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5 Things You Need To Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry, With Dr. Morganna Freeman

When you work with other people in our industry, whether on a speakers’ bureau or an advisory board, they listen closely to see who is pleasant to work with, knowledgeable, thoughtful, and a skilled public speaker. I have had the great fortune to serve on a number of consultantships and this translates to income benefits […]


When you work with other people in our industry, whether on a speakers’ bureau or an advisory board, they listen closely to see who is pleasant to work with, knowledgeable, thoughtful, and a skilled public speaker. I have had the great fortune to serve on a number of consultantships and this translates to income benefits and a ripple effect of other business opportunities, and I continue to grow my brand every day. You never know what LinkedIn connection or Facebook friend might translate into a business opportunity, so I always keep an open mind and calendar.


I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Morganna Freeman. Dr. Morganna specializes in the prevention and treatment of Melanoma, Merkel Cell Carcinoma, Squamous Cell Carcinoma, and other similar conditions, as well as cutaneous tumors. Dr. Morganna was the Associate Director of Melanoma and Cutaneous Oncology Program at Cedars Sinai’s The Angeles Clinic and Research Institute before becoming the Medical Skin Oncologist, Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Medical Oncology & Therapeutics Research, and the Medical Director of Affiliate & Community Practices at City of Hope Cancer Research and Treatment Center in Duarte, CA. Dr. Morganna’s goal is “to reach out to a vulnerable population”. This is highlighted by her charitable work during her medical training where she helped bring quality medical care to rural clinics in Uganda, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. She also developed, and continues to develop, her ongoing passion for health care policy on Melanoma. Dr. Morganna is a vigorous advocate for better health care and health care accessibility, as she seeks to improve provider and community education about appropriate use of immunotherapy and side effect management.


Thank you so much for joining us Dr. Morganna. Can you share your backstory with us.

I’m a cancer expert, public figure, skilled speaker, and passionate patient advocate. I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a doctor, and remember going up to my mother when I was 7 years old, holding a doll in my hand, and telling her I was “going to be a baby doctor.” I also caught the leadership bug early on, running for class president in high school and at every step thereafter, because I knew that I could formulate a strategic plan and leverage connections to make it happen. My mother and my grandmother were instrumental in my upbringing — I was fortunate to be raised by very smart, poised women who taught me that being a beautiful, educated woman who could stand on her own was the key to a successful future, and I haven’t looked back yet.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

I had to learn the hard way that becoming a key opinion leader took guts, discipline, and an unwavering enthusiasm for one’s area of expertise. During my fellowship training I had the great fortune to be mentored by Dr. Jeffrey Weber, a world expert on melanoma and immune therapy, and observed him easily navigate between educating patients about their disease and educating colleagues about how to care for it. I learned from him that we are revolutionizing cancer treatment, and I became a thought leader because I recognized early on that my belief in the power of our treatments, and my willingness to share that knowledge, could broadly enable patient education and my own career aspirations.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Becoming an oncologist was a twist of fate — when I was finishing my Internal Medicine residency, I was rotating through our specialty months with a conviction that I was going to be a badass female cardiologist. I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives and be a resource for women in particular, recognizing that heart disease was poorly understood and misdiagnosed in women. While on my Oncology rotation I met a lovely young woman, black, early 40s, who presented with metastatic breast cancer and was unaware of the diagnosis. The underlying issue was a history of breast cancer and loss of insurance that led her to not having adequate medical follow up, and the injustice of that situation really propelled me to pick a career in oncology, where I could learn more about health policy and try to make an impact in that way. I’m eternally grateful to that woman for putting me on the path I’ve continued to follow today.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’m hard-pressed to think of mistakes, per se — one thing that comes up all the time is my maiden name, Morganna Freeman, which is incredibly similar to a very famous actor’s. I remember calling a physician’s office one afternoon to discuss a patient and when the doctor called back, they seemed disappointed to hear my voice instead of a familiar & distinctive baritone. I asked about it and he told me that his nurse had said “Morgan Freeman called for you,” and he got pretty excited to think a celebrity would have called his office! The lesson for me was to become just as recognizable a name as Morgan Freeman, so then they would be similarly thrilled to hear from me.

Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

As an oncologist, I am an information and authority expert for people from all walks of life, oftentimes at one of the worst moments you can imagine. Knowing how cancer impacts people’s lives keeps me passionately devoted to the best scientific treatments, but also how to prevent it in the first place. This passion and expertise have led to early recognition as a thought leader in cancer therapy, in particular as an advocate for younger patients, and I serve on a number of advisory boards and patient advocacy groups. Many of the pearls I shared above were self-taught, and honed carefully after I started to build my own brand, so I see this as a powerful opportunity to mentor others on how to identify and craft a meaningful message, and then launch it successfully. I would consider influencers a bit different, because they’re generally tying a message to a brand or product, while thought leaders tie a message to a belief system or body of knowledge.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

Hearing and then retelling patients’ stories — they come from all walks of life and I’m really blessed to be a part of them and serve as a channel of information and support. I also love having an impact with a positive message about cancer and how our science continues to evolve, to provide people with a great sense of hope when faced with a diagnosis like this. I have had patients and nurses tell me that I’m ‘not like other doctors,’ probably because I really take the time to explain and make patients feel like their time and questions matter. I like to put a lot of love and thought into everything I do and I guess it shows!

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

When you work with other people in our industry, whether on a speakers’ bureau or an advisory board, they listen closely to see who is pleasant to work with, knowledgeable, thoughtful, and a skilled public speaker. I have had the great fortune to serve on a number of consultantships and this translates to income benefits and a ripple effect of other business opportunities, and I continue to grow my brand every day. You never know what LinkedIn connection or Facebook friend might translate into a business opportunity, so I always keep an open mind and calendar.

Ok now we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience)

1) Build your brand. Like any initiative, the first question to ask yourself is “why” — are you hoping to raise awareness, educate people, or start a new movement? Early on in my career I recognized that my passion for teaching others translated easily into public education, and I built a brand around this to include skin cancer prevention and cancer treatment expertise. Having your name associated with a mission or purpose can be a very powerful thing.

2) Position yourself early on. What is your “elevator pitch” if someone asks about your thought leader credentials? Identify passions, expertise, and supportive colleagues to make you credible. As an example I focus my practice on treating advanced skin cancer, but in particular am passionate about adolescents and young adults, and cite my involvement in research and patient advocacy groups to support that expertise.

3) Demonstrate & maintain credibility. What makes you an expert and why should others care? For example, did you develop a project or concept, and produce results? Examples and proof points to support your claims are important, but it also helps to share challenges and how you solved them. As an expert in cancer immunotherapy for example, I talk openly about successes and failures, because I believe we can learn equally well from both.

4) Build a story to humanize your brand. People love personal stories, which allow them to relate to your journey, challenges and successes — as an example, how has your personal experience shaped your current role and your impact? When talking about the importance of banning indoor tanning as a means to prevent skin cancer, I share my own experience of being a former tanning bed user and not knowing the dangers at the time. This makes you relatable and allows people to see why you personally care about your messaging.

5) Be a resource. Think about how you are going to leverage your brand, credibility, and story to expand your reach. This can come in a variety of forms and may be as simple as writing a well-crafted opinion piece to serving on an expert panel. Be thoughtful in your advice and input and remain open and collaborative to new ideas — this will ensure you are asked back and potentially involved in future products.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach?

Eric Topol is a physician thought leader I’ve been aware of for a while because of his Twitter presence — he really nailed the social media thing early on. He is now the MedScape editor in chief and has a consistent, thoughtful, and poignant presence with his tweets, which is really instructive for other doctors who want to use social media to get their message across. It’s harder than one would think to be pithy in 140 characters or less, but he sticks the landing every time.

There have been some discussions that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

There was a great HuffPo blog piece a few years ago about how we need to reinvent that term. While I consider & brand myself a “thought leader” I agree that it, and “influencer,” is a tired term. It’s become too readily wielded by self-proclaimed experts to position themselves as authorities on a subject. To truly be a thought leader you should have worked in that field, published in it (or about it), and been asked by reputable third parties to share your opinion on the current state of things. You have to get your hands dirty first in order to sound like an authority on the subject — done right, your stories have authenticity, and are useful and inspiring to others.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Burnout is tough — I have been a victim of it myself many times because of the nature of my work, and have written on this subject previously and also been interviewed on this topic. My advice would be to take time for yourself, even if it means scheduling it, and have that be meaningful time (read: hide the phone or put it in airplane mode). If you are feeling burned out creatively then think of other ways to get the juices flowing again — have lunch with an old friend, watch an interesting TED talk, or read an article on a subject you wouldn’t normally read about. Thriving is a daily practice that we have to follow, just like exercising, to stay mentally & emotionally healthy.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

My daily work is to remove the stigma that melanoma is an older person’s disease, and that it’s a cancer that people “bring on themselves” from bad behavior. While the association with sun exposure and skin cancer is just as strong as smoking and lung cancer, there are plenty of non-smokers who get lung cancer. The same can be said for melanoma — it’s the 2nd most common cancer in teens & young adults and their cancer is poorly understood. My goal is to become a prominent figure and advocate for those who are trying to figure out this fight for themselves during the teenage years, one of the most vulnerable periods of life and self-discovery.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My mentor Jeffrey Weber, a world-renowned melanoma specialist, told me once “the institution will never love you back.” At the time I thought this was a pretty jaded comment, but what I realized he was saying was that in order for a person to be successful, they would have to define it and then accomplish it on their own terms. No one who is a visionary or a trailblazer ever turned around or waited for a pat on the back — they just forged ahead because all they needed was the belief in themselves. I have never forgotten his advice and maintain this as a personal mantra when thinking about what’s going to be best for me and my career.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” had an enormous impact on me — I remember reading it on the plane when flying from interview to interview, and the lessons she imparted about sticking to your guns and creating a space where you could have it all really galvanized me. I would absolutely have lunch or breakfast with her!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I am on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, with links below:

Instagram: @drmorganna

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/morgannavance/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/morganna.vance

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAnPzl3sK0a484xKSSHS-dA?view_as=subscriber

Twitter: @docwithacalling

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