Competing on a higher level with thought leadership. An interview with Heather Dondis about using…
Developing a thought leadership role.
Clarinda Cerejo discusses her journey developing and evolving a new thought leadership position.
When did you first realize you were creating and deploying thought leadership?
Many thought leadership practitioners were unknowingly performing the function before they stepped up to the title. However, adding the words “Thought Leader” to your title shines a particular spotlight on your talents. The title often comes with high expectations — and a need for clear metrics to show that your work makes sense.
To explore how a new thought leadership role can be developed, and how to help it evolve and move forward, we turn to Clarinda Cerejo, Senior Director of Thought Leadership at Cactus Communications, a technology company that is accelerating scientific advancement by making research available to communities around the world.
Clarinda tells us how Cactus Communications supported her work developing a formal thought leadership role, from the earliest days of research to the expansive plan of building communities. She also discusses what it meant to both her and her organization when she finally included the words “thought leadership” in her formal title.
Determining what success looks like for thought leadership can be challenging. Clarinda gives clear examples of metrics you can use, why you need to celebrate the small victories, and how success is cumulative. Thought leadership means being invested in the long haul, and watching trends, not fads.
We examine the work Clarinda is doing, and the challenges she has faced in moving from scientific research to content marketing. She carries the scientific method into her work doing community building, helping others get their work published, and navigating the difficult peer-review process.
This conversation is a perfect example of the arc a career can take, from subtly doing thought leadership to steering the ship for your company. Listen in, and get insights from one of the most insightful new thought leaders in the business!
Three Key Takeaways:
- Remember that the external perception of your role is more important than any title. Do the work – recognition will come!
- Success in Thought Leadership often looks different than success in marketing or sales. Celebrate the small victories, because they will add up to big changes.
- Focusing Thought Leadership on community lets you create content that gives voices to those who have been most impacted.
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 Not everyone who practices, thought leadership has thought leadership in their title, and this can be for a number of reasons. Perhaps thought leadership work is only part of their role. But there are also some people who serve as heads of thought leadership, even though they don’t have the title. And so I invited Clarinda Cerejo to join me on the podcast. Currently, Clarinda is the senior director of thought leadership at Cactus Communications, a global science communications company. But when Clarinda started doing thought leadership work in 2012, a Cactus Communications bill, she and her leadership were wary of using the term “thought leadership.” So, I’m eager to talk with Clarinda about her journey, how she became a stealth practitioner of thought leadership, the types of work she’s done, and how she and the organization became comfortable naming her role in thought leadership publicly.
Bill Sherman I’m Bill Sherman and you’re listening to Leveraging Thought Leadership ready. Let’s begin. Welcome to the show, Clarendon.
Clarinda Cerejo Thanks so much for having me, I’m excited.
Bill Sherman So, I want to dive in with a question that intrigues me. You’ve been practicing thought leadership for a number of years, I think going back to about 2012. But for many of those years you haven’t had the title. Is that correct?
Clarinda Cerejo That’s right. That’s right. So in fact, I have the title only as recently as about a year ago. But by the title, I mean, thought leadership in my job title, what I’ve been doing some form of thought leadership since 2012, and that was a very intentional decision, actually.
Bill Sherman So let’s dive into that, because I think there are many listeners out there who have a self-awareness moment. They’re working for their organization. They realize they’re doing thought leadership, but they don’t have it in their title. And so I’d like to explore with you a little bit of that journey of yours. OK. So, how did you get into the world of thought leadership back a decade or so ago?
Clarinda Cerejo So, I would say that it stemmed from the vision of my company founders, so we do science communication and there’s a lot of editorial work involved. And that’s the largest operations of the company that does editorial work. Also, I was involved in editorial operations and we – at some point there was this industry conference of journal editors and we said, “Why don’t we put out some of our own research at this conference in the form of a poster or something like that?” And I was just an enthusiastic girl. You could say, and I was and I volunteered to go ahead and do this poster to drive our results toward that could be presented as opposed to at the conference. And that happened. And then we ended up winning the best poster award. And so that’s what it kind of started shortly after that. You know, I had a conversation with the two co-founders of our company, and they said, “We want to do more of this, but more intentionally.” And they called it thought leadership at that point. They said we want to do thought leadership, and they defined it as projecting us as far – as experts in the field, by being able to put out information and insight that people would consider expertise. So that’s what it kind of began. And we were intentional about not using thought leadership and in my title. And that was because my boss, who was one of the co-founders of my company, said that you can go out there and call yourself a thought leader. It’s the way other people perceive you. So you can – you don’t want to be going up and saying, “Hey, I’m a thought leader, listen to me.” You just want to be putting out stuff that makes people want to listen. And then that’s the perception of thought leadership. And that made a lot of sense. And I mean, apart from that, which was actually the primary driver, the other factors were that it did not exist. Much as a designation – I mean, if I looked it up, I didn’t. I didn’t see a thought leadership function, or I thought that you know what, if I had to approach other experts in the industry, say for an interview or something? And I introduced myself as the thought leadership department. It could seem a bit pretentious to somebody who was not heard of it before. I would think. At that point, it just made clearer business sense, I think, for us to just see where it went. It also allowed us to shape the function over the course of the year based on what the business requirement was. So and I’ll talk a little more about that later. But I but I did see thought leadership taking on different avatars, you know, in my tenure. That was really interesting in that it kind of lended, lends itself to that. And my designation also kind of changed, and my men and I pretty much got to choose or co-create my designation as it well because I was doing something unique in the organization. So there was no – there was no standard org chart or anything that I fit into. But essentially we thought about what would be best received when I approach experts for collaboration.
Bill Sherman So you talked about something that I think is incredibly important, not just the perception of what the title would be for thought leadership inside the organization, but how others might perceive outside the organization. Right. And so with that, you were looking and saying, OK. And I think you and your founder were saying, if we go out into the world and call ourselves thought leaders are doing thought leadership, how will others view us? So how did you describe when you went to people for interviews or were doing research? What did you say you were doing?
Clarinda Cerejo So that that’s interesting. And like I said, my designation changed along the way to reflect what I was doing, and to reflect on what would likely be accepted in the industry. So at some point it was manager of – or something – scholarly communications. So that’s vague enough. You know, it’s not, but it’s also interesting enough. So if I talk to, say, the editor in chief of Nature and I say, “Hey, I’m manager of scholarly communications at the science communication company,” and I’m looking to talk to you about whatever, it resonated. So it made sense. And that was something that we did actually see. Like, I did see that considering that. I mean, at that point, I didn’t have a LinkedIn profile that spoke to years of experience doing some great work or anything, so I had to rely on a very strong designation that would kind of make people want to pay attention to my email. Yeah. So that’s how that’s how we thought of the designation. And I think, yes, the external perception mattered much more throughout than the internal designation. And that, I mean, that stems from the fact that the organization is a bit fluid when it comes to designations. It’s not like you need to run it by a chart, and then it should fit into some structure.
Bill Sherman So. While you were in this what I would call “stealth mode” where you were saying you were academic communications, right? We talked about some of what made things easier in terms of you could get people to respond to your email message. But was there anything that was harder on the outside to do?
Clarinda Cerejo So I honestly didn’t come across a situation with when I said, “Oh, you know what, if I had thought leadership in my resignation, this would have been easier” or I didn’t come across somebody say, like you, now, who is Leveraging Thought Leadership? In a very visual way? You know, I didn’t come across somebody that made me think, “Oh, yes, this is exactly what I’m doing, and this is this should be my designation.” So I didn’t. I don’t think that I can pinpoint the designation as a reason. There were challenges. Definitely. There were challenges, probably because of, you know, the lack of structure, some of the lack of my ability, even though to explain what I’m doing necessarily within or outside the organization. So there were challenges, but I would not so attribute them to the designation.
Bill Sherman You talked about how you avoided the name thought leadership back in 2012 and the years following, but at some point you and your organization decided to make that change. When did that happen and why did you choose to use thought leadership in your title?
Clarinda Cerejo Yes, so that’s actually quite interesting, I moved industries, you could say, within my organization. So my organization has different verticals. The primary vertical is academia focused, and that’s the one I was working with for since 2012. Last year, or 2020, I moved into a vertical that deals with pharma more. And what we came to realize was that in the pharma space, thought leadership was a much more established function. And it wasn’t. I mean, it is used, it is used, or it does have a slightly different connotation than what I was using it as, in the sense of possibly not as much projecting ourselves as thought leaders, but leveraging thought leadership outside from the industry. So almost like a PR kind of function with other thought leaders.
Bill Sherman Yes. So, in the U.S., I think the term is thought leader liaison, right, where internal folks within the pharmaceutical company are connecting with external experts, whether they be researchers or physicians. And so, yeah, you’re right, it’s a little bit different role for thought leadership in pharmaceuticals because you’re not projecting yourself as the expert.
Clarinda Cerejo Exactly, exactly. So going into this space, it made sense for us to have a thought leadership function. And for me to have that title, and we will and my my role does involve me doing a mix now of both functions, which is putting out content that does project us as thought leaders, but also then relying on the expertise of thought leaders out there to develop some of this content.
Bill Sherman So you talked earlier about conducting original research as being one of the sort of starting points for this. What thought leadership work are you doing now? Is it still original research or what are you doing and who are you trying to reach?
Clarinda Cerejo So right now, my main target audience is medical affairs departments within pharma companies. Also, we are an agency that supports the publication and medical communication needs of pharma companies. So, we directly work with the medical affairs divisions. The kind of thought leadership work I’m doing now is less original research and more of things like white papers, interviews, things like blog posts, and conference presentations. So putting together panel discussions, things like that and then maybe original research, it’s not off the cuff, but the research would focus around how science is communicated, perhaps by pharma or to physicians or to patients, for example.
Bill Sherman So you’ve got a background in content and also community. How do those inform what you do and thought leadership in the work that you’re doing day to day now?
Clarinda Cerejo Yeah, I – like I mentioned earlier, I did see thought leadership taking on different shapes and forms all you know, over the course of the year that I did it. In some ways, it was heavily research focused, you know, just doing the research and then putting stuff out. In other years it was a lot of content development, that relied on, say, guest contributors. You know, and that is what builds a community, right? So at one point, my role. So I’m you will see. Also, if you were to look at my LinkedIn, you would see that my designation also kind of reflected different – these different stages, all of which could be considered under the umbrella of thought leadership. But in some situations, it took more the form of content marketing. In some situations it took more the form of community building. So I’m, right, and that’s how my background in content and community talked to my thought leadership work as well. An example of that is, like I mentioned, we worked to support researchers in their publication endeavors. So our focus was on the hard stuff. We help you get published. You know, we help you navigate conversations with journals. We help you navigate peer review and things like that. These are some of those technical steps in the process of getting published. Along the way, talking to a lot of researchers, we realized that no one really sees researchers as people, and they are only known by the work they put out. They’re known by whether they got cited, they’re known by whether they got they got an article in Nature, or Science, of if they got a big press release, or they got a Nobel Prize. But where we dug deeper, we realized that there’s a lot going on with researchers in their personal lives or they have really hard professional lives and it’s difficult to balance the personal and professional. And we realize that mental health as a team was very under-addressed in the academic community. So we said, you know, it’s pointless us saying that we’ll help you get published, because there’s so much more that goes on to any – build a resurgent publication. And maybe we need to make a noise about this. So we ran this really big survey on mental health in academia and that got a lot of traction. It ended up being one of the biggest surveys ever done, for researchers, we got over 13000 respondents globally. Got picked up by a lot of press. The US government Department of Energy later did a workshop on mental health in academia and invited us to present personal data. But basically, that’s the kind of impact that this kind of thought leadership initiative had. Having said that, though, it was a completely community-focused initiative. Because we relied on the voices of these, this large community of researchers, we said we bring our voice to the powers that be through your university admin, the – to publishers, to people making the decisions, funders. So we relied on the community and it’s been a community initiative. So that that’s one perfect example actually of how. But it was also thought leadership because it was the first of its kind at the scale of the time, and things like that.
Bill Sherman So, and I want to highlight a few things there. It’s because you were engaged with a number of individuals helping them on their individual project to get their research published, that you said, “OK, this isn’t just one person. This is many people,” right? And one of the things that I love about thought leadership is the ability to see those patterns and make the invisible visible. Because I think you had a situation where you could have had a lot of researchers saying, “OK, this is just me. Everybody else in my field is doing well,” and then you do this research, and you say, “No, this is common.” And then all of a sudden, everybody says, “We’re not alone in this.” And then you can start saying, “What do we need to do to address this?” And so, I think that’s a powerful example of how you use interactions with customers, with clients, et cetera, and detecting a pattern that they might not themselves see or that anyone else is talking about.
Bill Sherman If you are enjoying this episode of Leveraging Thought Leadership, please make sure to subscribe. If you’d like to help spread the word about the podcast, please leave a five-star review and share it with your friends. We are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all major platforms, as well as at LeveragingThoughtLeadership.com.
Bill Sherman So, let’s talk for a few minutes about the lessons that you’ve learned in thought leadership. So obviously you’ve been on this journey now, 10 almost 10 years, right? What have you learned? And the reason I ask this is there are many people who are now. Joining the field of thought leadership, and they’ve been there maybe three months, maybe a year, maybe two years. What wisdom would you offer?
Clarinda Cerejo So, I would say you’re in it for the long haul. I think you need to celebrate the small successes because it is a long, complicated, as it is. Oh, you know, the kind of work that you will do. You’re not going to get brilliant new insights every day. Oh, you’re not going to be able to churn out something exciting that grabs eyeballs every day. But you’re going to be working on these kind of long term projects that you know will make a difference. Your organization, if they’re thinking ROI, if they’re thinking metrics, it’s going to be going to be difficult for you to on a daily basis, say, “This is what I achieved.” So I think just staying the course, I think that was one of the things I learned. Or being willing to try a whole lot of things, being willing to for example, if you want to try reaching a new audience through content, and you want to try all the different content formats that you can, and some of them may work, some of them may not. And so be willing to try, try different things, fail fast, pick up and move on, try other things. Yeah. And I think also so when I started, I feel like I had a lot of imposter syndrome because, I mean, because. Yes. And that’s actually why I was even glad that I didn’t have thought leadership in my title, because I would have not felt right about it. But I don’t know this stuff, you know, am I just okay? But basically, if you don’t chase this vision of people seeing you as an expert, but you actually just think about what is this thing I can bring to the table today. Right? And you can’t control how people perceive you, or you can’t control how people perceive your organization eventually. But you can see, you can try and connect those dots that you see on an everyday basis, like you said, and make sense of it and put that out there. And that’s really fulfilling in itself, I think, right? Go ahead.
Bill Sherman Yes, so one of the things that I wanted to say on that is that sense of fulfillment is almost one of the best antidotes for imposter syndrome, right, where it’s easy to have that little voice inside of your head saying, why would anyone listen to this idea? But you have to look and say, and ask yourself, what questions are worth asking that nobody’s looking at? Or what stories need to be told and that need to be elevated. And once you start doing that and you get people leaning in and go, I’m glad you put that piece out there. All of a sudden, that voice of imposter syndrome. Gets quieter. OK, so. You talked about metrics and you said celebrate the small successes. Right? How are you measuring success in a way that’s meaningful for thought leadership? Because I know like a lot of content marketing metrics, reach and likes and that sort of thing. Those are a trap, right? So what are you and your leadership team paying attention to? And how are you celebrating those small successes?
Clarinda Cerejo Great question. I think – it’s funny, but I’ve attended quite a few content marketing conferences and I’ve heard content marketers say that it’s so difficult to measure success, or ROI is impossible to achieve. But when I compare it with thought leadership, I actually think, what are you talking about? You know, you have metrics, you have something to go by. So yes, while I will say that it’s important that your thought leadership initiatives are impacting business some way or the other, right? So for example, if you’re doing content, yes, you are measuring your content marketing metrics are putting out the white people, you are measuring downloads, you are measuring leads generated, you’re measuring leads converted from that. And you are. I mean, those are talking about the initiative. If you are doing something like community based, then you are measuring when I’m going to sign up. So you are measuring the number of new join-ees in your community. So you need those. But if you take a step back and think of thought leadership? It’s much harder to identify specific metrics to say that we did this and this and this. But the way I started seeing success, I think, was and it’s cumulative. You would see that over time, I can give you a few examples. So we started, I built this platform for researcher education. It was called, it’s called Editage Insights. And we told researchers, here’s a platform where you can learn everything you need to know about publishing. We led a lot of educational resources. And we said that researchers really want to hear from journal editors and they don’t have access to these guys at all. So let’s run some interviews with journal editors. Now, when we started, we said why would journal editors come and be interviewed on our platform? And it was hard. The first few interviews getting the first few interviews was difficult, but once we did that, then eventually as we go down the line, we got Nobel laureates who were willing to be interviewed? So I think you will see it in ways like if you are doing B2B, then you will see your sales teams hearing from clients at conferences. “Hey, yes, I’ve heard of you guys. Hey, you guys are doing some really cool stuff.” We’ll hear that report and you find you suddenly see their conversation seeming to get easier. You see the function kind of transition from this place where you’re working in a bubble or putting stuff out, making a noise about it just by yourself. No one, really, you’re not getting feedback as – are people even reading this? Do people even care? but then you see that transitioning to a place where your sales folks are coming to you and saying, or your marketing folks are saying “Hey, we’d like to run a webinar.” Or “Can we do some research on this? Can we put out a report on this?” You see that shift, and I think that those are the kind of successes that you need to look forward to and celebrate them any way you can. So I would send out a big loud shouty email to as many people as I possibly could, add on and say, “Hey, look what we did and look what we achieved and look what the client said.” I mean, sometimes it would just be replies saying great stuff or whatever. But, you know, cumulatively it’s adding up and then it’s making someone else’s job easier. At some point
Bill Sherman And I think you’ve given some fantastic examples that I want to sort of synthesize here. So like when you said for reaching out for interviews where you said, “OK, we weren’t sure who would say yes to begin with as a journal editor, and then we were getting Nobel laureates.” One of the things that thought leadership can do when you’re doing interviews or podcasts or whatever is, the longer you do it, the more likely very successful people are to say yes. Right? And so it allows you the opportunity to build that relationship. Second, what you mentioned from sort of clients, customers you move from when you’re having these conversations out there on a thought leadership level, you move from being a vendor to someone who’s sharing knowledge in a way that people enjoy. And those conversations move from the vendor conversation to, Oh, I saw your work on mental health and research, for example, that was really important. Thank you. Right? It becomes and it goes back to what we talked about your sense of creating a community. If you’re an outside vendor, it’s how hard to build a community, whereas if you’re part of the community having conversations. It’s much easier.
Clarinda Cerejo Absolutely. I completely agree.
Bill Sherman So, as we begin to wrap up, I want you to think back to that time where you and your leadership were considering doing that poster. The first time you were doing thought leadership. What advice would you give someone who’s taking their first steps into a thought leadership role at work, whether or not they have a title?
Clarinda Cerejo So, you would not believe this. Was when I was offered this role for the thought leadership role, I was tempted to turn it down because I began with, “Oh my God, I have no idea how to do this. I have no idea what this is. I have no idea how to do this.” And then I just stepped back and said, “Okay, let me give this a shot.” And the first thing I did was go get what is the absolute basics. And I, you know, I and I feel like that’s a practice that I’ve kind of stuck with. I mean, just going to the absolute basics for every new project, for every new wave, because it does seem daunting, you know, you have to probably try out some uncharted territory and things like that. So I would – I actually am unabashed in my Googling. You know, I’m unabashed in my research, going down to the absolute basics. I think that that’s the starting point. And apart from that, some of the things that I’ve already said, stick with it. You might need to be very vocal exclaiming what you’re trying to do, why it’s important. I’ve had challenges with I’m sure this is a very common challenge with anybody for anybody in thought leadership, which is getting a marketing team, let’s say, in the last quarter of the year, to chose to promote – or a thought leadership project over something that’s going to give them leads and business today, right. So that’s pushing for the long term over the short term. I think that in my organization, separating this as a function in itself and the understanding from leadership that this is a long-term play, oh and me being given the kind of resources to work independent of, say, the performance marketing team. That helps. So I think I would I would encourage these young thought leaders to ask for the kind of resources you need or kind of explain what you’re trying to do and that it will take two years, maybe three years and what you’re committed to making this happen and these other kind of resources you would need right now to make that happen, I think, and we celebrate the small stuff, even if it’s only you who knows that this exciting thing – this materialized, you know, it’s not it’s definitely not the same as, “Hey, we hit X million dollars in revenue,” or “Oh hey, we hit X thousand clients today,” obviously, which are a lot more tangible success stories that everyone will celebrate in the organization. Saying, “Hey, we got cited by this journalist,” or “Hey, guess who wrote to me today?” It’s not as exciting but go out there and make a noise about it anyway. Sooner or later, you will get people paying attention.
Bill Sherman So, Clarinda, that’s fantastic advice for new practitioners entering the field. Thank you for sharing your experience with the community.
Clarinda Cerejo Thank you for having me, Bill, once again, this was more than a pleasure.
Bill Sherman If you’re interested in organizational thought leadership, then I invite you to subscribe to the RTL newsletter. Each month we talk about the people who create, curate and deploy thought leadership on behalf of their organizations. Go to the website orgtl.com 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.