“5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry” With John Levisay of NBCU’s Bluprint

Thought leadership needs to be manifested in a vision, mission, strategy and goals that people can grab onto and understand. They need to believe in the mission and vision, but also have a visceral grasp and context as to how their role in the organization moves the mission and vision forward. Businesses are not think […]

Thought leadership needs to be manifested in a vision, mission, strategy and goals that people can grab onto and understand. They need to believe in the mission and vision, but also have a visceral grasp and context as to how their role in the organization moves the mission and vision forward. Businesses are not think thanks where you get points for thought leadership in a vacuum. All employees need context as to how they can help provide leverage to see the “thought leadership” through to results. This is not as important during good times when everything is going up and to the right, but becomes particularly critical when times get tough.

As a part of our series about what one should do to become a thought leader in their industry, I had the distinct pleasure to interview John Levisay. John was born in Chicago, IL. His dad was a military doctor, so he moved a lot and changed schools 7 times from K-12. In retrospect, this was a life changing positive, as he was forced to become adept at adjusting to new situations and challenges. Spent his junior high and high school years in a small blue collar town, Spring Valley, IL. John left the Midwest for college at Colgate University and majored in History and English. After college, John joined General Electric’s Financial Management Program and spent 6 years at GE. He received his MBA from the University of Michigan and then worked in banking for two years, later joining eBay from 1999–2006 at the advent of the consumer Internet. John co-founded Craftsy/Bluprint in 2010 and sold the business to NBCU in 2017. John lives in Denver, CO and is married to Dr. Catherine Levisay. They have two wonderful children, Karen (11) and Thomas (7).

Thank you so much for doing this with us Jon! Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

I’m by no means an authority, nor am I particularly enamored with the term “thought leader” on a meta basis. Sometimes people who were in the right place at the right time, and executed well are labeled thought leaders. I remember reading an interview with Bill Gates in the late 90’s about the “Next 25 Years in Tech”, and he literally missed the Internet and mobile. Bill Gates is brilliant and one of the most successful men in the history of the world. He knew his industry and how computing and desktop software fit into it, but he was no more prescient than a whole cohort of entrepreneurs who saw things in that era that he did not. I guess what I am saying is that at specific points in time, and in specific applications or industries, there are opportunities for thought leadership. They key to manifesting “thoughts” into action, and thus being able to “lead” that change is rooted in a rigorous understanding of a problem set, and the contextual industry knowledge and creativity to then devise scalable solutions that have a product market fit.

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

There is not one that really that sticks out. The whole arc of my career has been learning. One of the most interesting pieces of advice someone ever gave me, and that has proved true over and over, was to surround yourself, personally and professionally, with people who are either smarter than you, think differently than you do, or do something way better than you do. In the context of thought leadership, I think these are all important factors as they provide hard backstops and countervailing opinions to your own hypothesis that may end up being manifested as thought leadership and ultimate action.

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?

Once early in my career I saw a business problem and decided to write a proposal to my boss to fix it. She had not asked me to do so, but I wanted to prove myself, and so I spent every weekend for about 8 weeks working on a proposed solution. I thought I had developed the data driven perfect solution. The problem came when I presented the solution. Her response was great and has stuck with me since. She said, “This is phenomenal work. You identified a complex business challenge and developed a well thought out and innovative solution. It must have taken 100’s of hours! The flaw with the entire project is that you solved a problem that really did not need solving.” In other words, the problem I solved was in fact a problem, but not a material enough one to justify the time spent solving it. I confused activity with productivity. We both had a laugh at my expense, but I learned a valuable lesson.

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?

  • Thought Leaders are inherently provocative in that they come up with an idea or philosophy that is either contrary to an accepted or institutionalized norm, or a new way of solving a problem.
  • They posses many of the same characteristics of a traditional “leader”, but have an extra gear when it comes to the fearlessness and intellectual rigor necessary to devise a new paradigm, and the ability to inspire people to believe in a new way of thinking.
  • I think of many “Influencers” as “Thought Leaders Lite”. Anyone can spout ideas and truisms via social media in sound bytes that they will never be held accountable for. We all have opinions and visions; however brilliant or inane they may be. Thought Leaders believe their vision is valid, coherent and feasible, and are willing to sign up for the long haul to see it through to implementation.

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 lot of people have compelling ideas or visions that could be classified as thought leadership. Many professors, authors and journalists are thought leaders, but when you hear them in person they come off as theoretical, stiff or academic. The difference in the business world is how you effectively articulate this vision in a way that inspires people to invest, join, follow and execute the vision. Being a great storyteller is critical, and catalyzes people’s ability to see the vision through and get on board. Infusing a given story with humility or humor helps.

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?

Thought leadership needs to be manifested in a vision, mission, strategy and goals that people can grab onto and understand. They need to believe in the mission and vision, but also have a visceral grasp and context as to how their role in the organization moves the mission and vision forward. Businesses are not think thanks where you get points for thought leadership in a vacuum. All employees need context as to how they can help provide leverage to see the “thought leadership” through to results. This is not as important during good times when everything is going up and to the right, but becomes particularly critical when times get tough.

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.

  1. My friend and mentor Michael Dearing is a big advocate of Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle, which says that all problems in your life or in business can be broken down into a simple framework: Situation, Complication, Question(s), and Answer. I think great thought leaders have an uncanny way of deconstructing big problems into this easily understandable framework for team members, investors and customers.
  2. Be able to tell a story that excites people. Put the situation and ultimate answer into an example so that people understand and can see the possibilities. Be ready to be told you are an idiot.
  3. Deeply and honestly explore/analyze the shortfalls and “objections” to a hypothesis for an idea. You always know the questions people are going to ask: Is this scalable? Is it defensible? Is the idea empirically sound and valid? How much capital is it going to require and are there adequate returns based on unit economics and total addressable market to justify capital investment? What’s the execution risk? Acknowledging and proactively addressing the risks in a new idea shows thoroughness and engenders legitimacy to the story.
  4. Be open minded and appreciate multiple disciplines, perspectives and approaches to forming a solution and executing against an innovative problem. When the British were trying to break the German codes in WWII they did not just bring together engineers, mathematicians and physicists. They brought in poets, musicians and historians as well. You need to appreciate and understand the art and the science of a problem and solution set. Modern day consumer internet marketing is an example of this phenomenon where multiple quant and qual disciples need to work together symbiotically to win.
  5. Be curious, rigorous, and humble. Do not let a “win” in the thought leadership arena, whether deserved or serendipitous, manifest itself into hubris that blinds you to your, or your organizations shortcomings. For example, creating a vision for and designing a great electric car was an example of phenomenal thought leadership, thinking you could manufacture it better than companies that have been making cars for 100 years, may be an example of no one around you being able to say no.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that 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.

This may be odd, and it has no direct relation to business, but someone I particularly enjoy reading right now is Charles Pierce. His command of the language, historical perspective, thoughtfulness, and sense of humor consistently make me think about our current political environment. On the business side, it’s Matthew Ball. His vision and perspective on the changing media landscape is always spot on.

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

As stated above, I think the term can be overextended beyond the rubric of an individual’s scope of expertise. In particular, we tend to fetishize founders of tech companies with the assumption that because they figured out, evangelized, and then executed an amazing solution to a problem, or even solved a problem we did not know existed, that they are somehow all-knowing or prescient about everything. Thought leadership within a given realm requires incredible discipline and understanding of the dynamics and realities of that problem set. This is not something that most people have the time or capacity to do, particularly not extemporaneously on a panel discussion or via social media.

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

Personally, the biggest driver of burnout for me is too many problems at once and people issues. The solution to both these problems is to surround yourself with brilliant and driven people that you implicitly trust and are aligned on the mission. If you can’t consistently carve out time for strategic thinking, or time off to gain strength from outside hobbies, interests, or personal relationships, then you may be the one to blame. My other advice is take the time to explore new things, be intellectually curious, and be open to changing your perspective. Thinking about the same problems sets and not having diverse political, social, cultural, and scientific context pinches your perspective and wears you down. Lastly, don’t take yourself too seriously and keep perspective. You work for around 40 years after college and then you probably retire. You hope you make a positive difference in colleagues and customers lives during that relatively brief period, and possibly make an enduring contribution to your family and society. I laugh when business people and entrepreneurs say they have the most important jobs in the world and that no one understand the pressure they are under. My brother is a heart surgeon. If he messes up or misses something, people may die, families can be devastated. No one dies if I make a wrong call on a tech innovation or marketing campaign.

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’m not, but thank you! I tend to be an optimist. In the last 200 years, we have seen amazing achievements and breakthroughs in fields like medicine and technology. Every time the world has been faced with a major problem, people have come together and a thought leader has risen to lead change. In most cases, the leader has used empirically valid political or hard science as a basis for the solution. For the first time in my life, I see a problem that people seem unwilling or unable to address, and that is climate change. I wish I had an easy answer. If anything, my hope would be that smart people across all disciplines and political affiliations put this issue at the forefront of their problem set analysis, and that as a society we need to listen to our non-partisan scientists and prepare to make collective sacrifice to enact a change. If we do not, nothing else really matters.

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

I don’t have a single favorite. A recent “life perspective” quote that resonated with me dealt with the human epoch in context to the age of the world. Peter Brannen recently wrote in The Atlantic, “Geological time is deep beyond all comprehension. If you were to run a 26.2-mile marathon covering the entire retrospective sweep of Earth’s history, the first five-foot stride would land you two Ice Ages ago and more than 150,000 years before the whole history of human civilization. In other words, geologically and to a first approximation, all of recorded human history is irrelevant: a subliminally fast 5,000-year span that is over almost as soon as you first lift up your heel…..” This resonates with me in that we as people and members of global society need to have perspective on where we focus our thought leadership, and how we work, live, love and care for others as we lead our brief lives.

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. 🙂

In no particular order: Charles Pierce, Matthew Ball, Barack Obama, and Rhett Miller

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@jlmace on Twitter

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

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