The biggest thought leaders of our time have opportunities like speaking engagements, conferences, book deals, you name it. But in my opinion, thought leadership isn’t just about creating lucrative business opportunities — it’s about starting a movement. For example, Amy Nelson, founder of The Riveter, is a thought leader on building more inclusive workplaces. Her writing and speaking engagements have certainly led to business opportunities for the company — such as more members and better programming for its community spaces and a high-impact conference. But her mission is bigger than just her company. It’s about changing the world of work, advancing women, and supporting political and social change.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adrian Granzella Larssen. Adrian is the founder of Sweet Spot Content, which helps world-class companies, publishers, and executives build inspiring brands and connect with women through content. Previously, she was the first employee and editor-in-chief of The Muse, the beloved and trusted job search platform that reaches 75 million people annually, where she helped more than 500 career experts and thought leaders share their expertise.
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?
Like many people, I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I’ve always known that it would involve writing. I’ve had many career experiences through the years, including PR, marketing, internal communications, journalism, and content strategy. Though all these jobs have been different, the key component of each of them is sharing meaningful messages and inspiring conversations through words.
It was this semi-winding career path and love for writing that led me to become the first employee of The Muse, the career destination that helps people figure out what they want to do with their lives and succeed once they get there. I was there for almost seven years, building the editorial team and content strategy from the ground up. It was an amazing time that, in many ways, gave me the experience and confidence I needed to launch my own company.
Now, I run Sweet Spot Content, which helps brands launch new content properties and female thought leaders expand their influence through content.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
At The Muse, I worked with hundreds of experts and thought leaders in the career space, helping them share their expertise with our audience of ambitious professionals. Many of these people had incredible wisdom to share, but they didn’t always know how to translate that into a 700-word article or market it to a mass audience, and I loved helping them through that process.
Now, one of my key offerings at Sweet Spot Content is working with women who are thought leaders in the personal and professional development space, helping them get their ideas more exposure.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Being the first employee of a startup that grew to nearly 150 people came with all kinds of interesting experiences! When Kathryn Minshew, the founder and CEO of The Muse, called me to offer me the job, I had never met her in person, the company wasn’t yet funded, and the salary was about a third of what I was making at my corporate job. My first thought was: There’s no way I can do this. My second was: There’s no way I can turn this down. I realize now that my first instinct was fear, and the second was my gut. I’ve never regretted the decision.
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?
When I was in college, I worked as a barista at a local coffee shop. The first week on the job, I was told to stick to the basics, like making drip coffee and serving pastries, while my more seasoned co-workers would run the espresso machine until I was fully trained.
One day, it was just two of us working, and my co-worker was on an extended break when a customer came in wanting an iced blended latte. I wasn’t sure how long the break would be, so I decided to wing it and make it myself.
Spoiler alert: It was terrible, and the same customer came in the following week and told me (and my boss) as much. The lesson: Sometimes you need to wing it, but sometimes you need to step back and let the pros handle it.
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?
I think of a thought leader as a couple of steps beyond an expert — someone who shares their experience and wisdom but does so in a way that challenges norms, presents new ideas, and inspires people to think differently.
In my work at The Muse, for example, I thought of experts as those who were well-versed in the basics of career management and succeeding at work — who could talk about the best places to work and how to get a job there. The thought leaders were thinking about what work looks like five or 10 years from now, and how people could prepare themselves accordingly.
When an industry is asking big questions — what’s next for us, what does this current event mean for our future, how should we be thinking about this trend or change — thought leaders are the ones we look to for predictions.
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?
Being a thought leader isn’t for everyone. We all have experiences and opinions to share, of course, but thought leaders need to spend time thinking big about not just the world as it is, but how it could be. But for those who want to, being a thought leader is one of the most meaningful things they’ll ever do.
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?
The biggest thought leaders of our time have opportunities like speaking engagements, conferences, book deals, you name it. But in my opinion, thought leadership isn’t just about creating lucrative business opportunities — it’s about starting a movement.
For example, Amy Nelson, founder of The Riveter, is a thought leader on building more inclusive workplaces. Her writing and speaking engagements have certainly led to business opportunities for the company — such as more members and better programming for its community spaces and a high-impact conference. But her mission is bigger than just her company. It’s about changing the world of work, advancing women, and supporting political and social change.
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?
1. Share your message in a way that works for you.
While some people are incredibly energized getting on stage and speaking in front of a crowd, others may feel more comfortable writing. Whether it’s bylining articles or white papers, sharing your ideas on social media, or starting conversations around your dining room table, being a thought leader has to start in a way that allows you to be your authentic self.
2. Don’t be afraid to start small.
On a related note, don’t think that you need to spread your message far and wide, at least not right away. Gabby Bernstein, now a well-known speaker and six-time New York Times bestselling author, has talked about how when she was just getting started, she spoke to groups of just a handful of people. The benefit of this experience was that it helped her refine her message and gave her the confidence she needed to speak to larger and larger groups.
3. Say something different.
Many times, when I work with people who are just starting to create content, they want to do what everyone else is doing. And that’s fair — in digital media, it’s all about getting eyeballs. But often, I try to lead them in a different direction. If you’re a career coach, for example, you’re not going to get any thought leadership points for writing an article on interview tips. What’s much more interesting is talking about trends you’re seeing that aren’t being discussed — the article’s no one’s writing, the stories no one’s telling. If you think about the best TED speakers, they’re not the ones reiterating what you’ve heard before. They’re the ones who are presenting topics you’ve never stopped to think about.
4. Don’t half-ass it.
Many people think that any content is good content, and they hire ghostwriters or interns to write their thought leadership pieces. While of course I recommend working with a content strategist or editor, the actual content of your thought leadership pieces has to come from YOUR brain and heart.
5. Make it easy for others to learn more about you.
It’s worth investing in your online presence and putting together a hub of your philosophies, your writing or speaking clips, and any press mentions, and adding to it and keeping it dynamic over time. Yoga and meditation thought leader and speaker Jen Kluczkowski has a site that’s a great example of how to do this well.
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?
I’ve always been in awe of Brené Brown, the five-time New York Times bestselling author, TED speaker, and researcher. She’s always said something different — she was talking about shame and vulnerability when those words were, frankly, taboo in the personal and professional growth world. Her work, writing, and talks are also based on years and years of experience. They weren’t just her thoughts, they were built upon a body of incredibly well-researched work.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
It’s a fair critique, and I think it’s because anyone can claim that they’re a “thought leader” — if I wanted to, I could start sharing my thoughts on puppy training and call myself a thought leader on dogs tomorrow.
I think what’s important to pay attention to, both when you’re interacting with others’ work and thinking about your own thought leadership, is whether or not that title is backed up with real experience, expertise, and action. Therapist Bea Arthur, for example, isn’t just a thought leader — she’s an experienced and clinically trained practitioner and has built companies that are approaching the future of mental health in a completely new way. That’s different than someone who merely claims to be a thought leader.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
I recently came across this thought from Tiffany Dufu (a thought leader in her own right!): Figure out your highest and best use, and build your life around that.
In other words, what are the things you are best at, the things that only you can do? Try to spend as much time as possible on those things, and get the rest off your plate, whether that’s delegating or, as Tiffany suggests, letting balls drop.
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. 🙂
Dramatically changing the way we interact with our planet. There are so many critically important issues we’re dealing with as a population, but none of them will matter if we can’t survive as a species.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love the Maya Angelou quote: “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.” As much as I love words, it’s authenticity that’s most important to me. I think it’s also a relevant quote for thought leaders. Sharing your message isn’t necessarily about having the perfect soundbite, it’s about playing the long game and inspiring people enough that they want to be part of your movement.
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. 🙂
Oprah Winfrey is one of the best people in the world at creating stories and movements that people care about. Any advice she’d have for me, I’d gladly take it!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.