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“5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry”, With Riley Adams of the Young and the Invested

I work for Google and there are two ways for companies with a digital presence to become relevant to our users: pay for it (advertising) or organically through matching brand relevance and authority with user intent (organic search). If you can become a thought leader in your industry, you can get a whole lot of […]

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I work for Google and there are two ways for companies with a digital presence to become relevant to our users: pay for it (advertising) or organically through matching brand relevance and authority with user intent (organic search). If you can become a thought leader in your industry, you can get a whole lot of the latter without investing much in the former. The ROI is high on organic interest from the billions of users who search for products and information on the web.


As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Riley Adams, CPA. Riley is originally from New Orleans but now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he works as a senior financial analyst at a tech company. He also runs the personal finance site called Young and the Invested, a site dedicated to helping young professionals find financial independence and live their best lives.


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

My name is Riley Adams and I am originally from New Orleans, LA. Shortly before Hurricane Katrina ravaged my city, I relocated to a public boarding school in the north of the state where I graduated and attended college in Shreveport, LA at Centenary College. I graduated there working full-time in the oil & gas sector and accepted a spot in Penn State’s economics graduate program where I studied energy and environmental issues extensively. After graduation, I accepted a job at the public utility in New Orleans as a regulatory finance analyst and split my time between finance and regulatory policy responsibilities. The latter led to meet my mentor, an industry thought leader with a critical eye and keen sense of how our industry works. Working under his guidance for 6 years has had a lasting impact on how I view the business world and instilled a healthy dose of skepticism for accepting information on the surface.

Valuing this relationship, I have made it a point to stay in touch since my move out west for a better job market and to be closer to my wife’s family in time to have our first child.

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

Working in regulatory policy for 6 years, I’ve been exposed to a great number of intelligent individuals who guide the national conversation and use their platforms for productive means, but also some for self-promotional ends. To navigate these uncertain waters, you need to understand people’s motivations through signals such as their words, decisions, and actions. Quite often, filtering the noise is a valuable skillset which allows you to find the true voices that matter. From there, you can distill arguments into their essential form and see how they filter through other people’s messages. Once you develop an understanding of the field and can internalize them effectively, it’s time to begin contributing your own thoughts about topics.

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

I worked as a project manager for a bid submission into a renewable resources request for proposals (RFP) for an affiliate company under guidance from my mentor. I coordinated numerous internal work teams, drove visibility into costs, project plans, operational requirements, and P&L impact. The project we chose to bid would be a first-of-its-kind project in the U.S. and would attract significant PR value to the company and the city of New Orleans for its progressive support of this rooftop solar resource. However, to preserve an air of prudence, we as a project team elected to bid only for a portion of the available capacity solicited in the RFP.

After conducting due diligence for several months, including coordinating internal and external stakeholders, seeking various approvals, and running through numerous risk scenarios, we presented the project for the final approval to our president of the utility. Because I had coordinated so much of the project to this point, my mentor asked me to join him when pitching the project partly because I knew the details well, but also because I had earned a seat at the table in his mind. After walking through the project details in the meeting, the president seemed dismayed for reasons we couldn’t understand. He expressed displeasure in wanting to know why we hadn’t expanded the project scope to include the possibility of winning the entire RFP capacity.

Hearing this both worried and excited me. We had received word from his direct reports we should not pursue the full scope of the RFP and here he was demanding the opposite. This empowerment led to a secondary bid which would provide for a full capacity uptake should it be selected. The regulatory representatives of the city liked both bids but opted for the smaller bid with an option to expand to the full scope in the coming years. This would allow for proof of concept before scaling to a larger solution. However, having support to increase this key project because it was novel in idea and impact was a major boost in my career which prompted me to be considered for a leadership development rotation in investor relations for my company.

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 investor relations role, I was invited to an investor meeting in New York City with our CFO, President, and my VP. My role was merely to be of assistance ot these senior executives and absorb the process. During the day, we had a lunch break and the food choice was from a nearby ShakeShack. Our President was a former NCAA national champion linebacker and has an athletic build to this day.

After taking order requests and returning with food, I hadn’t bothered to review the food after the person at the counter retold me the contents of the delivery bags. When handing out food, the President saw he hadn’t received his whole order and he refused to allow me to return to get more food. Thankfully, my boss had ordered an extra burger he didn’t want and gave it to the President. Afterward, my boss laughingly advise I always order too much food for senior executives and give them the option of having more if they want it. Even if the food goes untouched and is thrown away, it’s worth covering yourself against such an outcome.

From then on, whenever I passed the President in a hallway or saw him at an event, I can only imagine that he saw me as the guy who didn’t get him enough to eat.

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 has a bead on the industry and can filter through the noise to isolate the important information useful for guiding the conversation. These people lead by seeing how things could be, not how they are, and acting upon it. They have comfort with the unknown and don’t seek merely to manage to a solution, but create one. Their original takes on subjects drive the conversation forward and lead to new ways of seeing things instead of merely observing what currently is, like many influencers.

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?

I work for Google and there are two ways for companies with a digital presence to become relevant to our users: pay for it (advertising) or organically through matching brand relevance and authority with user intent (organic search). If you can become a thought leader in your industry, you can get a whole lot of the latter without investing much in the former. The ROI is high on organic interest from the billions of users who search for products and information on the web.

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?

Following on my previous response, having brand awareness and visibility are imperative for separating your brand from your competitors. This doesn’t necessarily just relate to companies but also a person as a brand as well. By distinguishing yourself from your peers, you can create sustaining value for your customers, charge a premium price on your products and services, and grow your business with the protection of your brand. Google managed to this by always prioritizing delivery of the optimum user experience and never favoring advertisers over users should the two come into conflict. This mindset led Google to become the company it is today with billions of highly-engaged daily users who have come to rely on the company’s products to make their daily lives easier and more fulfilling.

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.

One strategy is through earning widely-recognized credentials relevant to your area of expertise. These are signaling devices to others that you’ve passed some minimal threshold for having expertise and authority in your field.

The next strategy involves taking these credentials and using them to elevate your work to the next level. Continuing to develop deep knowledge and expertise in your industry and continuing to learn and challenge your own thinking.

From here, you need to communicate with others and share your thoughts in a public forum. For myself, I established a financial website, https://youngandtheinvested.com and use it as a platform to share my thoughts and opinions with the world. But just putting stuff out there isn’t enough. It needs to be heard.

The fourth strategy involves proactive outreach to publications of note in your field and offer yourself as a credible source and someone worthy of being consulted for your expertise. Do this enough and eventually you’ll have people coming to you for your thoughts instead of you needing to go to them.

The final strategy is bringing this all together and elevating your platform for all to see and follow. This is the final step in my brand awareness strategy and one I hope to realize in the coming years. At this point, you can lean in on your expertise and self-actualize into what you’re meant to be.

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.

Someone who I have come to respect as a thought leader in my field of finance has been Sam at Financial Samurai. He established his credibility by working for over a decade as an investment banker and then transitioned into starting his own platform to promote his message.

He proactively sought out media mentions, offering his thoughts on countless matters related to personal finance and continued to build his reputation among peers and the finance industry as a whole. After many years of dedication, he’s become a widely-recognized titan in the personal finance space.

I’ve seen first hand the effort he’s put into cultivating his brand, the attention to detail with his commentary, and his unique (often divergent) takes on topics. He’s cornered off a space to himself and has built a resilient brand which has weathered the previous 10 years.

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

As with many things which are repeated by enough people, the term can lose its value with time and use. The title has seen its threshold for being earned lowered, thereby watering down its true meaning. After being falsely applied countless times, it’s hard to distinguish quality when there’s such great quantity.

The smart observer will use filters to sift through and understand who the true thought leaders are. Otherwise, it’s hard to uncrack the egg and restore value to the term.

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

If you feel you have a place in this field as a thought leader, be sure to stick to your guns and find new ways of applying yourself and communicating your message. Slight variations in approach can lead to new developments and lasting satisfaction.

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. 🙂

Getting your financial house in order. So many people’s lives would improve by not endenturing themselves to jobs they don’t want but can’t afford to quit and follow what really makes them happy. I think a lot more people would be a lot happier.

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

If your savings rate doesn’t hurt, you aren’t saving enough. I want to be financially independent, not necessarily to retire early, but to have the option of pursuing what I want. Fortunately, I’m highly-satisfied with my career and direction in life. But for those who aren’t, the key to your financial freedom comes from saving more money, thereby enabling you to follow your interests.

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. 🙂

Sam at Financial Samurai (@financialsamura).

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @YoungAndTheInv

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/riley-adams-cpa

Facebook: facebook.com/youngandtheinvested

Mix: mix.com/youngandtheinvested

Instagram: instagram.com/youngandtheinvested

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

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