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“Find an area of business that you find interesting and challenging.”, with Joel Poznansky of Columbia Books & Information Services

First and foremost, identify a specific part of the industry you are targeting with a new question, lacking in experts. In my case, twenty years ago, it was obvious — the issues and uncertainty around digital transformation, digital publishing and electronic databases. (I later repeated that strategy exactly to become a thought leader in the […]

First and foremost, identify a specific part of the industry you are targeting with a new question, lacking in experts. In my case, twenty years ago, it was obvious — the issues and uncertainty around digital transformation, digital publishing and electronic databases. (I later repeated that strategy exactly to become a thought leader in the niche area of the publishing company I took over. In that case, the area lacking experts involved a new, major regulatory development).

As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joel Poznansky. Joel is CEO and Chairman of the Board of Columbia Books & Information Services and President of Wicked Uncle USA, a children’s toy and gift company founded in 2017. Joel grew up in the UK, studied law at Cambridge and served in the British Army. After a brief stint at McKinsey in London he moved to the US to pursue his MBA from Harvard Business School as a Harkness Fellow. Since then, he has owned and run a number of mid-sized companies in a variety of fields, primarily in information services. Joel is an all-around entrepreneur and lifelong learner, so he decided in 2017 to take on a new challenge: his first startup. Since then, he’s been hard at work bringing UK-based Wicked Uncle to life in the US, and watching as it has quickly become a leading e-commerce sites for children’s toys.


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

I tell my kids I was a happy nerd at school and my parents would have loved me to follow them into medicine. Becoming an officer in the Coldstream Guards after university hadn’t exactly been on the road map, but at college I learned that I liked running things as part of a team. So, coming out of business school, I took a path less travelled at that time — I took an operational role at a large, very successful electronics manufacturer, Unitech Plc. Peter Curry, the wonderful leader and founder of this billion dollar conglomerate gave me exactly what I wanted- and I’m not sure I ever forgave him ! Fortunately — or unfortunately — the one division I could get real leadership experience in was the only troubled one, back in the US. I have been in the US, mostly leading troubled companies ever since. Electronic components was a great industry- but not for me.

And I was very fortunate that my next role was in a niche and very fragmented industry, providing musical instruments to school children in support of school music education. When that business was sold, after a wholesale redesign and transformation, that rippled through the whole industry, I found myself 40 years old with great experience and pretty good credentials in two industries, one of which was not for me and the other was dominated by the company I had just sold. At that point, our family took the opportunity to move, and I was somewhat at a loss about what to do next. The publishing industry looked interesting. But I had two challenges — how to learn about the industry and how to get a job ? My solution- sounds crazy, but it did promise to kill two birds with one stone — was to become a thought leader !

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

Changing industry mid-career is hard. Deciding on publishing felt easy. Becoming enough of a thought leader to snag a top job in publishing sounds crazy. But that’s what I did between 2000 and 2003. I would not claim to be a thought leader in the school music industry I had partially helped transform — or even in the niche publishing sectors that I have mostly run companies in since. Paradoxically it is the very weakness of my initial subject expertise that I think makes me an “authority” on the topic of thought leadership itself. If you’re brilliant and charismatic and original, you don’t need any help or advice on how to get there — you will be a natural thought leader. In the land of the average, not-so-much — namely, me- a self-made thought leader might be the best authority with advice on the topic of thought leadership.

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

Buying the troubled school music company, essentially out of bankruptcy, came down to dealing with the largest creditor, a multi-national instrument manufacturer who recognized the stellar business credentials of the private equity group that I was with — but WASN’T impressed. They were willing to let one of the largest, oldest companies in the industry go into Chapter 7. “Our customers are companies run by music teachers and musicians for music teachers and music students. That’s just how it is” said the President of the multinational, a former professional trombone player. After hours of presentations and discussion, and just as we were about to be dismissed, I countered with the fact that I was a bassoon player. I had never even thought to mention it before, including to my own team. That was it — like a secret handshake. The deal was agreed in the next 2 minutes. And we ended up building a very successful company, helping to create a model of transformation in the industry. The lesson there — as true in networking to become a thought leader: life is full of surprises but almost nothing you learn in life is ever wasted.

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?

In my first job as an analyst at McKinsey in London, a new position at that time, I was brought into a discussion with the head of the office on whether analysts should be subjected to the standard McKinsey policy of “up or out”. I was about to leave for business school– and did not anyway intend to return to management consulting — so I had little to lose. I thought at least the head of the office would be pleased that I argued strongly in favor of the idea — analysts would only be respected if they were held to the same high standards as everyone else. I strongly endorsed “up or out” for everyone. I was surprised that the reaction to my support was chilly. Only when I left the meeting, another analyst explained that I had actually been over-strident in my advocating for a policy not of “up OR out” but of “up AND out.” A Freudian slip? The lesson I learned — make sure the people being affected by a discussion are the ones who get the air time. No need to contribute anything unless you think they are going to hurt themselves.

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 different than an influencer?

A “thought leader” is someone who brings new ideas to the table and, by luck or judgement, is sought out for those views. A “thought leader” in business is someone whose ideas are new-ish, but a more important element is that they are sought out by others for these ideas, within their industry, but not necessarily within their company or organization. Many very successful business leaders, on the other hand, do not need to base their leadership on any new idea and often only need to communicate the direction they are going within their company. A leader will be followed based on their history
of knowing what they are doing or even just on their position in an established hierarchy. The difference from an influencer is more subtle and may come down as much to how much the person wants a high profile. In the school music industry and even perhaps in the specialized information publishing industry as a whole, I had thoughts on what should and could be done that were ahead of some of the pack, but if I led the way, it was only by the example of what I did for anyone who was looking.

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?

A thought leader acquires status with recruiters, customers and prospects. And frankly, what could be more valuable than that? In my experience, within an organization, the pluses of being perceived as a thought leader are more nuanced — and may be balanced by the negative of being perceived as “too out there” or “too much of a thinker”. Orde Wingate or Lawrence of Arabia were thought leaders, as well as leaders — and being perceived as such made their lives harder within their organization, the British army.

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 I first entered the publishing industry in 2001, the area that needed thought leadership was digital transformation. Some publishers with printed or microfilm content or CD based databases were excited but scared. The relationship between a key customer group- libraries- and the publishers, which had been worked out over hundreds of years, was again in total flux. Libraries were becoming publishers. Google was on the scene as an uber-publisher-aggregator. By positioning the company I was with as a thought leader in the area of digitization, we were invited into those discussions- and became one of the leading suppliers of digitization transformation services to libraries AND publishers. Whether it was helping create some of the first newspaper digital projects — for the London Times or the British Library newspaper collection, for instance, or working with the NIH on one of the greatest digital projects the USA has contributed to the world, PubMed, our company would not have won these multi-million dollar, ground breaking projects without the thought leadership that we became recognized for.

Ok. 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 their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

I would be delighted to — with the proviso that this is advice from someone who was NOT already an expert in the field, but, in fact, a neophyte.

First and foremost, identify a specific part of the industry you are targeting with a new question, lacking in experts. In my case, twenty years ago, it was obvious — the issues and uncertainty around digital transformation, digital publishing and electronic databases. (I later repeated that strategy exactly to become a thought leader in the niche area of the publishing company I took over. In that case, the area lacking experts involved a new, major regulatory development).

Find anyone who knows anything about the area and meet them — if at all possible by attending any conference that struggles with that issue (in my earlier example, the first E-book conference run by NIST in 2000). On the issues of digital transformation, I did this repeatedly and met many excellent thought leaders who influenced my own growth and experiences in the field. For example, Jim Edwards, a founder at ICF and the person who came up with the idea for our first conference, was instrumental in hiring me at the publishing services company. Stephen Rhynd-Tudd, a genuinely innovative and recognized thought leader, who I met as I was trying to understand these issues told my future employer — with very little justification at the time, I might add — that he thought I would become a thought leader in this industry. As you meet people in your own efforts to become a thought leader, these people will stay in your network and help you in unknown ways.

Third, work out who needs to talk to who in that industry about that issue. In my case, library leaders were desperate to talk to publishers — and vice versa — about what digital information meant for their collections. Organize a private, select conference to introduce very senior leaders from those two groups to discuss the subject, and position yourself as the moderator. Thus was the Folger Colloquium born.

Fourth, write a book based on that conference. With practical insights and lots of quotes from those industry players who then become evangelists for your book. Don’t worry about sales of the book. (Although it is still available — “Information Unbound; Publishing in 2020” and I have used it in the Masters Program in Publishing at George Washington University I have taught). Send anyone in the industry who has helped along the way a copy with your thanks.

Oh- and fifth, keep and use the free, conference bag from that first ever E Book conference in until it falls apart — as clearest proof that you were a thought leader- or at least that you were there trying to work out the way forward at the earliest stages! It is getting pretty tatty at this point, over 15 years old, and so I may have to donate it to the Smithsonian 😉

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.

Hard to choose one — so I will choose two in different areas. Stephen Rhind-Tutt took his thought leadership and insight into what could be done with scholarly databases in an electronic world and put it into practice. Nearly 20 years ago, he established and led his company, Alexandria Street Press, to build revolutionary new collections like Civil War Diaries Online for the scholarly market- and his expertise at conferences like the Charleston Library Conference ensured that the librarian customers would recognize just how valuable such collections could be. A key lesson here is to lead by example — but ensure you put your new products or services into their thought context, gaining credibility for them and for your company.

A more current example is Duncan Bell. Columbia Books & Information Services has identified for several years in its niche area of association information that associations have major data tasks keeping track of their members and their industries. That was the gap. Duncan set out to understand how to use AI and top data techniques to solve those problems. At association conferences, he realized he could share his growing insight, even before he was able to systematize a solution. He gained credibilityand goodwill as a thought leader along the way- so that when an AI driven data tool was launched it immediately attracted customers in a notoriously careful industry.

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

I understand the criticisms. My feeling is that the issue is more nuanced. There are self-styled thought leaders who nobody follows — are they really thought leaders? There are thought leaders who are followed but horribly wrong- and cause more problems than they solve. And then there are thought leaders with great insight who are not recognized, at least in their lifetime. My rule of thumb- I think you can tell a clear thought leader by the company they keep. At the end of a presentation, a thought leader is surrounded by people with real and relevant problems trying to get their help.

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

Find an area of business that you find interesting and challenging quite apart from its financial dynamics. Do not worry that this is not a fashionable area or one that your contemporaries are rushing into. Harder said than done, of course. And that is not the same advice as just going against the common wisdom.

When the going gets tough, it really helps to feel that you are doing something worthwhile, such as helping children learn a musical instrument, helping build valuable databases on where to find grants or scholarly reference material. Or, as I get to do now at Wicked Uncle, helping parents, grandparents or even uncles find the children in their lives really fun and good value toys and gifts.

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 admit I have always had enormous influence, at least over my children — and, if you believe that, I have several bridges in New York to sell you.

But my worldview is driven by my understanding of British and European history particularly in the 1930’s. Democracy and rule of law may not provide all the answers but they are the best method to get to many of them and the surest way to avoid disastrously wrong and damaging answers that authoritarian regimes, however well intentioned (and they usually aren’t), move towards.

If I could inspire a movement it would be one that promoted recognition of the fundamental advantages for human well being of democracy combined with the rule of law. Combined with acceptance that such a combination is not perfect and is therefore more fragile than we would like to believe- even in countries like the USA with a long history of that combination- and cannot be taken for granted. As a reader of, and now publisher of, the “Almanac of American Politics”, that has been tracking the officials in our government since 1972, it does seem that not all our leaders and certainly a significant part of our citizenry have less faith in our system of government.

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

Not a quote, but a joke that our finance professor told on the last day of class. A limo pulls up to a professor and one of his dumbest students leans out, excited to see the professor and the student invites his professor into the limo. The professor is intrigued and asks how the student did so well. “Thanks to you, thanks to you”, says the student. “You taught me margins were important, and I found this product that costs me 1 cent and I sell it for 11 cents. And you were so right, those 10 percent margins really add up.”

How has that been relevant? I know that I — and others — often over-complicate a problem and, even more so, the solution. Especially in business.

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. 🙂

I have never been very politically involved — but I would love to sit down and understand the political thinking in relation to democracy and the rule of law in our country, at this point, of two publishers- Steve Bannon, as owner of Breitbart, and Jeff Bezos, as owner of the Washington Post. But probably not at the same time.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My Linked In profile ishttps://www.linkedin.com/in/joel-poznansky-9816544/

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

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