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“5 Things You Should Do To Become A Thought Leader In Your Industry” With Emily Sullivan

From a business standpoint, thought leadership has helped me stand out in a crowded market, while also opening the door to other business opportunities, such as paid speaking engagements. Speaking then has allowed me to increase brand awareness for what we do, which can lead to qualified referrals. I had the pleasure to interview Emily […]

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From a business standpoint, thought leadership has helped me stand out in a crowded market, while also opening the door to other business opportunities, such as paid speaking engagements. Speaking then has allowed me to increase brand awareness for what we do, which can lead to qualified referrals.


I had the pleasure to interview Emily Sullivan. Emily is the owner of Emily Sullivan Events, a boutique wedding and event-planning firm based in New Orleans, LA, that specializes in celebrations throughout the Southeast. With a passion for entertaining, she uses her intuition and attention to details to customize each and every wedding experience for her clients.


Thank you so much for doing this with us. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I just celebrated 13 years this summer. I first started in 2006, the year after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. I began in the beauty business and then just naturally fell into event planning. It was just a natural fit for me. I didn’t grow up dreaming of being a wedding planner and I’m not married, so I haven’t planned my own wedding. I just think there’s something about Southern Hospitality and event planning. I have a passion for making people feel welcome and comfortable, so that overflows into my job. It was just a perfect fit, and I feel fortunate to be able to find something that clicked as a profession.

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

I come from a market that has become increasingly saturated- it’s incredibly competitive and we’re seeing people enter the industry that aren’t necessarily well versed in events. I became passionate about making sure my region was being well-educated and wanted to make sure that people getting into the industry had access to solid advice to run a sustainable event company. Our market has quite a bit of turn over- there’s a high burnout rate in our industry as a whole, and I want to combat that.

My path to thought leadership started with guest articles and expert quotes in the national media, which then led to podcast interviews and speaking engagements. I began traveling nationally to share my expertise once I realized that I could help people in their day-to-day business. I’m less concerned with general topics and instead, want to dig into the things that people need to be sustainable- mostly, the not-so-fun parts of business!

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

This is really hard for me to narrow done because I’ve done hundreds of events. I always have exciting stories nearly every weekend. However, one thing unique to the region is the ongoing threat of hurricanes and tropical storms, and we have to always go with the flow as a result.

So, we did have a storm that threatened New Orleans all week, and we were all sitting on edge, just trying to gauge if it was going to get worse. You have to remember that we live in a city that has to evacuate over a certain category.

Then, a city curfew came into play, so we had to make several adjustments. We ended up having to change the time of the event the week of the celebration, which was a first. That took a great deal of coordination between the creative partners involved and the guests. Prior, we had made it nearly 11 years without dealing with a rainstorm so this was a first.

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 grew up in a small town in Mississippi, and our weddings are entirely different from the type of events that I do now. The first wedding that I ever did and coordinated was a formal white glove seated dinner, and I had never even attended a seated dinner wedding before.

I was completely clueless about escort cards and just how the flow worked. It’s hysterical looking back on it, but at the time, it was definitely not funny. I had to jump out there and just figured it out under pressure. I’m not really one who’s going to say I don’t know how to do something. Instead, I’m going to research it and figure it out. I did that a lot in my early years because there just wasn’t a lot of hands-on education or training.

Ok, thank you for that. 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? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

A thought leader is someone who is not only invested in their particular industry but someone who is respected. It’s someone who is involved and really knows the ins and outs of what they are doing and is considered by their peers as someone who has seen success over a long period of time.

Being a thought leader is more about what my industry peers think of me, and the fact that they reach out to me for advice or education or an opinion when they’re dealing with things in their own business.

While both can be equally impactful when communicating with their audiences, thought leadership comes down to expertise and knowledge. Influencers tend to be focused on their reach and overall following, while a thought leader is more about making sure the right messages get out to the right people, no matter how big that audience is.

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

Ultimately, I think there are things that I’ve learned the hard way, and I want to be able to prevent others from making those same mistakes. But beyond that, when we’re working as a group and we’re all on the same page in terms of what’s expected, then that affects my business. If there are specific guidelines or etiquette that we’re all adhering to, particularly in the wedding field, then that affects my business long-term.

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?

From a business standpoint, thought leadership has helped me stand out in a crowded market, while also opening the door to other business opportunities, such as paid speaking engagements. Speaking then has allowed me to increase brand awareness for what we do, which can lead to qualified referrals.

From a practical standpoint, our ongoing features has led to an increase in links back to our site, which can only help our Google rankings. Statistically speaking, couples are finding many of their wedding day team members while searching online, so this is a secondary benefit from focusing on our thought leadership.

Okay. Now that we have that behind us, 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 the industry? Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experiences) for each.

Thought leadership came very naturally to me after being in business over a decade. I feel like thought leadership found me, more than I sought it out. But for those interested in pursuing a similar path, I’d suggest the following:

  1. Consider your intentions. We all lead busy lives, and it’s essential to ask yourself why you’d want to add pursuing thought leadership to your plate. What has to happen for this strategy to be a success?
  2. Ask yourself who your audience is going to be, keeping in mind that it may not always be obvious. For example, in my world, it would make sense that I would value being in front of engaged couples who could hire me. And it is to a degree. However, as things evolved, I found equal value being in front of my peers, as it could potentially increase qualified referrals.
  3. Next, you have to ask yourself what the right channels would be to connect with that target audience. You want to be in front of the right audience; so where do they hang out?
  4. Pursue the low hanging fruit to start. Adding the pursuit of thought leadership to your to-do list can be an overwhelming task, so play to your strengths to start. For example, I tend to be very conversational and naturally gravitated toward podcasts, which have been an excellent vehicle for me. It also works well with my schedule, which doesn’t allow me to always travel elsewhere at a moment’s notice. I can still make an impact without spending too much time away from my desk, clients, and family.
  5. Don’t be afraid to evolve. As your brand goals change, so too will your strategies for thought leadership. Track your successes and revisit your plan every six months to a year to ensure they are still in your best interest.

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?

I kind of am obsessed with Dave Ramsey right now. I listen to his podcast all the time, and I’ve read his books. What I love about him is that, number 1, he’s experienced what he’s talking about. He has real-life experience and readily shares it with his audience.

For example, he talks about how his personal finances were affected from his bad decisions, but then shares what you can do to counteract that on your own end. But even more so, he’s not afraid to go against industry standards or give advice that he feels like is more legitimate than maybe what you would expect. He’s not afraid to kind of go outside of that and give you different examples and techniques that are effective, but not necessarily popular.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused or should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

My industry is one with a low barrier of entry- very little is required for someone to start a wedding business. In a similar vein, anyone can call themselves an expert in this field. The term tends to be used more than it should, so for me, the best thing I can do is keep my head down, focus on my business and continue to give great, consistent insight.

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

This is one of my favorite topics to talk about because I also happen to be in an industry that has a high rate of burnout. We joke that we’re saturated now but won’t be in 5 years because everyone will be exhausted and stop working.

With that, I think you have to keep it fresh. I know at the beginning of a business, it’s easy to be excited and want to take on as much as you can. But for me, I am very thoughtful about the events I take and the direction I go. I purposefully limit myself so that I can have a life outside of my business. You have to be intentional with your business, otherwise it will take over.

For me, that means continuing to educate myself. Even though I’m a speaker, I love going to hear other educators and learning what’s new in the industry. We have to challenge ourselves to avoid that trap of thinking, “I know everything,” just because I’ve been in the industry a long time. Instead, seek out opportunities to be challenged by other people.

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.

I was just reflecting on this on my 13th anniversary, knowing that my situation and my story could have turned out so differently. I’m a single mom, and I always have been. I started my business when I was six months pregnant with my oldest son, and I just decided that I didn’t ever want to be in a position where I couldn’t take care of him. That really meant going against what people expected me to do, and being willing to take on things that possibly other people didn’t even see as smart at the time. But I just had this vision of being able to build something that I could pass onto them.

With that, I’m particularly passionate about helping other women be successful in business. And especially helping single moms know that they don’t have to accept that single mom stigma about themselves. I want other women to know that they can break out of that, and they can make decisions outside of that, creating a sustainable, happy life that looks very similar to a two-parent home.

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

My favorite quote is, “Life begins outside of your comfort zone.” I think that any time I’m experiencing real growth, whether it’s in business or in my personal life, I’m willing to take steps outside of my comfort zone and do slightly uncomfortable things, which has led to massive amounts of growth.

We are very 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 lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

I’d really like to have lunch with Hoda Kotb. I love her Southern roots and love of the New Orleans Saints (who are also my team!) but I also think she has such interesting stories to tell of her upbringing, cancer survival and adoptions. Plus, she just seems fun!

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