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5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry, With Ken Mandelkern

Flash your personality. It’s an asset, not a liability. People are selfish listeners and don’t respond to boring. As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ken Mandelkern. Ken, the Vice President of Y&R PR, is a strategic ace with the […]


Flash your personality. It’s an asset, not a liability. People are selfish listeners and don’t respond to boring.


As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ken Mandelkern. Ken, the Vice President of Y&R PR, is a strategic ace with the creativity and expertise to drive positive business results. An integral member of the agency’s senior leadership team, Ken is at once shaping the voices and platforms of business leaders, entrepreneurs, lawyers, physicians, scientists, engineers, marketers and more.


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?

Sure thing! Thanks for the invitation.

I was a junior at Syracuse when Carmelo Anthony came to town. Got my start in the Jets’ PR department, then decided on agency life. I’m a curious guy who thrives on variety. At Y&R PR I try to lead by the pen.

I hail from Port Washington, NY, and am raising a family there now. Saturday mornings you can find me at HorseAbility, a therapeutic riding facility about 12 miles southeast of town.

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

We help shape the voices and platforms of organizations and the people who lead them. Our clients include business leaders, entrepreneurs, lawyers, physicians, scientists, engineers, marketers and non-profits. Our work is contributing to happy developments for all of these clients, across industries, so we know we’re doing some things right.

I’m active with the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and Professional Speechwriters Association (PSA). And on a personal note, I’m a bit of a sucker when it comes to helping friends with free work, so I write a lot of wedding speeches too.

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

I was in Rio, organizing publicity appearances with Pele at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Everywhere we went, people saw him and lost their minds. Do you remember those old Michael Jackson concert specials, where the crowd is crying and fainting just because he’s there? It was like that.

At one event, at a restaurant downtown, the place was packed with press and word quickly spread to the street. People started pouring in. Rows of faces pressed up against the glass outside. His security detail had to take control of the situation. Coded commands were shouted. Elbows were thrown. And, when his car finally peeled away there were fans hanging off the roof, like in a Schwarzenegger scene.

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 was pitching bylines to a new client — a CEO from France — and I wanted to show in our abstracts that we could nail his voice.

I was speaking to what we wrote and slipped into his accent. Basically, impersonated the man to his face, in front of his team. It was a long few seconds waiting for his reaction.

He liked the ideas and dryly complimented my accent, much to everyone’s relief. But I’m deliberate when expressing quirks in clients’ voices now.

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?

I think being a leader is one of the hardest things most of us will ever try to achieve. It takes so much passion, grit, and thoughtfulness. I suppose I’d define one as: someone with a vision and the ability to unite others in its pursuit.

Compared to that? Being a thought leader is easy. Just pick up the pen and indulge. There are some ingredients that help: experience, a point of view, and an interest in communicating publicly.

Influencers thrive on attention. Thought leaders just need to get a point across.

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?

Whatever your goals are, you’ll find more success if you’re communicating effectively.

When we work together, we can promise you readers, responses, and probably followers. But here’s what else frequently happens: you get to a conference, and people want to talk about something you wrote. You get an interesting invitation to speak. A reporter cites your channel. A government agency asks for input on a complex issue. Or a prospect calls. We even see people earn promotions to the C-suite during campaigns.

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?

One client had a prospect read a piece and call him on the spot. We know because he said in the voicemail that he’d seen the article on LinkedIn and was interested in hearing more. The client converted that lead and was recently recruited to be CEO of another company. I’ve seen non-profits earn new donors, and seen start-ups find buyers.

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 don’t look at this an epic climb toward some daydream of enormous followings and a mass outpouring of interest in what a client has to say. It’s micro-communication done publicly. We’re going to put your smarts and a little bit of your charm out there, flawlessly apply the fundamentals of digital marketing, and try to make things happen for you and your business.

If it’s alright, I’m going to keep it to three strategies since I’m a big believer in brevity:

  1. Find a muse. I like to say that we create for an audience of one. This brings ideas down from abstract platitudes to the level of a live meet. The language sharpens, the argument strengthens, and the message comes into focus.
  2. Ask questions. Questions are one of our favorite brainstorm subjects. Imagine questions from all kinds of perspectives, and think of pieces in terms of the questions it poses and answers. It’s why Curious George is my LinkedIn banner.
  3. Flash your personality. It’s an asset, not a liability. People are selfish listeners and don’t respond to boring.

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.

Jerry Seinfeld. His life’s work is built on whatever it is he notices. He didn’t plan to notice these things, they’ve simply presented themselves as funny, or curious, or just mysteriously noticeable. Rather than shrugging off the observations and moving on, he cultivates them. He lets them breathe and grow, until they’ve blossomed into ideas, and eventually pruned into beautifully written bits.

He’s been on my screen for 25 years — as himself, not an actor. Astonishing.

What you notice matters.

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

I try to avoid it like Times Square, but sometimes it’s the best way to Central Park.

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

Find good people you enjoy working with. I think we tend to overestimate the importance of what we’re doing and underestimate the importance of the people around us. I wouldn’t be thriving at Y&R PR without our CEO, Olga Fleming, for example. She’s an incredible mentor, supervisor, editor and friend, and just an all-around spectacular person. She knows how to bring out the best in me. And that in-turn makes the work a joy.

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. 🙂

Climate change. Even if you’re an idiot who thinks it’s a hoax, or can’t be bothered with the inconvenience, you can surely appreciate the value of breathable air, drinkable water, tillable soil, and a healthy habitat for all of creation. I’d like to see leaders on climate change frame the entirety of the argument more aggressively and effectively.

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

Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

In childhood, family, friendship, romance, business, even among strangers…it rings true.

And if you don’t make them feel something, they’ll forget you altogether.

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 wouldn’t mind trying to get a few laughs out of Jerry.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I try to keep a low profile out there. LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/kenmandelkern/) is probably the best place to get me.

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

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