Instead of chasing opportunity, a person who is widely considered a thought leader will have opportunity come to them. For example, I had a client for whom we would proactively craft commentary on issues surrounding streaming sports. After a number of his quotes were included in reputable third-party media, reporters from other sources would come to us for additional commentary. The same could be said for new business inquiries. Someone with a business related to streaming sports would now be much more likely to contact my client than they would their main competitor. It’s not necessarily that my client had more knowledge or expertise. It’s about the perception that he did.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sherry Smith. Sherry specializes in strategic communications for clients across a variety of sectors including digital media, entertainment, art/culture, fashion, lifestyle and mobile. Ms. Smith’s areas of expertise include content development, media relations, industry analyst relations, speakers bureau, project management, special event programs and thought-leadership campaigns. Ms. Smith has a master’s degree in business communication from École Supérieure Libre des Sciences Commerciales Appliquées (ESLSCA) International Graduate School of Business in Paris, France (Summa Cum Laude) and is a member of MENSA.
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?
After a brief stint in fashion design, I realized my most unique — and marketable — talent was persuasive communications. So off I went to graduate school, in Paris, because if I was spending a bunch of money I didn’t have, I wanted to make the experience the most valuable possible. I lived there for a year, earned a masters degree in business communication, then returned to NYC to embark on my PR career.
Since then, I’ve led many an executive thought leadership campaign. I’m particularly adept at getting executives to look beyond what everyone else is saying. I help them to discover which topics and issues they can really flex their knowledge and opinions about to achieve goals like driving recognition and elevating reputation.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
My public relations career has been one focused largely on business-to-business communications. Working with executives who want to be thought leaders is par for the course. Some come in completely prepared with courage, conviction and credibility. Others, not so much. They may be afraid of ruffling feathers, they may be at square one with establishing credibility, they may be unwilling to devote the time that’s really required, and, worse case, they may not really have anything unique or interesting to say.
I’ve had successes and disappointments, and from both, I’ve learned what it takes to be accepted as a real thought leader.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Most interesting? Besides the last-minute invite for a helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon the first time I ever went to the Consumer Electronics Show, I’d say it’s having NBC News do a virtual tour of my now-famously tiny apartment.
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?
Oy…when you’re with an agency, mistakes are generally very unfunny.
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?
Great question. In a similar vein, someone in my Facebook feed just the other day expressed their negative take on the term “thought leader” and questioned why we don’t just say “expert.” I think they’re quite different. Same goes for “influencer.” Now, it’s possible for a person to be all three — Neil DeGrasse Tyson springs to mind — but he’s an exception, not the rule.
The status of “expert” is earned based on depth of knowledge or exceptional skill in a particular area. It does not necessarily convey authority or influence. It just means you know a lot or can do something incredibly well. “Influencer,” on the other hand, has more to do with the ability to persuade, which is based on perception more than knowledge or skill.
Being a thought leader has more to do with, as the term suggests, THINKING! A true thought leader brings something new and different to the conversation. He or she doesn’t necessarily accept the status quo, has contrary opinions or brings a different perspective to an issue, and can make an informed, persuasive argument about the validity of his or her point of view.
Just-plain-leader, at least the way I think of it, has more to do with rank. While this person should be an expert and an influencer, that’s sadly not always the case (*cough* current occupant of the White House *cough*).
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?
The adage is true: people like to do business with people they know, like and trust. If you’re out there, you’ve got a way better chance of people knowing you. The like you part, well, that’s on you.
There’s also a huge value in thought leadership as a competitive differentiator, especially if you’re in an industry that’s fairly commoditized. All other things being equal, having a rock star personality who is highly-visible and contributing actual insights to the conversation is a powerful way to get an “edge” on the competition. It doesn’t necessarily require a change to your product or service, just a change of perception.
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?
Instead of chasing opportunity, a person who is widely considered a thought leader will have opportunity come to them. For example, I had a client for whom we would proactively craft commentary on issues surrounding streaming sports. After a number of his quotes were included in reputable third-party media, reporters from other sources would come to us for additional commentary.
The same could be said for new business inquiries. Someone with a business related to streaming sports would now be much more likely to contact my client than they would their main competitor. It’s not necessarily that my client had more knowledge or expertise. It’s about the perception that he did.
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.
- Build a foundation of credibility
I work with a lot of startups with fantastic, smart, personable and informed leadership. When we talk about thought leadership topics, they may have 10 different subjects on which they feel they have expertise and can opine. And they may be right. The problem is, if they’re an unknown, there’s not much motivation for a third-party to feature those thoughts. There’s a reason most tier-one newspaper op eds are by people who are already well known.
So what do you do? You start from the ground up. Share your opinions on your blog, LinkedIn, Medium and other self-publishing platforms. Once you’ve got a few of those under your belt, then move on to lower-tier publications that accept contributed content. Promote the heck out of it. And then, once you’ve established you know your stuff, you can go to the bigger guys — or get them to come to you.
2. Do the thinking for yourself
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had an executive turn to me to provide thought leadership commentary on their behalf. While I may be an expert at HOW to convey ideas and frame persuasive arguments, I generally don’t have the same level of subject matter expertise that my client does about their topics of choice.
If they leave it to me to craft the content from whole cloth, they’re going to end up with what I think, not what they think. And, most likely, that’s not going to be nearly as deep or high-level as what they should be able to come up with. If you want to be a thought leader, YOU have to be a thought leader.
3. Don’t say what everyone else says
Another pitfall a lot of executives will experience is voicing an opinion that is pretty much the same thing everyone else said. Unless you’re Marc Pritchard or Sir Richard Branson, towing the line adds nothing to the conversation. If what you’re offering doesn’t contribute, it has no value and is not, in fact, worthy of “thought leadership” status.
4. For the love of God, DON’T be self serving
I always caution my clients about self promotion. No one likes it, so don’t do it. Focus on what you know and think, not on what your company does.
5. Maximize the impact of every opportunity
Whatever you do, don’t let it end with that achievement. Promote the F%$# out of everything. For example, if you place a piece of contributed content, then Tweet it, post a link on Facebook and LInkedIn, do a little recap with a link for your blog. That one hit can have much longer legs.
Also, don’t miss opportunities to build relationships with people of influence in your area. I’ve seen this one with conference speaking opps more than I’d like. Don’t get me wrong — getting a speaking opportunity is great — you’re on stage in front of a crowd, they all get to see who you are and hear what you have to say. But if you just come in for your session and leave after, you’ve missed at least 75% of the value.
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.
B. Bonin Bough. The man is a force of nature. I first saw him speak at a Mobile Marketing Association event, I believe back when he was still with Mondalez. He exudes courage, conviction and credibility, and he is so personable — how could anyone not feel he’s someone they know, like and trust?
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I can see the argument. I guess that’s why I qualify with words like “real” in a few of these responses. You can call yourself a thought leader all you want, but if you’re not recognized by third parties as one, then you’re just not one.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
If you get to a point where you have more offers than you can handle, then learn how to say no.
Also, don’t try to do everything yourself. There’s a reason people like me exist!
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. 🙂
From a PR standpoint, I am on a mission to rid the world of jargon, empty phrases and overused words. Disruptive, leading, innovative, next-generation — you’re all in my sights.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One Sherryism that goes well with the idea of thought leadership- I call this one, “the hot sh!t clause:”
If you act like you are hot sh!t
Then people will think that you are hot sh!t
And if people think you are hot sh!t
You are, in reality, hot sh!t.
And another: “The only reality that matters is the reality that people perceive.”
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’d love to buy Rachel Maddow a drink.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.