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Dr. Robert Kelley: “Become an expert in something that others find valuable”

Make presentations to professional audiences about your expertise and successes to see if you can withstand the challenges of peers and get valuable feedback As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Kelley. Author of the national Business Week and […]

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Make presentations to professional audiences about your expertise and successes to see if you can withstand the challenges of peers and get valuable feedback


As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Kelley.

Author of the national Business Week and Amazon.com best-seller, How to Be a Star at Work: Nine Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed, Robert Kelley has attracted international attention, appearing on NBC Today Show, CNN, CBS, and National Public Radio, and in The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Business Week, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Barrons, Atlantic Monthly, People, Cosmopolitan, and many major U.S. newspapers. The book was honored as one of “The 100 Best Business Books of All Time” and the #1 career book by the New York Daily News.

Dr. Kelley is one of a select group with three or more articles published in the Harvard Business Review. An interdisciplinary scholar, his numerous articles have appeared in leading business, legal, engineering, and psychology journals. He also writes for lay audiences, with three of his books making it to business book best-seller lists.

Dr. Kelley has been described as an “entrepreneur of the mind.” Included in Business Week’s cover story on “Management’s New Gurus,” he consistently stays a step ahead of the pack in creating new management practices used by world class organizations. Nurtured through innovative research and practical application, his brainchildren have gained wide acceptance in the marketplace of ideas. For example,

• He coined the term “Gold-Collar Worker” in his book by that title bringing national recognition to brainpowered workers and spurring research on intellectual capital and the “creative class.” The term was considered a new word by the American Heritage Dictionary. Inc. Magazine named the book in its “CEO Required Reading List;”

• He pioneered the concept of “Followership” in his best-selling book The Power of Followership and his Harvard Business Review article “In Praise of Followers” (a top 25 best-selling reprint for HBR). Widely considered the founder of “followership” studies, he legitimated the topic and, in the process, changed the prevailing view of leadership.;

He wrote the first and best-selling book on Consulting, which is considered a classic.

As President of CEO Consulting LLC, Dr. Kelley helps national and international clients, like AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Bosch, Merck, Wal-Mart, 3M, and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, manage brainpowered workers and leverage workplace diversity. Internationally, he has spoken to government officials and executives in China, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, Brazil, England, France and Italy.

Dr. Kelley is a Distinguished Service Professor of Management at the Tepper School of Business MBA program at Carnegie Mellon University where he consistently is rated one of the top teachers and was nominated by students for Carnegie Mellon University’s Doherty Teaching Prize. By leveraging his leading-edge research, Kelley has pioneered a series of innovative courses on developing star performers, followership-leadership, managing intellectual capital, and designing customer-driven strategies and services.

His educational background includes post-doctoral work at the Harvard Business School, Ph.D. from Colorado State University, M.A. from the University of Texas at Austin, and a B.A. from Drake University.

His research currently takes five directions: 1) how to use the critical path as a platform for organizational change and success, 2) how to be a star in a global, virtual, multi-cultural, and 24/7 world, 3) the implications of intellectual capital on the individual, the company, and the economy, 4) how to cultivate successful follower-leader partnerships, and 5) creating customer-driven strategies and services.

For fun, Kelley founded and sang in the Tepper School “MB-A-cappella” group, plays basketball with his kids and students, runs while his legs still can, and travels internationally 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?

Not sure what you mean by “back story.” Started life fixing cars in a gas station. Worked as a Teamster in a food distribution warehouse. Went to college. Became a Cook County, Illinois social worker working with drug addicts, alcoholics, and recently released prisoners. Went to grad school. After completing my Ph.D., joined the management consulting arm of Ernst & Ernst (now known as Ernst and Young) as part of the team that started their Strategic Planning practice. Invited to Harvard Business School as a Visiting Scholar. Launched my academic faculty career there. Did teaching stints at Northeastern U and Portland State U (the latter to be near my mother during her last years). Went back to consulting at the Stanford Research Institute (now known as SRI International). Moved to Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business and now completing my 35the year. Have run my own consulting business for 40 years working with top global companies in USA, Europe, and Asia, as well as tech start-ups, and non-profit organizations. Published my first academic articles in the 1970s, have 3 articles in the Harvard Business Review, wrote 4 path-breaking books, and am finishing up another.

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

Too many to choose from. So you can pick from the samples below.

  1. Uncovered and helped resolve for the U.S. government over a 3 year period the 700 billion dollars Savings & Loan Crisis in the mid-1980s.
  2. Founded the academic field of “Followership” studies. My work ignited the study of followers and legitimized its place next to leadership in both the corporate and academic world.
  3. My book, “How to Be a Star at Work” became a Business Week and Amazon best-seller (#1 at Amazon for a month). Honored as one of “The 100 Best Business Books of All Time”
  4. Worked with Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood fame) to improve the functioning of his non-profit company that produced his show and sold merchandise.
  5. Appeared on the “Today” show with Katie Couric.
  6. Taught twice on “Semester-at-Sea” a floating university which circles the globe each semester.
  7. Did research with my spouse (Prof. Pat Chew at U of Pittsburgh) that found evidence of racial bias in judicial decision making in racial harassment cases. An article about our work became the most viewed article in the main American bar Assn publication and led to numerous presentations to judicial conferences and academic programs.

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 is looked to and sought out for the depth and applicability of their knowledge/wisdom on a relevant topic. They are the person in the meeting or forum whose view carries the day and shapes the decision/action plan. Unlike a typical leader who may have formal organizational or social power, the thought leader has informal power invested in them by others who respect the clarity of their thinking and soundness of their judgment. Influencers may have some depth of knowledge, but most do not. Instead, they attract people who want their approval or fans who want to be associated with them. To me, the Influencer phenomena is the adult equivalent of the middle school in-group/outgroup. For example, Gwyneth Paltrow is a gifted actor who has become a big influencer on diet, health, fashion, personal relationships, and other topics. But what does she really know about these topics? I’d rather get my diet info from a recognized dietician, my health advice from an MD, etc.

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’m not sure that becoming a thought leader is a worthwhile goal, at least at the beginning. If people see you as self-promoting before you’ve proven yourself, they tend to suspect your capabilities and motives. Instead, become an expert on a topic that is important to society and use that knowledge to benefit society. If you make contributions, people will notice and seek you out. That’s how and when you become a thought leader. Once your value is recognized by others, you can build from there.

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?

Having a thought leader reputation reduces the need to market or advertise. It brings clients to your door. Also, you generally don’t have to prove yourself because your previous body of work precedes you and substantiates why you are there.

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.

  1. Become an expert in something that others find valuable. Learn how to talk about it in plain language.
  2. Apply your expertise successfully to real world problems
  3. Make presentations to professional audiences about your expertise and successes to see if you can withstand the challenges of peers and get valuable feedback
  4. Write articles/books/research studies, blog etc. Maybe do a TED talk, though they seem to be losing their luster.
  5. Cultivate relationships with media folks who are looking for stories and experts. Get back to them quickly.
  6. Present to relevant trade associations to see if any potential clients are interested in your expertise

I did all of the above for my thought leadership on brainpowered and creative workers (The Gold-Collar Worker), Followership (The Power of Followership), and productivity (How to Be a Star at Work)

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.

Dan Ariely at Duke. He is an expert in the psychology of decision making and behavioral economics. He knows his stuff and he can explain it well in lay people terms. His research has real world applicability for many people. He writes clearly drawing from his and other people’s research, using very good examples. He has his own blog, has written very good books, an has a regular column in the Wall Street Journal.

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

This has come about because too many people are claiming to be thought leaders when they do not have the expertise nor have yet won the recognition of others to back up their claim. Being the head of the IT dept or HR dept at a company does not make you a thought leader. Writing a blog does not make you a thought leader. Giving a TED talk does not make you a thought leader. Having a Ph.D. does not make you a thought leader. You become a thought leader when others acknowledge and look to you as I described earlier.

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

Keep all your priorities straight and balanced. Worry less about being a leader or thought leader and more about making contributions that make a positive difference to your organization and community. Find work that energizes you and remember to set aside time to re-charge.

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

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” — Peter Drucker

“No one ever said on their deathbed ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’” — Harold Kushner

Both these quotes remind me to stay focused on what’s most important in my life. Drucker’s quote helps me stay focused on only doing work that makes a difference.

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