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Standing Up and Institutionalizing Thought Leadership | Bill Sherman

Standing Up and Institutionalizing Thought Leadership | Bill Sherman | 448

How to stand up organizational thought leadership and who should own it.

An interview with Bill Sherman that originally aired on April 6th, 2022, as part of our Leveraging Thought Leadership Live series on LinkedIn.

On this episode, Leveraging Thought Leadership’s hosts, Peter Winick and Bill Sherman, get together to share their insights about organizational thought leadership, institutionalizing it across an organization, and how it can create authentic relationships and increase audience loyalty.

There’s no straightforward way to stand up a thought leadership function or position within an organization. Our hosts share their thoughts on that, and on organizations hiring for thought leadership positions  (something unheard of only a few years ago!). The people filling these roles are coming from varied backgrounds – and that helps them bring unique perspectives forward, keeping an audience\s focus on the message rather than the medium.

In the past, the face of organizational thought leadership might be treated like a rock star, going out on speaking gigs and taking the spotlight. While part of that image is still true, organizations today want many disparate voices sharing their thought leadership. A chorus of voices shows that your organization is full of smart people, and that helps attract and retain others.

We round out the conversation by discussing how thought leaders can leverage relationships in order to drive ideas. Narrowcasting (or point casting) your thought leadership to a niche group that can have the most impact can be a game changer, but those relationships can’t survive if they only exist on social media. Those relationships need to be fostered over the phone, in person, and in meaningful ways.

Three Key Takeaways:
  • Research shows that three things are needed for successful thought leadership: Buy in from senior leadership, time, and creativity.
  • Seeing results from thought leadership requires a long time horizon. Much like research and development, you can’t expect quick results.
  • Keynote speakers need to deliver more than entertainment. They need to bring something relevant, insightful, and actionable.

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 at Thought Leadership Leverage. And you’re joining us on the LinkedIn Live version of the podcast, which is Leveraging Thought Leadership. So today my guest I don’t need to introduce into myself, Bill is the CEO at Thought Leadership Leverage and he leads our organizational leadership practice. He also co-hosts the podcast and he’s also been in thought leadership more than most people on the planet. So hey, Bill, and happy birthday, Bill.

Bill Sherman Oh, thank you. Good to be here.

Peter Winick Yeah. So let’s sort of just maybe dive in and have this be a little bit of shoptalk that you and I are usually doing every day, but doing it in front of a mic and hopefully with a couple million people listening, or at least a couple of dozen maybe, what are you seeing? What are you seeing out there in the marketplace on the thought leadership side? And you focus a little bit more on the organizational side than I tend to. But yeah. What are you seeing?

Bill Sherman So I think there’s an appetite for several things. Thought leadership is very fuzzy as a term within organizations. So I’ve been sort of monitoring the pulse of jobs and positions that are organizations are hiring for people with thought leadership in the title. It used to be a few years ago that would be unheard of. Now it’s hard for a day to go by without seeing a Fortune 500 or a large organization globally saying, “We’re looking for someone with specific skills to slot into a thought leadership role.”.

Peter Winick So let me let me pause you there, because it’s not like if I was looking for a systems engineer or a SAS software person, whatever, that’s easy. I’m going to need and put that up there. Whatever I think organizations are struggling is it’s not like anyone’s been doing it for 15 years. So, they have to work backwards from is it a consultant, is it a journalist, is it a research like what are the.

Bill Sherman Exactly. And you can see sort of trends based on the job description, based on whoever’s leading the thought leadership function and where it sits within the organization. So, there are times where it has a journalistic lean, a content strategy or content marketing. There’s some that come from a pure strategy play. And so I think one of the things that you’re seeing is if you were to aggregate all of those job descriptions, you’d see things rise to the top and then you’d see sort of themes, sort of, oh, this is a journalistic take on public information.

Peter Winick Yeah, I think that makes it difficult for folks because there is no just add water and mix. There’s no instant oatmeal of thought, leadership, many functions and departments. It’s fairly obvious how to stand up that function, even if it’s a new we’re a rapidly growing, well-funded startup and it’s the first time we hire a HRO. Someone has done that many, many, many times.

Bill Sherman We need to set up our recruiting function or accounts payable. Right? You know what that looks like? What its roles and responsibilities are, where it sits within the organization, and then what are the measurements, metrics and outcomes? And that’s the other piece too, is if I were to look beyond the demand for people with these skills and capacities, there’s an appetite for scalable process within the organization so that it’s not just pockets of individuals doing fall leadership, but what is our enterprise wide definition, if you will?

Peter Winick What I get to the point is I think thought leadership at an organizational level ten years ago, maybe even five, typically was our founder or our CEO or our practice leader. This consultancy will byline an article on HBO or write a book, say smart things somewhere. Check the box. Done. Yeah. Now it’s about the institutionalization of the thought leadership and saying what is company X’s perspective on? And it doesn’t have to be owned by a person. I mean, people have to create it delivered, etc.. But it’s more this institutionalization of the thought leadership that the organization that the entity is behind. So how do you how do you sort of institutionalize that?

Bill Sherman So you first need to have either a function or someone who owns that process. Right. And is responsible for standing it up. Otherwise, if you think about it from an ad hoc basis, two things happen. You have people either come up with an idea and say, we should launch a blog or a podcast or do this or that, and they start focusing on the asset rather than the outcome. And that leads to all sorts of troubles down the line, because asset based thought leadership doesn’t work. You just worry about filling boxes rather than producing results. And if you want this to be successful on the organizational side, you’ve got to be able to answer at a business level if we’re investing this time, energy, resources, talent. So what how does this drive us closer to the business objectives that we care about and how do we know we’re moving closer to success?

Peter Winick Yeah, so let me throw this at you. So we did a bunch of research here at Thought Leadership Leverage, everywhere, a couple of years ago. Not that many. When we launched our focus into organizational thought leadership or added that focus, I should say, and we interviewed, I think it was almost 40 heads of thought leadership at all sorts of organizations globally, from nonprofits to financial services to technology, whatever. And there were two or three themes that were recurring. One is, in order for it to be successful, you need to have a cover from senior leadership, right? You think leadership is let’s try a campaign, write one article, count the clicks and count the cash registers. So you need senior leadership. You need a time horizon that is logical, typically 18 to 36 months. You’re not going to measure success in the short term, and then you need creativity around standing up the function. So any thoughts on sort of that ownership piece and getting folks to think long term because we all get rewarded quarterly or whatever, investing in something that might not pay off for 18 or 24 months. The hard sell.

Bill Sherman Yeah. So I would use an argument by analogy in a couple of ways. The first I would point to is we are all motivated, short term, impulsive. I know that the research has been questioned around it, but I think of the Stanford marshmallow test, right where you put the kids in front of a marshmallow and you can have two later or one today. A lot of kids go, you know, a marshmallow in my mouth is better than two marshmallows, not date uncertain. Right. And that sort of incentivization also takes time. So the way that I frame it and think about it is organizations are used to making long term investments in things like research and development. And I know that it has a time horizon to pay off. You don’t launch an R&D initiative and say, how are we going to monetize that this quarter? And in some ways it’s as foolish to sort of launch bold leadership Q2 and hope by, you know, first day of Q3.

Peter Winick ,You’ve got money in the till. Doesn’t that speak to ownership? Because not exclusively, but if we’re thinking in terms of word cloud, who owns the function, right? Marketing, probably more than 60% I would if I had to guess. Right. And marketers.

Bill Sherman I think that’s a fair assessment. Yeah.

Peter Winick Yeah. And again, sometimes it’s strategy or special ops or we think compliance and regulatory, but marketing tends to be what you’d think it would sit and marketers think in terms of campaigns. Right. What who are you trying to influence? What’s the call to action? What’s the outreach? Marketers tend to also not be long term sort of players. So you also have to adjust that this thought leadership is not content marketing. It’s not saying something pithy in a piece of X to get why. So speak to that for a moment, if you would.

Bill Sherman So some of that from a marketing perspective, you have to think about, okay, what is the intent of the message? Okay. As you said, if 60% of the thought leadership functions sit in marketing, great. But it’s a different time horizon. You know, a lot of content marketing is designed for people who are in or near a buying decision. Thought leadership is not. It’s often educational. It’s expanding someone’s horizon, getting them to see things differently or think about something which may not be a burning issue on their plate today, but in 12 to 18 months will be. Yep. So it’s the difference between fire prevention and firefighting. If you can get someone to think about fire prevention today. I live out in the West, so hey, clearing the brush around your house is a good thing to do and is the thing you can do today that will prevent crisis or disaster 1218 months from now. You’ve got to be able to think with that time horizon and be able to say These things may not pay off today and that’s okay. We’re making investments a marketer’s used to thinking about investments in brand, for example, and recognizing that an investment in brand isn’t tied to a purchasing decision. You can make that argument. That one.

Peter Winick Yep. We’ve got a question. I don’t know if it’s up on the screen or not. I can see it here, but it says Who owns the thought leadership cloud? Here we go. Who owns the thought leadership cloud when it’s developed on behalf of the brand or organization, if the talent moves on. So that’s a fabulous question. And I think. Let’s call it old school thought leadership. Ten, 15 years ago, we made someone a rock star, right? And then we put everything behind that person. And we had them speaking on behalf of the organization, and we had their name on the book. And when people thought of the organization, that person’s name came up. And sometimes I didn’t even know the name of the organization. They remembered the methodology or the framework or the platform. I think the key piece here is if you make one person, you know, the quote, owner or phaser, there’s very little way to neutralize the risk. People do stupid things. People leave. People get into trouble, whatever. I think it’s that institutionalization of the thought leadership. So one person might be the front. But there are other people also talking about it. And you’re using thought leadership in a way that intrinsically motivates folks in the organization, whether that’s for awareness or recognition. And you reward things that that you want done. We’ve seen organizations integrate thought leadership is a requirement lower pays are to be on the hi-po track. What have you published what have you put out there? What have you done? And then I also think if the talent moves on, as long as it’s institutionalized, that’s a good thing for them as well. That, you know, all things being equal, if I’m hiring X and one person comes with a full body or even dabbling or inklings of thought leadership and one doesn’t. I kind of get that for free, right, as an organization. And it also shows that they have a passion, that they have a voice, that they’re committed to doing something. So it’s a really good question. I don’t think there’s one best answer to that.

Bill Sherman And what I would add to that for you, is if you think about it, is a talent pipeline. So organizations want to attract people who are capable of thought leadership, whether or not they’re producing it today, but they want to hire and retain smart people. One of the ways from an employer of choice perspective is to signal smart people work here for working on interesting, challenging problems. Your propensity to attract and retain those people is much higher when you’re showcasing top leadership rather than showcasing none. Now, if someone moves on, many of the professional services firms, I think, have cracked the code in a good way. They maintain relationships. If you leave a McKinsey or an Accenture, you’re considered an alumni of that.

Peter Winick Right.

Bill Sherman Right.

Peter Winick Exactly.

Bill Sherman Exactly. That’s not a bad thing. You can clear up the ownership of who owns the idea or who has the license in perpetuity to the idea. That’s employment contract. But if you’re not showcasing thought leadership in a talent driven work force right now, especially when we’re seeing low in unemployment, people who are capable and thought leadership and dealt with our challenges.

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 Podcasts and on all major listening apps as well as at

Peter Winick So, I want to shift this to a different direction for a couple of moments in terms of other things that we’re seeing in the marketplace obviously right now today. And this could change as we know things change rapidly in the last couple of years. It looks like live events are coming back right at least in the short term. And it’s great to see people on the road and it’s great to see our keynote friends on the stage again and participants. And we’re hearing all these amazing stories about, Oh my God, it’s the first time we got together as an organization in two years and all those sorts of things. So my thoughts on I’d love to get yours as well, Bill, is this a short term spike because there’s pent up pent up demand for human connectivity and maybe what are the long term implications and changes?

Bill Sherman So there’s a couple of things there. And in addition, not only for events, but I would expand it to way of working as well. And still, Laszlo Bock, who was head of people operations at Google, has been making some comments over the last week or so and saying that this hybrid way of working is really only a stop to or a waystation on the way back to everyone working back within the office if you want the visibility and the opportunities, etc.. And so I think there’s an inherent tension between what do people want and then what your organizations wanted, perceived value and the way that I would connect that or the conferences. Yeah, it’s a lot of time and effort, both in terms of hard dollars and time of travel. On the road. But I think there has to be an intentional thoughtfulness to when do you exercise convening authority in a person. And you’ve got to be able to show the ROI from that. The annual Get Together Jamboree, that sort of thing is good from the human connection side. But if you can’t tied to the metrics, you got a question.

Peter Winick Well, and then so the other side of that from a content perspective on the event side is many keynotes were largely entertaining, heavy on the entertainment and a little bit lighter on the capabilities. Development doesn’t mean they’re not good people. Right. But why then, you know, an athlete to speak or a, you know, someone from the Olympics or whatever, you know, military here or whatever? Well, there’s an entertainment value to what they’ve got. I think what organizations are doing now are saying, listen, there’s a time and place for entertainment. And by the way, you can get a lot of that pretty effectively, digitally and remotely, if we’re going to spend the time. And it’s the hard and soft dollars. Right. How do I get what a room. You know, the emails are piling up. The work still needs to get done. What are the tangible, measurable capabilities that are going to be developed in them? And keynoters, historically weren’t held to that standard. And I think it’s starting to change a little bit. Yeah.

Bill Sherman I think there’s a blending of roles as well. So keynoter and sort of consultant or, you know, the person with external insights, there’s a higher level of expectation of if we’re convened in person, don’t just entertain. Bring is something insightful, relevant and actionable to who we are and what we do. So I think there’s always a place for a little bit of a rah rah, but I think those who will thrive in the event space are the ones I scoop and bring in perspectives and make it a time well invested.

Peter Winick I also think because we’re all so much more comfortable and fluent in digital and remote and hybrid and all that, that we don’t need to keep the relationship to be brought in. This outsider, they spoke for 47 minutes at a rah rah festival in Vegas or Orlando, and you’ll never see them again or go by.

Bill Sherman Well, and that’s exactly true, whether you’re an internal thought leadership organization trying to drive messaging or you’re trying to bring an idea into an organization, a one touch point sort of event doesn’t work. Right. So if your idea is one convened in one big white paper, for example. Yeah. Good luck, first of all, getting people to read that white paper. But you got to break it down. You’ve got to repeat it. And so from an experiences side and from a growth and development side, if you’re bringing an idea into the organization the ability to create a journey rather than just sort of a rah rah speech and off stage, you’re done.

Peter Winick Yeah, I think that that journey is critical. So it could be on stage. You know, you’re leading with the most interesting, the most intriguing. It would be entertaining. I’m not advocating that. You don’t also have an element of being engaging and entertaining. Right. That’s table six. Yeah, that’s right. They don’t have that. They’re going to belong on the stage. But then. Okay, great. You’re going to be hearing more from Bill, our keynoter, in the next couple of weeks, be it in the form of short form video, in the form of Q&A, interactive pulldown libraries. There are other derivatives and modalities that you can digest that are asynchronous, right. And I think that’s what we’re really starting to see some interesting things happen because they feel a connection because we saw we had that experience, we had a human touch. And I’m really intrigued and I want to continue that journey. And organizationally, we’re watching our people get better at a skill and that ties to a business outcome that we’re looking to do. So it’s I think the bar has been raised. I actually think that’s a good thing. Right.

Bill Sherman And I think if I were to distill this down again, looking internal thought leadership being deployed externally and then externals deploying and internally, we’re seeing an evolution of how ideas are communicated, how they’re taken to scale and how people are evaluating. Is this sticky? Is it creating impact?

Peter Winick Yeah, I think that’s very true. So I think a lot of people have changed their business models, those that are in the business of, quote, selling their thought, leadership words, the product and those on the organizational side that are deploying it. I think, you know, you mentioned earlier sort of the white page, the white paper, there are maybe a dozen, if that many, you know, sort of annual or bi. Annual white papers that are really stop the presses. You really need to get your hands on it. Right. I think there is still a mentality or a culture of, well, that’s what these folks do. So we’ll do it. And it’s like one in that it’s really not wise to do it that way. One of the things that we’re seeing is people might still invest in that big white paper that consumes lots of man hours and dollars, etc., but they’re repurposing the heck out of it. So they’re taking that 40 page document that cost a couple out of whatever, a couple dozen man, years, man and woman years, I wanna be inclusive here. You’re sitting here and slicing and dicing it into bite sized nuggets so it doesn’t need to be.

Bill Sherman And a lot of people are attuned to social media where they’re making evaluations on ideas and content within microseconds. Right. And they’re scrolling just through social on their phone. If you can’t present a reason why it is relevant to them within a couple of seconds, which is a high bar for thought leadership but is essential, they’re going to scroll past and never find your brilliance. That’s why burying your framework or your big idea deep within the white paper. More and more I’m thinking, slap it on the cover, lead with that as an image, put the front and center, and then if they’re curious, they’ll dig deeper and want to know more and say, How is this relevant to me?

Peter Winick Yeah. And I also think it’s it’s about not so much the focus on being all things to all people or I’ve got to get my stuff out. And, you know, let me look at the vanity metrics on social media. Ooh, look how many people read it or click there, how popular and the thing the laser focused on the who. So I don’t believe it, especially when it comes to deploying thought leadership that it’s a big numbers game. It’s the right numbers game, you know, getting your stuff in the hands of the right 50 people, 100 people, 5000 people is a game changer trying to go after these astronomical numbers. There’s just a lot of waste and it’s the wrong metric.

Bill Sherman Right. So most organizations do not have the budget or the means to deploy Super Bowl ad levels spend on a regular basis. There’s a reason that, yes, they’re right, but that’s sort of like the apex of broadcasting still. You can take a fraction of that and say, who are the 5000 people that we need to get this idea in front of? Because if they here are our idea, consider it accepted and embrace it. The world changes for us, right? I’d rather take a fraction of that budget and apply to narrowcasting or point casting to individuals rather than to try to do thought leadership by broadcasting. Because broadcasting is not the right way for thought leadership.

Peter Winick Exactly. So the last thing I want to spend a moment or two on before we start to wrap is. There’s so many new modalities, formats and ways that we can deliver thought leadership right. To what it used to be traditional. Right? I can deliver a keynote to get my message out, whether that’s for an individual thought leader or an organization.

Bill Sherman Keynote. Book. White Paper Speaking at conferences. Article. Article. Podcast. The Usual Suspects, right?

Peter Winick Yeah. And I think they’re limited. I mean, and they’re all good. But I think what we’re starting to see now, which is really, really cool and interesting, that thought leadership is that little piece of paper that the CEO has in her pocket to use three or four or five bullet points as they’re walking the halls of Davos or something that is thought leadership or integrating it into a news conference or what are the other modalities and formats and the tools and research that you can use. So it’s not just the traditional, but being almost as creative in the format, in the modality to try to reach people where they are. I think that’s where we’re seeing a lot of interesting things happening in the marketplace.

Bill Sherman Well, in the piece that I would add on that, in addition to modality, is that thought leadership can be deployed digitally but is still inherently a relationship driven tool and technology. And so don’t just think about putting on social, but there’s this whole undercurrent of dark social things that you can’t see the conversations that happen off of LinkedIn, whether through direct message or email and that sort of thing. And so think about how do you leverage relationships to drive ideas?

Peter Winick Well, and that’s a great example of another way that we’re living in this hybrid world. So LinkedIn is phenomenal for lots and lots and lots of things, right? To show the world, however you define that, what you’re thinking, what’s going on, etc., to build relationships, but to deepen relationships, you still need to pick up the phone. You still need to get on a call. You write very, very, very, very few relationships from a business perspective exist solely on LinkedIn, right? It’s a great place to stay connected and to connect with people all around the globe that have common interest. But if you keep it there, you’re sort of missing you’re missing a dimension to it, I think.

Bill Sherman So I’m looking in the comments and Reid has a question on conversationalist will make connections and create value. How do you measure the value created over time? So let me flip that to you, Peter, and then I’ll jump in.

Peter Winick Yeah. So so there we go. So measuring the value created over time, I think it depends what is a value to you. Right. So it could be, if you think of it as from brand awareness. Wow. Now somebody knows who I am. And when there is a point in time where I can be helpful to them, I’m a potential tool in the arsenal. That’s one end of the continuum. The other end of the continuum is, holy cow, we need that right now. So I think the way you look at value over time is what is your total investment in these activities? Whatever they want, marketing, thought, leadership, etc. What are you investing in that? What’s the opportunity cost and what does it look like on the other side? And if you don’t have those goals set out upfront, it could seem like a big concern. But I think if you’re clear about the who and the desired outcomes and leave a little bit of room for serendipity and, you know, things that we don’t plan for, that’s great because I you know, there’s some people I look at a link and I’m like, wow, I wonder if they have a day job looking like they’re spending lots and lots of time on. They are putting out lots.

Bill Sherman A lot more. LinkedIn is their day job. Right. And in some organizations, that’s absolutely true.

Peter Winick Yeah. Yeah, exactly. So I think that that value over time is I would flip that question a little bit and say we’ve had many a client come to us and say, hey, I am fill in the blank, afford to contribute and all these other things we say, great, what’s the value of that? So there’s a prestige to contributing to some of these big brands, but then we push them and say, Okay, so how many articles did you write over what period of time and what’s the average length of time it takes you to produce an article? And then we get to a macro. We see, great. So that was 700 hours last year. What’s an hour worth to you? What did you get that you can attribute to that activity? And a lot of times we get a little lazy so that it’s –

Bill Sherman Like, well, to build on that in terms of value created over time, I think one of the things that I would emphasize is thought leadership is a game where doing less better really matters. Yeah, if you try to do 32 different things and achieve 32 different outcomes, you never get the depth, quality and repetition needed to create influence through flawless leadership. And so the art of saying no is as essential and saying, No, I’m not going to focus on this audience or I’m not going to focus on this outcome for leadership, because otherwise you just spread the butter too thin over the bread and nothing else.

Peter Winick And I would say that also applies the modality, which is the next question we’ve got up there indirectly is I would say it is the numbers are next to zero. How many people have constituents that they’re trying to influence that are on fill in the blank Instagram and Tik Tok and LinkedIn and like you people aren’t on all 11. Now you could argue that well in their off time they’re on Instagram. So what are what are they using the modalities for to look for? Right. If they’re looking for hobbies or they’re looking for entertainment or whatever, you don’t need to be everywhere. So it was a broader question on Twitter’s move to create close community. I don’t see where it goes. I mean, I think there have been certain close communities that don’t work so well anymore, various groups and things like that. Sometimes they do work well. From my standpoint, Twitter used to be a little bit different, and I think LinkedIn has won the race in terms of where do most business people go most of the time to develop relationships and get information. And Twitter has become, again, is one person’s opinion more of a news feed, right, for folks. So that instantaneous what’s going on in the world is a different cadence and there’s a different depth that you can get into in each of the four. And what would you say, Bill?

Bill Sherman I think that’s, well, I think the ability to there’s a lack on social sort of maybe Facebook or closed communities for a group of professionals that want to talk shop. And so LinkedIn for a while used to do groups and then they sort of deprecated and they’re not as common anymore. I think there’s an inherent tension between putting thought leadership out broadcasting and then talking to the people that you develop deep relationships with already. I think there’s an appetite for it that many of the platforms haven’t cracked the code on. And they want us as creators to make things accessible to as many people as possible, because they want us to chase the shiny object of the number of views them likes.

Peter Winick Yeah, exactly. Well, this has been fun. I just got to be conscious of the time here and start to wrap us up. So, thank you for spending part of your birthday with us.

Bill Sherman Thank you. Thank you for the birthday wishes.

Peter Winick Yeah. There you go. Well, thank you. Thanks, everybody. Thanks. Thanks for listening.

Peter Winick To learn more about Thought Leadership Leverage, please visit our website at to reach me directly. Feel free to email me at Peter at Thought Leadership Leverage dot com 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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