“5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry,” With Ray Zinn, the longest serving CEO of a publicly traded company in Silicon Valley

I would want people to learn to do the tough things first. Imagine how much more productive the world would be if people collectively developed the discipline and focus to do the tough things first. As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry,I had the pleasure of […]

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I would want people to learn to do the tough things first. Imagine how much more productive the world would be if people collectively developed the discipline and focus to do the tough things first.

As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry,I had the pleasure of interviewing Ray Zinn. Raymond D. “Ray” Zinn is an inventor, entrepreneur, investor, angel, bestselling author and the longest serving CEO of a publicly traded company in Silicon Valley. He is also the founder of a nationally launched ZinnStarter program at colleges around the country, providing the financial and mentoring support for students to launch new products and companies. In 2015, Ray published his first book, Tough Things First, with McGraw Hill. The book covers Zinn’s analysis of his nearly 40 years at the helm of Micrel, a Silicon Valley institution along with the critical factors that entrepreneurs and seasoned executives alike need to know, including the intricacies of nurturing corporate culture, how to make every employee (and every human) feel valued, the impact and limitations of policies and procedures, and how to manage growth. Zinn is also known for conceptualizing and in effect inventing the Wafer Stepper, and for cofounding semiconductor company Micrel (acquired by Microchip in 2015), which provides essential components for smartphones, consumer electronics and enterprise networks. He served as Chief Executive Officer, Chairman of its Board of Directors and President since the Company’s inception in 1978. Zinn led Micrel profitably through eight major downturns in global chip markets, an impressive achievement. Many chip companies weren’t able to make it through one downturn and very few have survived through all the major downturns. Micrel has been profitable from its very first year, aside from one year during the dot-com implosion. Ray Zinn holds over 20 patents for semiconductor design. He has been mentioned in several books, including Jim Fixx’s The Complete Book of Running and Essentialism by Greg McKeown.

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

I started Micrel Semiconductor by securing a bank loan and personally guaranteeing the loan. Unlike most startups, I never took a dime of Venture Capital money. And despite becoming legally blind during Micrel’s IPO, I went on to run Micrel for a total of 37 years, 36 of those profitably. After Micrel was sold in 2015, I decided that I wanted to inspire the next generation of business leaders and entrepreneurs so I wrote Tough Things First which was published by McGraw Hill. The book details the basic principles needed to succeed in business. I then went on to author Zen of Zinn which is a collection on people, business, society, entrepreneurship, personal discipline, leadership, government and life itself.

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

I’ve been promoting servant leadership as part of Tough Things First, advising and funding the next generation of entrepreneurs with my ZinnStarter program and working with CEOs and startups on the fundamentals of running an enduring business. I firmly believe thought leadership isn’t about showcasing everything you have accomplished. Thought leadership is about paying it forward and serving others, something I’ve aspired to do.

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

In about 1971, I was asked by the company that I worked for at the time to set up an assembly capability in Singapore. While visiting Singapore, I was impressed by the fact that there was no unemployment, everybody worked. Somehow, each citizen in that country found a way to make a living. This impressed me greatly. This became an Ah-ha moment for me. Up until that point, I had always been afraid of losing my job and becoming unemployed. I felt I was just as industrious as any of the citizens of Singapore and should never worry about how I was going to provide for my family. This gave me the courage to start my own company in 1978.

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?

First off, I don’t think any mistakes are inherently funny; ridiculous and stupid maybe, but generally not funny. Having said this, the most ridiculous mistake I can think of was believing that I had God and country on my side and I could win a lawsuit. In 2002, I decided to sue a company for breach of contract and lost big time. The lesson I learned is that you only have a 50/50 chance of winning a lawsuit, even if all the facts are in your favor.

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 typical leader has an agenda all his or her own while a thought leader is there to inspire and help nurture new ideas and innovation. An influencer is there to change your mind essentially, while a thought leader would never tell someone how or what to think. Our job as thought leaders is to present ideas and strategies that provoke a more inspired conversation which hopefully leads to new waves of innovation.

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?

Absolutely. To help inspire a new generation of innovators and thinkers is the reward in and of itself. It speaks to notion of servant leadership, leading to help others rather than yourself.

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?

First off, it will be the culture of the company that will determine its success or failure. If you have a culture of honesty and integrity, treat every employee with dignity and respect (no vulgarity or condescending language), and the willingness to do whatever it takes with no excuses, you will have a higher likelihood of helping a business grow.

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.

Number one, becoming a thought leader should be more about what you have to offer than self-promotion. If you are determined to become a thought leader because of ego, vanity or to further your career, your internally driven motivation will show, and people will know you are in it for yourself. Instead, my first recommendation is to focus on giving back by offering yourself as a resource to your industry and media. Secondly, go with what you know and leverage your expertise, the knowledge and experience you have accumulated over the years. Third, ask your contacts in the industry to get the word out. If you are focusing on giving back, people will be more willing to help disseminate your message and efforts. Fourth, be selfless and practice servant leadership which is about focusing on what others need to accomplish and making yourself a tool for completing that work. If an editor needs content and you are busy and don’t see the value, remain selfless and willing to help instead of thinking about how the media can bring you glory and coverage. Editors are busy people with few resources so be mindful of their needs rather than your own, because they will remember. Finally, choose a venue to communicate your leadership that you are comfortable with. If you are a good speaker but not a great writer, then podcasts and speaker opportunities might be a better forum for your talents. Go with your strength.

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.

The one individual person I can think of is the late Lee Iacocca; chairman and CEO of Chrysler Corp. Mr. Iacocca was a consummate out of the box thinker who lead by example.Another person I admire was Ronald Reagan. His thoughtful leadership was one “we are all in it together”. He didn’t come across as high and mighty and lord overall.

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

Eventually all terms can become overused in context. Perhaps servant leader is a more apt term these days because it speaks to serving others.

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

First off, I would like to define in my term’s “burnout”. “Burnout” is nothing more than discouragement. As a child, I read over and over and over the story “The Little Engine that Could”. In this story, it emphasizes that no matter the challenge or ridicule, you never give up, ever. If you look at obstacles as opportunities, you will thrill at solving problems. The more challenges you learn to overcome, the better you will avoid burnout. The great poet Emerson said, “that which we persist in doing becomes easier, not that the nature of task becomes easier, but our ability to accomplish the task becomes easier”. To this I add my saying, “adversity is like drinking vinegar, it is hard to swallow, but it is supposed to be good for you”.

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 would want people to learn to do the tough things first. Imagine how much more productive the world would be if people collectively developed the discipline and focus to do the tough things first.

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

Do the tough things first. It has helped me to learn to love the things I hate.

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 hope you won’t find this trite of me, but I am not easily impressed with prominent figures. In this respect, I respect everyone equally. Some of the lunches I have enjoyed the most have been sitting down with my janitor and conversing with him in Spanish.

Finally, I would like to add that I wake up every morning sincerely wondering what good I can do in the world today and not how much money I can make. This should be the hallmark of every thought leader.

How can our readers follow you on social media?



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

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