Where Will your Thought Leadership Strategy Take You?

What’s Your Destination?

A few years ago, I boarded a plane after midnight for a long cross-country overnight flight. Like many of my fellow passengers, I was only half-awake as I staggered aboard, so the flight crew’s routine announcements had the soothing tone of a familiar lullaby. “If Portland is not your destination, now is your last chance to exit the aircraft.”  By the time the crew reached the seat-belt tutorial, I was pleasantly drifting off to sleep.

Then, mysteriously our plane stopped on the taxiway. After fifteen minutes, the plane returned to the gate. Once the jet bridge was reconnected, two teen-aged girls made the long walk up from the rear of the aircraft—heads hung low and shoulders hunched. They looked like they were just old enough to fly on their own. Feet shuffling, they dragged their roll-aboards behind them.

After the girls deplaned, the pilot apologized for the delay. The two girls had missed a gate change announcement and boarded the wrong aircraft. Our flight to Portland wasn’t their destination.

Take a Look around You

This mistake doesn’t happen all that often in the world of commercial aviation, but it happens pretty frequently in the world of thought leadership.

If you listen to the media buzz on LinkedIn and Twitter, you’ll hear a constant drumbeat around thought leadership. You need to differentiate yourself! However, the term “thought leadership” can describe two very different activities:

  • Using thought leadership to boost your existing career
  • Running a business based on thought leadership

Because they both share a common term, many people assume that these concepts are closely related. However, they describe two very different career arcs and trajectories.

If you conflate the two types of thought leadership, you’ll likely experience frustration and disappointment. It’s like boarding your Manchester-bound flight, only to discover that the plane is heading to New Hampshire instead of England.

So, fasten your seat belts, and remember the nearest emergency exit may be behind you. It’s time to explore the concept of the thought leadership “destination check.”

Thought Leadership as a Professional Boost

Many professionals embrace thought leadership because they want to elevate their standing within their profession and attract new business.

If thought leadership isn’t your day job, then you likely fall into this category—and that’s true for many successful authors and speakers. Your title and seniority don’t matter. You could be any of the following:

  • CEOs who speak about their industry to establish thought leadership;
  • Consultants who blog and tweet to establish expertise and land the next gig; or
  • Local real estate mavens who have deep knowledge about the community.

If you want to become a high-performer in your field, then you’re expected to advance the conversation and present an engaging point of view.

This thought leadership strategy is relatively inexpensive. The primary cost (and barrier to entry) will be your time. As you create content and engage with social media, you’ll get busy and be tempted to let your thought leadership efforts go—but, if you stay the course, you can accelerate your opportunities and potentially multiply your earnings.

There are great resources to help boost your professional standing (and career) through thought leadership. A quick search will lead you to articles on Forbes and great books—such as Dorie Clark’s fantastic book Stand Out.

The Business of Thought Leadership

Now, let’s explore the role of thought leadership professionals—business owners who focus their efforts around the production and dissemination of their content. For these people, thought leadership is their day job; more importantly, it’s what keeps them up at night.

When people think about the business of thought leadership, they often think of a glamorous world of book tours and speaking engagements in exotic locations. However, anyone who has gone through a grueling twenty-city book tour or delivered fifty keynotes a year knows how exhausting they are. These activities take a lot of effort and produce a lot of visibility, but they’re, at best, a means to an end.

Thought leadership businesses typically operate in one of two spheres: direct-to-consumer (B2C) or organizational clients (B2B).

The Direct-to-Consumer Model

In the direct-to-consumer space, thought leaders sell a variety of products to individuals, such as seats in workshops and webinars. Some seasoned B2C thought leaders operate within this space very successfully, because they’ve built an effective consumer marketing engine. However, it’s incredibly easy for beginners to lose a lot of money chasing individual consumers.

The Organizational Model

Then, there are thought leadership businesses which serve organizational clients—brought in by senior leaders who need to solve a strategic problem. These thought leaders run businesses which offer a mix of consulting services as well as off-the-shelf products. In this business model, the enterprise buyer expects smart, scalable solutions that will produce measurable results within the organization.

However, both B2C and B2B thought leadership businesses have significant barriers to entry:

  • They require significant initial capital investments;
  • They have higher operating costs;
  • They take longer to generate revenue streams; and
  • They require applied business expertise.

People who launch thought leadership businesses take on a much higher risk, seeking rewards an order of magnitude larger. They’re entrepreneurs building businesses centered on their thought leadership.

Know Where You’re Heading

Over my career, I’ve worked with people involved in both types of thought leadership. Some wanted to boost their existing business through thought leadership. And others wanted to build a thought leadership business. It’s really a subjective decision for each person:

  • How much time and up-front capital are you willing to commit to the project?
  • How long are you willing to wait before you recoup your investment?
  • Do you want a solo practice or a scalable business?

Whichever destination you choose, make sure that you’ve chosen the one that’s right for you. Otherwise, you’ll wake-up during the in-flight service and ask yourself, “How did I get here?”

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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