten years ago, the term “thought leadership” did not exist. Yet, the principles of thought leadership were being practiced, shaped, and refined by pioneers in the field; people whose great ideas literally shaped the road for all others.

Our guest today is Amelia Folkes, Senior Manager of External Relations at Workiva. Previous to that, she worked at Emerson Automation Solutions and State Farm, where she worked to implement changes that made the world a safer place – through practices and insights that we now recognize as true thought leadership.

Changing an organization’s culture can take years of effort. Amelia explains how she did it: by positioning brands as more than just vendors. She taught her companies to become solutions providers and partners to their customers, and level up the organization’s voice. In this way, she created earnest relationships, and helped her brands gain the trust and loyalty of their audience.

Relationships are important, but the hardest work of thought leadership is finding a way to take those values to scale. Amelia discusses the use of both broad and narrowcasting, and the ways she works to position Workiva at the front of the ESG (Environmental Social Governance) frontier. Through her work, their clients themselves become integral thought leaders on the topics of sustainability and diversity.

We finish our conversation by discussing the importance of establishing your voice, and creating key messages. Amelia explains that it’s important to maintain consistent messages across multiple platforms, from social media to personal relationships. This helps create an echo chamber that, over time, will move into broader and broader audiences.

This episode is an exploration of the way thought leadership has changed over a decade. Listen in, to learn some of the fascinating history, and to discover ways to define your voice, stay on message, and grow your reach for the next decade of thought leadership!

Three Key Takeaways:
  • Thought leadership needs to create trust in the things you are doing or selling.
  • In order for thought leadership to take your client’s voice to the next level, you must focus on storytelling and influence.
  • It takes time for thought leadership to become part of the mind of your audience. Repetition and consistency are crucial.

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 Some people are specifically hired to do fault leadership work. However, many other people see their role grow into thought leadership. In today’s conversation, I speak with a Amelia Folkes She’s been in the world of thought leadership for over a decade. Currently, she’s the senior manager of external relations at work Kiva. Yet she started doing thought leadership long before it was an organizational function. Amelia came to thought leadership through PR and communications, so we talk about how to get your message heard more effectively, both internally and externally. And we also talk about the lessons she’s learned over the past decade and thought leadership. I’m Bill Sherman and this is Leveraging Thought Leadership ready. Let’s begin. Welcome to the show, Amelia.

Amelia Folkes Thanks for having me, Bill. I’m excited to be here.

Bill Sherman Same here, so we’ve got a lot of ground to cover in this conversation, but one of the things that I’m excited to talk about is you’ve had an experience that many people who are thought leadership practitioners yet haven’t you’ve served in multiple thought leadership roles at different organizations? Sometimes you’ve had the title, other times you haven’t, you’ve had the responsibility without the title. So my question for you is, what’s the difference between the two? Let’s explore the differences in landscape between when you have a thought leadership title versus when you don’t.

Amelia Folkes Yeah, I think that’s interesting that you say that because I even had to think about, wow, I have been doing thought leadership for quite some time, even before it was the buzzword or before we even labeled it as such. So once I had the title, I think the difference really for me was that people asked What exactly does that mean? Or an elevated what I was doing for them? I sometimes explained it as this is executive communications, it’s brand positioning, but it’s a little bit more than that. It’s really helping to position you as a thought leader, get us to talk about a topic or a thing in the future and how it’s different. But when I had it in my title. I think people came to the table knowing that that’s what I was going to do or with at least that query of what does that mean? When I didn’t have it in the title, it sometimes didn’t happen, or it took a couple of times talking to people about what we were trying to accomplish as a communicator in public relations. Sometimes that’s easy, and sometimes it’s not.

Bill Sherman Well, and you’ve shared with me an example that early on before people really had even heard the words thought, leadership and in a organizational sense, it might take a couple conversations for them to understand. Here’s what I’m interested in. This is why we’re talking about stuff that’s around the corner.

Amelia Folkes Yeah, so especially in my previous job, I was at Emerson when I had the title. It was a huge organization and we were doing a lot of wonderful things. We were also in a very, I would say, difficult areas of industrial manufacturing, dealing with digital transformation, cyber security, industrial IoT technology, things that even I at the time didn’t understand. And obviously, what was really important was sales growth of the company selling your widget. And I brought to the table like, that’s important, but we also need to we have competitors doing the exact same thing. So how do we position ourselves more than a vendor, but a solutions provider or even more than that partner with our customers? And so how do we really take our voice and level it up? And so we have to come to the table with more than just, oh, we can sell you this even when we’re doing traditional media relations, we can’t talk to reporters with just this is what we do. I think analyst relations does it even just as important? We wanted to come to the table and say, we have this technology that will change how the world manufacturers x y z. Or it will dramatically improve our emissions ability to reduce emissions in the world, you know, drastically making a difference, right? And this is like building safer, better manufacturing facilities. That’s huge. That’s, you know, impactful. So it was trying to get people to understand we’re not just going to try to sell the widget, we’re not just going to talk about the widget and make, you know, we’re the best widget in out there. But our widget is also the widget that’s going to change the world. And so that’s kind of that next level. And sometimes that took a couple conversations with people to understand, how do I say that or how is that different from what I’m already doing? Or why is that even important?

Bill Sherman And what I hear in your response is there’s an element of storytelling and elevated storytelling where it’s not just a widget with part specifications or even, Hey, you have this need will fill it, but you’re painting a picture of the possible future and saying, if this is something that you want to move towards, if this is something that you value, we can help you get there. Even though you didn’t think it was possible before, right?

Amelia Folkes It has to be inspiring and has to be forward looking. It has to embody trust, right, and what you’re selling or doing. And sometimes when we talk about I always talk about thought leadership as that thing around the corner. And if you’re going to ask someone to trust you or to take that leap to do something that there is one, they’ve never seen it done before or they’re not sure they’re ready to do it, you really have to build trust. And to me, that’s thought leadership. It’s you’re convincing or you’re selling yourself as trust, a trusted partner that can take that individual, that customer, that client to that next level or that your solution can. Right. And so that’s definitely storytelling. That’s influence. And that’s so much greater than the other things that we do in communications and in marketing. I believe it’s definitely at the high level.

Bill Sherman Now your background, if I remember, right, comes from the world of public relations specifically and then communications more broadly. Is that correct?

Amelia Folkes Correct. Yes. I’ve long 15 years of public relations. Work started out really. You know, I could go back many years, but to engage me. So I don’t want to do that. But my really, really kind of, I would say, sharpened my teeth when I was at Fleishman Hillard, which is a global PR firm, you know, very well regarded and had some really hard clients that I had to do some very hard work for. And that’s really, I think, where I got my PR chops and a lot of that was media relations and positioning grassroots, you know, community affairs work for some government accounts or nonprofit work. And that really helped teach me and I think without even realizing what that thought leadership work would be, and this is years ago, so people weren’t talking about it that way. It was really about influencing change in a community or influencing change in a policy or or a process to benefit a community or to benefit something that’s thought leadership. But we didn’t know it, and I was gaining those skill sets and really doing that and helping to position it with the media. This is pre-internet, Twitter. All that stuff. So yeah, definitely. That was my foundation.

Bill Sherman And with that, when did you realize you were doing something different than what would be classic PR? When did you start to feel you were doing something like thought leadership, whether or not you had those words?

Amelia Folkes No, I think the pivotal moment was the time I was at State Farm, and I will say the moment was for many years, State Farm was known as a company that was helping to create child passenger safety. Both policies, laws and changes in automobile, even the booster seat. You know, things that were happening for the safety of children. And there was a time from a strategy from a Markham or a PR strategy where we shifted to teen driver safety, primarily because our own claim numbers saw a decrease in child passenger issues. Because automobiles started adding airbags and there were laws across the country that required booster seats and just things changed. And now the issue was distracted teens on their telephones or things like that. And I think in retrospect, I was like, Wow, we help change policy, you know, and I’m not saying it was one company and by myself, but it was an industry right? And I know that State Farm was definitely a leader, but there were many other leaders and cell phone providers as well. But it was that was thought leadership where an industry came together and said lives are being lost. This needs to change. There needs to be an education. And then there was a point where, you know what? We’ve reached kind of an optimal now it’s this other thing. And I saw that kind of evolution I even saw from teen driver safety that evolution to just distracted driving safety because adults became distracted. So it was funny because in the many years I was there. I saw that evolution, and I don’t think I noticed it until I looked back and I was like, I was a part of that. Wow. We kind of. And you know, now that I have teens myself and I’m on the road and where I live, we have, you know, you can’t use your cell phone in a school zone or you have to have wireless devices. I myself think I helped make that happen and I did that years ago. That’s not leadership.

Bill Sherman Well, and to build on that, there’s a history in the automotive world and culture. So I think of mothers against drunk driving. And if you think about film history in the 40s and the 50s, if you watch films from those time periods. Drunk driving was played as a comedy event. You know that someone had been drinking and they’re swerving across the road and it’s played for humor rather than, Oh my gosh, this is reckless and dangerous, right? And so you had it with MADD, a number of people who said the current state is unacceptable. The world must change. Right? And so that first ability to see the problem. To call it out and say the world must change, I think is a foundation for thought leadership. But then you, you layer on something else once you climb that mountain. If you make the change that you want achieved, there’s always another mountain behind you.

Amelia Folkes Right, right. And I bet you know, when that that was considered, probably it was more called activism or, you know, it was a community or activist ideal. But it really the person that thought or the groups that thought this has to change, that was thought leadership. You then activated it through policy change and activism in the schools was sad and other organizations. But the original people that really said enough, they’re the ones who had the foresight. And I think that’s kind of what kind of led me. And I think I’m lucky that in a communications profession, I’ve been kind of able to do that and apply that skill set and then allow the activists to kind of take that on and go on from there. Right.

Bill Sherman Right, right. And one of the things and we’re jumping times, right? So we’ve talked about the age before social media and technology. Now we’re in an age where there are so many additional tools rather than classic print, you know, publications. And so our ability to get a message out as thought leadership practitioners, there’s so many more broadcast channels, but there’s also opportunities for narrowcasting as well as point casting, right? 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. So I want to turn to your work today, and so tell us a little bit about the thought leadership work that you’re doing now and how you’re helping where Kiva. Articulate and take its ideas to scale.

Amelia Folkes Yeah, so I love how you took that and you brought it to now because it’s so true. The tools are the channels to communicate are so broad and diverse, but it also allows us to really I always go back to my old peso model for communicators out there who know that that’s the paid, earned, shared and owned. So that means that I can tell my story. I can take my thought leaders and we can pay to put that information out there to pay partnership with publications or through ads. I could work, you know, my old media one on one skills and get some earned interviews. Or I can share it through social, or I can put my own blog out there. And we do it all. And so I love the idea that now as communicators, we can. We have just all of this available to us and at work, Kiva, we are really at the forefront of cloud technology for financial and non-financial reporting. And it’s so interesting and exciting to be kind of at the cutting edge of this, and especially right now as ESG, which stands for environmental social governance, is also very buzzy. Everybody’s talking about it. It’s in the news. It’s what maybe some practitioners used to call corporate social responsibility. I was involved in CSR many years ago when I was at State Farm. It was the volunteerism, the giving back where you’re sourcing your supply chain, it’s taking that to another level with climate risk disclosures, carbon emission, greenhouse gas emission disclosures, diversity numbers, human capital governance of your board, you know, that’s taking it all to the next level. And now we’re looking at in Europe, you have organizations requiring certain mandates that are going to require disclosures. The FCC in the U.S. is looking at what disclosures might be mandated. And so companies are realizing, OK, it isn’t just a nice to have. We are going to have to share this data. But regardless of what these regulators or organizations require, the consumer wants to know that the companies that they are buying from shopping, we’re renting their car from or purchasing a vehicle or traveling with or, you know, just every piece of technology that they’re using that those companies are being good to their people, are being good to the environment and doing right by the by the community. And so that’s a that’s another like push to give companies an opportunity to really position themselves as thought leaders and whether it’s the sustainability or diversity and so great opportunity. And what we’re doing at work Cuba, what I’m getting to do is really take some brilliant people and help to position them to talk about some of these regulations or the New Frontier head of ESG and talk about non-financial reporting in a financial reporting kind of view, which is going to be new and very complicated. And so that’s been really interesting and great, and I think it’s definitely a thought leadership position because it’s not something we have to do right now, but it is coming.

Bill Sherman And if you look at that, you’ll see classes such as financials for non-financial managers here, it sounds like what you’re talking about are non-financial for financial managers, right? So you’re flipping it in someone’s right, right? My question is, what modalities are you using? What sort of we talked about paid, earn, shared and owned, right? But what modalities are using to get the message out?

Amelia Folkes You know, we’re actually using a ton of different opportunities right now because we have great spokespeople. We are looking to both position interviews as well as sharing our own content via blogs. And one of the things that we haven’t used that it’s interesting because at Emerson, we used it quite often that I wanted to kind of bring to the table here, which I think helps to position thought leaders is LinkedIn Longform. And I think you use it, bill personally. Are you share? I do in LinkedIn, and I think it gives people a chance to kind of learn more about you or your expertise. And so that’s something I’m looking to bring to the table for our experts is that modality. We are not quite there yet, but we do have our own blog. And we share those quite often we have an ESG newsroom that through an entity called three bell that we use to really help to shape that conversation. And then of course, we use earned media all the time. So positioning bylines and or interviews any time we can. So of course, I live in that world of public relations. So earned media is my friend and or sometimes not my friend. But it is something that I work day in and day out. And that’s kind of probably the area that for a company that’s looking to really elevate their brand, which is very important. And I think it’s still one of the more valuable areas is to get media. And then you’ve got the peer to trade media as well as your top tier business media. So it’s like, how do we get them to pay attention to this conversation? And so that’s my day in, day out challenge.

Bill Sherman So since you have the deep expertise in PR and not all people who are now heads of thought leadership come from a comms or PR background. I want to ask you a question if you were to give advice around how to acquire earned media, for example, or thought leadership. What advice would you give a peer who’s ahead, head of thought leadership who may not be used to be thinking from a PR perspective?

Amelia Folkes Wow, that’s a that could be a very long answer. I think a tip or two. Yeah, I think it’s important to want to establish your voice and some key messages. It’s important to understand what is your point of view. If you don’t have a point of view and you don’t have it like really documented, then when you go out there you’re going to get stuck or you’re not going to say the right thing or the same thing every time and it’s in PR. It’s so important to be consistent because what you want to do is you actually want to create that echo chamber. So like what you’re saying in your marketing collateral and your advertising, on your website, in your social and then in your earned should all kind of seamlessly echo each other. And so it’s very important to kind of have that voice and tone that you of your message. And if if you’re a unique, let’s say, you’re an executive, then sometimes that might be slightly different from the brand. But it should be yours. So I would say, what is it? What is your brand and tone your voice? And what are those top three messages? Maybe it’s like I believe in X, Y and Z, and it’s the most important thing for our brand is ABC. Just have those documented and you know, the supporting messaging to go with it because you can be an expert. But then if you don’t know how to talk about it in a way that the media is going to understand, it will not get translated properly and you will be misunderstood. Your message will never come out clearly, and you could have one interview that will flop and you won’t have another or you’ll have multiple interviews, and none of them really say the same thing. And so then you really haven’t done anything to really push your elevate your share of voice in the marketplace.

Bill Sherman And to add to that, one of the things that I would say is that repetition and being on message is also essential for thought leadership because your target audience, if they only hear a message once and then they hear something different the next time, it’s not going to sink in. Most people don’t move to action by hearing an idea only once they have to hear it again and again.

Amelia Folkes Well, and I think a perfect example is the work I did at State Farm. It took years, years and the example you gave. So you definitely. It’s also not a one and done. It’s repetition and long. When I was at Emerson, I was really helping to position our thought leadership around cybersecurity. That was not going to happen in one day, not even in three months. It was going to happen over years, 18 months. It’s the end. It was a steady drumbeat, the cadence, a repetition of what we were saying. And even as things were coming at us like major cyber risks and hacks happening around the world, you just stay the message, stay the course, because then people will start to think, Oh, that company Emerson, this that I remember now. And that takes time. And that’s what I’m. I’m fairly new at work, ever. That’s what we’re starting to do. And actually, we’ve had some great success where an analyst literally repeated some of our messaging and I’m like, It’s working. They are saying what we’re telling them to say. That’s great when you can see and other third party, repeat what you’ve been putting out in the in the ether. I mean, it’s working, but it takes time.

Bill Sherman Absolutely. And so as we begin to wrap up, I have a question for you that involves thinking back. You described how you sort of. Migrated into the world of thought leadership as a practitioner at that time, there wasn’t the language, there wasn’t the framework there is now. But if you were to think back to yourself in those early days, what advice would you give yourself early on as a thought leadership practitioner based on what you know now?

Amelia Folkes That is a really good question. I think I’ve always thought about in the back of my mind that there was something I was doing that was just really important. And I think what I would tell my past self is when you’ve got to like a feeling in your gut, or maybe it’s in your heart to just keep at it. I’ve always had this feeling that something was going to change in a few years I’ve even had I had a wonderful boss one time, tell me you’re always like three years ahead of us, everything you’ve told us. Three years later, we’re actually implementing. No. I don’t know if that any practitioner could necessarily have the same thing. That’s just maybe something I tend to be thinking way in advance. But I think what I would tell myself is don’t give up on that. Keep pushing forward for things that are hard. I don’t know if that answered your question because I think sometimes you want to give up when it’s hard and when people are like, No, we just need the sale tomorrow, you know, quick. That’s sometimes you just want to say, OK, let’s just do what we have to do. And I think I would recommend just keep at it, keep at it

Bill Sherman well and seeing around the corner for the future and knowing that those are either the future sales of the organization or the policy that needs to be implemented among a community. To make those things happen, if you keep pushing it into the future, it never comes to today.

Amelia Folkes That’s a good point. Yeah, I never thought of it that way. Yeah, that’s really good. I think, you know, just churning along right and not giving up and always having that vision. I think vision is you didn’t put in vision casting, but I like to say vision casting, like, you know, back in the day, I had my vision board or I think you even hear people jokingly talk about a vision board. Those things are really great for thinking about what can I accomplish? And I think also, as someone who leads thought leadership, it’s really fulfilling to know that you’re a part of something that could potentially that is and not all thought leadership is going to be like changing the world, you know? But it is still some you’re you’re leading influencing your leading or influencing some kind of change. And I would assume for the better. And that’s super exciting, right?

Bill Sherman It makes it a whole lot more fun to wake up in the morning and dove into the work of the day when you can know that when you look back and you see those wins and you say, Oh yeah, that did change.

Amelia Folkes Yeah, exactly. That creates like a bold leadership, I think, right, it gives you that that actionable insight,

Bill Sherman so bold leadership and actionable insights. I think those are two great takeaways. There’s a lot more we could talk about. But Amelia, thank you. Let’s leave it there.

Amelia Folkes Thank you, Bill, I appreciate it, I hope people will enjoy what we’ve talked about.

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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