Thought leadership is about changing your point of view and challenging your thinking. It’s also about challenging the “how things have always been done” mentality that exists in all walks of life. Look at Netflix — they put Blockbuster and the ‘video store’ out of business because they thought of a better business model to engage the marketplace. Usually when you see a company achieve massive success it’s down to the fact that they created what everyone wanted but didn’t know they needed. Henry Ford famously said “if we asked customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.” If you watch out for trends in your industry and see movement towards one area or another, it gets easier over time to spot the opportunities. In sales that can be a small change in your process, for product it could be a redesign with a new message and for people it could be just simply doing it better than everyone else with a difference. It’s also about being fresh in your approach and remembering that customer experience above all else will determine your success.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan O’Reilly. Ryan is a qualified high performance executive team coach, sales trainer and international speaker. Ryan founded Ryan O’Reilly International in 2013 following 15 years of Fortune 100 experience as a Senior Sales Leader. Ryan has lead sales teams in Dell, Apple and EMC. Realising his passion for empowering people, and enjoyment of inspiring leaders, Ryan opened his own Executive Coach and Performance Consultancy company. While working at Apple in California, USA Ryan hired and led a team of 120+ inside sales representatives through a hyper growth period through 2003 and 2009. Ryan progressed to EMC as a Senior Sales Leader for nine countries across EMEA, winning Sales Manager of the Year for EMEA in 2011. Ryan has both business and coaching qualifications from UCC, Smurfit UCD Executive School, University of Wolverhampton Business School and LIT. In 2016, Ryan coined his first successful book “Shifting Gears, how to harness your drive to reach your potential and accelerate success” and has sold over 400 copies globally. Ryan then went on to participate as a TEDx speaker at the world famous Bocconi University in Milan, Italy. Originally from Limerick, Ryan has lived worked and studied in California, Boston, Sydney, the UK. He now resides in Cork, Ireland with his family.
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?
Yes, thank you. Well for the last six years I have been running my own speaking, coaching and training business Ryan O’Reilly International, which sees me travel the world to speak at conferences, coach senior executives, teams and train sales groups. Previous to that I spent 15 years in senior leadership roles working for three large tech companies at Dell, Apple and EMC. My corporate experience was super and took me to California, Sydney, the UK and Ireland to work and live. Towards the end of my corporate career I experienced burnout and that spurred me to change it up and start my own business. Hard to believe that six years have passed, but I am delighted with my progress. Outside of work I have three young kids, try and run marathons and participate in multi-sport adventure races. I also write fiction for fun.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
For the last six years I have been deeply involved with helping business owners and leaders across a number of industries grow their businesses and in particular their leaders and sales teams. Coupling this experience with being passionate about modern work-place trends and performance has enabled me to think differently about common problems experienced by many companies and leaders. Adding to these is my determination to help people in whatever form they may take.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
At the young age of 24 I found myself leading a sizable sales team across Northern Europe for Apple. I had interviewed for a sales rep role and through the process it ended up with me being hired to lead the team. I was admittedly very green and it was a steep learning curve, but it proved to be the real kick start my career. The people I led at the time were just the best you could meet and I would still be in contact with some of them today.
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?
There is definitely a long list of mistakes I have made throughout my career, I’ve always tried to learn from every interaction and at the very least try and understand what happened. The funniest that comes to mind is presenting to senior management for the first time, I was as can be expected very nervous. I kept dropping the remote control for the presentation — it just would not stay in my hand! — well it got to a point in the meeting that the senior leaders could not stop laughing at my inability to hold a remote. I was embarrassed and nervous, but luckily started laughing with them. However, the lesson I took from it was most audiences want you to do well, and secondly that there is no substitute for deliberate practice. While it is funny looking back if you had said at the time that it would be the spur for me to get good at presenting, and one day I’d be getting paid to speak I wouldn’t have believed you. Since then my aim has been to engage the audience versus being too concerned with my own nerves.
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?
For me a “Thought Leader” is someone who looks at common issues or trends and joins the dots on how that can impact an organization, leader or movement. Typical leaders tend to stay in the day to day a little more, but it really does depend on personality. Personality can be the defining factor in how visionary or innovative you are as a leader. Common differences for me usually comes down to leaders challenging what they know already. When you start challenging the status quo and wanting to discover a new way, then you will. Also, how much is that person educating themselves to what is happening outside their circle of influence and outside their corporations. The difference between a thought leader and an influencer is interesting. As we know over the years, the number of influencers has quadrupled. In some instances people could be both, maybe the main difference is the motivation of the individual. Rightly or wrongly some influencers don’t have a good reputation for being factual or cashing in. The exemplary thought leaders out there are motivated by parting their message and seeing if it lands and then working on their next message. I met a prominent thought leader last year, who said he spent most of his time (when he wasn’t delivering keynotes) in his garage reading and writing. We don’t see that with influencers perhaps.
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?
First of all, it isn’t for everyone. Secondly, it starts with really defining the area of expertise you want to thought lead in. Is this an area you are passionate about and why? If you have this question answered, there are more networking opportunities, more invites to speak, write or be interviewed. Most importantly a great benefit of becoming a thought leader is that you get to really go deep on a topic that inspires you, and in that the process moves you beyond your comfort zone. Once beyond that discomfort becomes normal because you are adapting a learning mindset.
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?
Excellent question, thought leadership as I mentioned is about changing your point of view and challenging your thinking. It’s also about challenging the “how things have always been done” mentality that exists in all walks of life. Look at Netflix — they put Blockbuster and the ‘video store’ out of business because they thought of a better business model to engage the marketplace. Usually when you see a company achieve massive success it’s down to the fact that they created what everyone wanted but didn’t know they needed. Henry Ford famously said “if we asked customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.” If you watch out for trends in your industry and see movement towards one area or another, it gets easier over time to spot the opportunities. In sales that can be a small change in your process, for product it could be a redesign with a new message and for people it could be just simply doing it better than everyone else with a difference. It’s also about being fresh in your approach and remembering that customer experience above all else will determine your success.
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.
- Read. If you want to be known as a thought leader, then read. There are a plethora of resources available today on any given topic. Voracious readers are always the thought leaders that stand out most in any industry. Look at getting your reading from different (and credible) sources and mix that with business books and journals from your chosen area. From a young age, I have been devouring business books and journals in the areas of sales, performance and leadership. This reading helps to change our opinion or embolden us to discover more. Personally, I am also a huge fan of learning about people from different walks of life. In particular the sports autobiography is a source of good insight into human performance. I take notes when I read and will sometimes read the book twice to make sure I understand. I’ll also bounce ideas off a good friend of mine, John, and that helps. Now I know most people say “I don’t have the time to read,” but if you want to be a thought leader it’s essential and you could always do audio books in the car on your commute.
- Study. I know same as reading right? Not necessarily. For me there are two types of study. 1. Formal course and university and 2. The study of your industry. Of course, if it is an option to you, going to or returning to university is a huge opportunity to learn. Studying the papers, the experts and also being in that positive environment can add air to your wings. Knowing that your information is researched and is correct is a solid foundation for becoming a thought leader. Add to that you have to complete course work in the area of study you chose, thus deepening your learning. For me over the last 6 years, I’ve gone back to University twice and the second time for a Masters Program in Business and Executive Coaching. The second is studying your industry. Who and what makes business successful? Who is thinking differently? What are these leaders saying? Who is gaining market share and why? What are the disruptive businesses out there and how are they doing a great job in beating the trends? What can you learn by talking to people who work there and what are the biggest concerns of the leaders. When I started out six years ago I used to pick well respected business people and just call them and ask lots of questions, I progressed from that to looking at some of the thought leaders out there that I admired and engaging them and learning from them. With a bit of tenacity you would be surprised you can connect with.
- Write. Having different points of view or new thoughts has to include a pen and a paper at times. Just the ability to mind map or spider graph what it is you are thinking about helps you challenge your thinking and ask questions. Start with a blog once you have completed this step and keep practicing and getting better. I started to write my own blog years ago and that gave me the confidence to write an article and share on the professional networking site LinkedIn. From there I went on to write my first book and then from that to write for newspapers and online business sites. Writing academically came with my masters, and now I’m back writing my second book. Write to please yourself first then figure it out from there.
- Speak. Any thought leader that wants to share their view on the world has to be able to speak. I see it as a great investment in oneself if you push yourself to learn how to speak in an engaging and interesting way so to impact your audience. As I mentioned when I started my career I could not cope with the nerves of presenting. Luckily I got some great advice, joined Toastmasters International and started practicing. I made it my career ambition to get good at speaking. Starting out my own speaking business I had to get a crowd. I spoke for free at my kid’s school, at unemployment groups and at local small business meetings. I wanted to speak so I’d travel all over to speak for free. Eventually that led to being invited to speak at some conferences again without being compensated. But that was okay for me as I was learning and getting better. I reckon I still have more to learn, but it’s amazing to think how far I have come over the years. I now get hired by conference organizers all over the world to turn up and speak. I’m thrilled and yes it is my dream job!
- Have a strong vision. Where is it you want to go if you do become a thought leader? The final step for me to become a thought leader is to have a vision of where you want to take it. Do you want to become known as an expert for short term gain or are you looking at it from the long term. This is a key question. Having that strong vision of who you are aiming to be really sets you on the course for success. My own vision is strong, I want to be speaking and writing right into my 80’s. I really do consider it my dream job and who knows by the time I get to 80 I hope that I haven’t left any opportunity behind and that my vision of being an excellent speaker and author will have been realised.
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.
Two come to mind. The first one is Keith Ferrazzi, I saw him speak at the Pendulum Summit in Dublin, Ireland years ago and he was real and relatable and had an excellent knack for connecting with his audience. He also has two New York Times best selling books and runs a successful consultancy practice. The second one is Robin Sharma. A famous writer, speaker and New York Times best seller, but for me he is a modern artist, how he formulates his writing and speeches and gets his message out there is always done in a superbly engaging way. He is authentic and real and drenched in humility. Again Sharma is all about helping people get perspective on what it is all about — this thing we call life. He thinks differently and gives unconditionally to his readers and followers. Kindness personified. Lessons we can learn are too many to mention from these two gentlemen.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
Thank you for bringing this up, as the term itself doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with me. In this modern world everyone seems to be an expert and to tout yourself as one seems to me to be a little false or boastful. A friend recently described me as such and I winced a little. I have so much left to do and learn maybe I can be called one when people think I have made a big enough impact. But to be honest for the moment I am happy to be in demand to speak at conferences and get interviewed by publications as excellent as this. It seems too large a title for me, I’d rather just show up and work hard and see where that takes me.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Self Compassion is the biggest piece of advice. This is a well throttled “thought” piece. Look after yourself and you’re able to look after others etc. I experienced burn-out, and to be frank I never want to experience it again. The foundation error I made was to give up on myself and give up on being good to myself. So my early morning run went, then my diet went to hell and my caffeine intake spiked, then my sleep got impacted. It becomes a vicious circle fast. These days I have learned from it, but still am not perfect at it.
Find a passion and do it as part of your weekly routine. Find a social group that takes you into that passion or takes you out of your comfort zone. I am currently learning the Ukulele with my twelve year old. It’s a great chance to bond and now we can play some music together (although he is better at it than me!) So that’s one hour learning a new skill, and spending it with one of my favorite people. Be kind to yourself like that, life doesn’t have to be a battle or connected to technology all the time. Climb a mountain or jump in a lake. Live a little.
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. 🙂
Kindness wins. I’m not sure if my idea is entirely original. Mother Theresa was a “thought leading” in this area for years. I ask myself how can I be more kind to people today? How can I be more kind and expect nothing else back? How can I spread a simple act of kindness so that the recipient goes out of their way to be kind to someone else. How can I show my kids to be kind? How can I be more kind and compassionate to those people who I meet who may be going through something way tougher than anything I have experienced. In my TEDx Talk I discussed an old homeless man who used to live nearby when I lived in Sydney a little kindness would go a long way for him, and my learning was how we perceive kindness might be different to others’ perception. A little kindness goes a long way for everyone. My second book is all about compassion and kindness. Just be kind.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Walter D. Wintle wrote an excellent poem called “Thinking”. I actually adore it. It talks about being an underdog. “Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or faster man, but sooner or later the man who wins is the man who thinks he can.”
When I burnt out, I really thought I’d never be successful, at the age of 36 I thought that was it. Career over sort of thinking. I was very down on myself at the time. That quote helped me stay sane, starting my own business and travelling the not usual path of becoming a speaker and writer and believing that I could actually do it helps me believe maybe someday it’ll be me who wins because I thought I could. Good sense of poetry about that for me and sums up my attitude to life so far. I always have tried to play the longer game of tenacity and perseverance. The second one is “It’s your attitude not your aptitude that will determine your altitude.” by Zig Ziglar. Attitude is everything, and the difference to getting to your destination or not. Sums me up.
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. 🙂
Ha! Such a super question to end on. In my line of work I get to meet some interesting and well known people. I’d love the opportunity to meet and chat with Jimmy Fallon, Oprah, Robin Sharma, Barack Obama, my former top colleague Tim Cook of Apple and the Dalai Lama. Failing that anyone from the higher echelons of the world of sport or music or writing. For me it’s a chance to learn about their success and their mindset, alternatively being a proud Irish man, the chance to have a pint (or two) with Bono from U2 would be pretty class. Ukulele would stay at home for that one though. Thank you.
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Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.