Think as cross-functional, as multicultural, and as diverse as possible — Thought leadership often is not about inventing something new but about connecting dots that already exist, that nobody has connected yet. One of the cornerstones of our business was that we had an office in the US and Germany. Our idea was to combine the latest trends out of the US tech industry with more traditional and conservative thinking styles typical for the European market. This idea, combined with the experience we gained in our early careers, where both my brother and I worked for many different companies in many different categories, was fundamental to us becoming thought leaders in our industry. In this atmosphere, I often experienced a cross-functional, multicultural, and diverse environment as the perfect breeding ground for new ideas. Thus, I strongly recommend creating that kind of environment for yourself if you want to become a thought leader.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Felix Holzapfel.
Felix Holzapfel is a successful entrepreneur who is recognized as a Thinkers360 Top 10 Global Thought Leader in Digital Transformation. He has supported many global players on their way into the digital age. He has published several books about technology, trends, and the shift in the media landscape. After selling his digital marketing agency to one of the world’s leading IT services providers, he now has time to focus on his passion projects.
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?
I started my professional career in 1997 at an IT systems company. In 2002, I founded the digital marketing agency “conceptbakery” with my brother Klaus. We had the privilege of working for some of the world’s leading brands (Fortune 500, DAX 30, and SMB entities).
After we established an international agency alliance our business became part of Zone. We turned into shareholders and members of the senior management team. At the end of 2017, Zone was sold to Cognizant (listed on the NASDAQ, a Fortune 500 company).
I left the company at the end of 2018, closing that chapter of my life. I took a one-year sabbatical to travel the world with my wife and our two children.
In the meantime, I founded two more companies with my brother. Continuum Housing specializes in Net Zero Emissions Home Development. Quovabiz helps our clients to stay focused and answer the most important questions in our rapidly changing world: Where are you headed with your business? And how do you get there? We also use Quovabiz as a company-building platform and for our thought leadership projects.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
I started my professional career while still attending school. At “only” forty-three years old, I’ve already gained twenty-four years of experience in fields like IT, digital transformation, customer experience, and mentoring other global leaders. During this time, I’ve always tried to push boundaries and conquer unchartered territory. I’ve done numerous keynotes at industry events, lectures at universities and published several books sharing my ideas beyond our customer base. I hope this track record gives me a certain level of credibility — although one of my core principles is to keep in mind that all we really know is how little we know.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
When I was 22 years old, I did a presentation at an event for a business angel network to raise money for a project of the IT service company I was working for at that time. The venue was packed. All presentations before me were given by people in their forties or fifties, most of them with impressive academic titles and careers. As soon as I entered the stage and set up my laptop, the crowd started to get restless. Some people even laughed at me — probably wondering, what is this kid doing up on the stage? But I was confident that the story I had to tell would ensure I’d get the audience’s attention. And that’s what happened. After the event, I received a certificate that my presentation was one of the best ever given on any of this business angel network’s events. This experience had two effects: It provided a healthy self-confidence for whenever I’ve been on stage, and it always reminds me that you should never judge a book by its cover.
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?
On a Sunday night, about a year after I started working at the IT system company, a friend took me to a show at a club. During the show’s break, the two owners of the company I was working for showed up. They first went to my apartment, and my roommate told them where they could find me. These bosses told my roommate that I would know why they were there. They blamed me for breaking into our office the night before, stealing a couple of laptops, and copying data from our company server. They said they could prove this because someone had logged into our company server with my username and password at 5 a.m. Sunday morning.
Ouch! What could I do to prove that I was not guilty? Here is the rough wording of my defense:
“First of all, at 5 a.m. I was still in a club. You can ask the waitress behind the bar, who I flirted with pretty much the entire evening. She’ll remember me.
Second, you set up my username and password when I started to work at your company. At that time, I hardly had access to any crucial data. Instead of updating my user rights, you gave me your usernames and passwords that granted me full access to everything. If I wanted to steal data from the company, I would use your usernames. Also, I would have done whatever I wanted during office hours, in front of your eyes.”
Suddenly they clicked. The CEO remembered an apprentice’s conspicuous behavior — a fifteen-year-old boy, still attending school — how he sneaked around to find the office’s spare key that was stored in the entrance area. My bosses left me without saying a word and went to visit the apprentice. The next morning, I learned that the boy confessed everything immediately when they confronted him with the accusations in the presence of his parents.
What did I learn from that? First of all, quick fixes can solve short-term problems, but they shouldn’t turn into long-term solutions. Second, sharing your username and password is never a good idea. Finally, third, even in the pre-smartphone era, my boss could find me anywhere at any time — even on a Sunday night at a club with hundreds of people;)
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 is somebody who has the ability, know-how, and experience to connect the dots within his discipline or even cross-disciplines, in a unique way to push the boundaries and conquer unchartered territory. His thoughts take him and his audience to the next level in a specific field of expertise.
What’s the difference between a thought leader and a typical leader? For me, the embodiment of a typical leader is a CEO running a company or a president running a country. You have to lead an organization, make decisions, take care of your staff, ensure economic success, or negotiate with countless stakeholders. Perhaps thought leadership is a tiny part of your job as well. But that’s not mandatory.
What about influencers? Currently, the most subscribed YouTube Channels of the world are T-Series (Music), PewDiePie (Entertainment), Cocomelon — Nursery Rhymes (Education). On the one hand, these channels’ producers are thought leaders as their global success defines their industry’s benchmarks. On the other hand, their output is usually not about thought leadership. They are international entertainment brands, often also a new type of celebrities or testimonials, born in the digital age. Their goal usually is not about creating knowledge that takes a field of expertise to the next level but about building reach, entertaining their target audiences, and building a successful business.
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?
Thought leadership is a lot about passion. You need to be highly interested in a specific topic and have an intrinsic motivation to continuously gain as much knowledge as possible in your field of expertise. In my case, it’s not so much about benefits or investing resources and energy. It doesn’t feel like work. It’s a passion. This way of thinking is the best foundation to becoming a successful and authentic thought leader — somebody people will listen to and want to follow on the journey they are being invited to. If your priority is not primarily about benefiting but about sharing your thoughts and knowledge, the success and benefits will automatically follow.
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?
Let’s say you are the CEO of a company that wants to outperform its competitors during a period of radical change like the digital transformation that’s taking place right now. Who would you like to talk to? Somebody who does a great job in things many other companies do as well? Or somebody who is ahead of the curve and well-known as a thought leader in digital transformation? Usually, the answer is that companies want both within one person, somebody who combines experience with thought leadership. The same applies to many other categories as well.
Let me give you an example of my career. We founded our business when I was 24 years old, when I was the new kid on the block. There were already many other digital agencies out there. How could we stand out? How could somebody like me attract the first client? Best case, I would target a larger company, who would most likely not only spend a bigger budget but also open new doors to other established companies. I started to write and share my ideas about what I believed innovative digital marketing should look like, how you could turn clients into fans, and become the talk of the (digital) town. One of my articles caught the attention of a marketing manager of a company called E-Plus, a leading Telecommunication provider in Germany. He was fascinated by my thoughts, and E-Plus became our first well-known client — just six months after we founded our company. This collaboration was an essential milestone for the success of our business and created plenty of new opportunities. We would never have gained E-Plus as a client without my ambition to become and present myself as a thought leader in our industry and sharing my ideas with as many people as possible
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) Share your knowledge — People often ask me, “Felix, why are you sharing all your knowledge? Wouldn’t it be better to hold some of your knowledge back so that you remain ahead of the curve?” I don’t think so. In today’s fast-moving world, knowledge is outdated very quickly. In such an environment, the most critical success factor is not your knowledge from the past but your ability to learn new things and predict what’s about to come. Thus, sharing your experience while it’s still up to date has several effects: Others will perceive you as a thought leader. You enable other people to build new ideas based on your thoughts. And sharing your ideas often leads to inspiring conversations that help you take your thoughts to the next level — also called learning by teaching. Sharing your knowledge will not make you less, but way more successful.
2) Build a reputation — In our business’s early days, one of our services’ pillars was called “trend scouting.” We hardly sold any stand-alone trend scouting projects. But it changed the perception of all our other services as trend scouting was part of everything we did. It also changed the how I was perceived by the media. I was often asked for interviews on the latest trends and what trend scouting was all about. The small talk before pitches or meetings with our clients was often not about trivia, but people asked me about the latest trends. All of these factors combined helped to build the reputation of being cutting-edge for both me and our business.
3) Create your own path — You can’t become a thought leader if you follow what everybody else is doing. You need to create your own path. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you leave your hometown while still attending school to live in a big city or found your business when all your friends are still at the university; or start your first job as I did. But you need to be willing to buck the trend in your peer group or industry. Is this always easygoing? The answer is no! But in my opinion, this is necessary if you want to become a true thought leader.
4) Be bold and think big — In sports and later in business, I learned how important it is to be bold and think big in order to reach a new level. Please, don’t get me wrong. It’s okay if you are not super ambitious or you are doing sports just for fun or work only for your living. Sometimes I even admire people who have this ability, and I would love to be less ambitious and take things easier. But I think in terms of thought leadership, these characteristics are helpful if not essential. Often, they are the fuel that takes you, your skills, and your thoughts to the next level. I always wanted to build a company that would innovate, that would become one of the leaders in its industry, that would work internationally, for well-known brands, and that we could sell one day. All these dreams built the fundamentals of our company and somehow turned me into a thought leader. It was a lot of hard work and a lot of luck that things developed as they did. But most of it probably wouldn’t have been possible without being bold and thinking big.
5) Think as cross-functional, as multicultural, and as diverse as possible — Thought leadership often is not about inventing something new but about connecting dots that already exist, that nobody has connected yet. One of the cornerstones of our business was that we had an office in the US and Germany. Our idea was to combine the latest trends out of the US tech industry with more traditional and conservative thinking styles typical for the European market. This idea, combined with the experience we gained in our early careers, where both my brother and I worked for many different companies in many different categories, was fundamental to us becoming thought leaders in our industry. In this atmosphere, I often experienced a cross-functional, multicultural, and diverse environment as the perfect breeding ground for new ideas. Thus, I strongly recommend creating that kind of environment for yourself if you want to become a thought leader.
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.
Although he’s not famous, the thought leader who had the most influence on me was the CEO of the IT systems company where I started my career. Being an outstanding visionary, having the ability to share his ideas in a very intriguing way, he was regularly ahead of time. Unfortunately, this never really paid off businesswise. But some challenges he was struggling with provided the fundamentals for my success and taught me lessons money can’t buy. One of the lessons was that it’s less about having the most innovative ideas but more about having the right idea at the right time. If you are too much ahead of your time, you may still be a good thought leader, but you may not be the best person to run a business in the here and now successfully. Even today, I see things people label as innovative that my first boss already envisioned and shared with me more than two decades ago.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
On the one hand, I agree. Sometimes I would love to eliminate the term thought leader out of everyone’s vocabulary. On the other hand, I use it myself. It’s just an excellent description of what this discipline is all about: leading by your thoughts. Although I’m not a fan of the term, I’m against creating a new word that simply replaces an old name just to have a new one, without adding significant new meaning, because unfortunately, this happens way too many times. Thus, until we have more than a new term but something that takes this discipline to a new level, I have found my peace with the term thought leadership.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
We live in an ASAP world where many people feel like they are behind the curve, needing to catch up, being always on 24/7. Yes, it’s true. Things are changing faster than they ever have. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. Too many people think in sprints. Yes, sprints are essential, and I love doing them. But as a leader, you are running a marathon! It’s not about sprinting all the time. It’s about keeping an always high pace and getting to the heart of performance, not 24/7, but when it really matters. Take some time, relax, and take care of yourself. The Ironman world champion, Jan Frodeno, once said that he got more successful when he wasn’t so strict with himself, but got more relaxed, self-aware, and confident. I believe that this doesn’t only apply to long-distance triathlons but also to businesses.
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. 🙂
My movement would be called Catch-42ers, based on my latest book Catch-42: A novel about our future. A Catch-42 means to think the unthinkable, make the impossible possible, or turn a seemingly hopeless or paradoxical situation into a solvable problem. The result is a groundbreaking realization that takes us beyond our imagination and fundamentally changes our way of life and view of the universe. Newton’s law of universal gravitation, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and several future breakthroughs documented in my book are prime examples of Catch-42s.
I believe the digital age has just begun and that in our thinking about technology, the world is still flat. We are moving towards fundamental tipping points. Artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, biotechnology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics converge in many different ways. A small step forward in one field might lead to a breakthrough in another. Things could suddenly move very, very fast.
My Catch-42ers movement wants to encourage as many people as possible to think — from radically new perspectives — how humanity, technology, the economy, and our society might develop in the future. Even better, I want people to think about how they would like our world to change and how each of us can become an active part of the decision-making process that has already begun.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is Socrates’ wisdom “All we really know is how little we know,” that I mentioned above while talking about being a thought leader.
I believe that this life lesson quote is relevant to my life and all of our lives. Many of today’s challenges are not black and white and can’t be answered with a simple yes or no, true or false. Countless shades of grey are not about what we know but about what we imagine or believe — which is one of the significant challenges of our time. Too many people believe they have straightforward answers to complicated questions and don’t tolerate people who think differently. We should all strive to remain open-minded and tolerant and treat each other with respect, which is not as easy as it may seem in a world that is changing faster than ever before.
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. 🙂
My first instinct was to answer the question with I would like to have breakfast with Elon Musk, Michelle and Barack Obama, or Nelson Mandela (if he were still alive). Of course, I would love to meet people like this. But then I asked myself the following: If I would love to have breakfast with Elon Musk or the Obamas, why didn’t I use my “Be bold, think big strategy” and try to set up an appointment on my own? Because if it was one of my biggest dreams to meet one of them, I should be more pro-active to make this dream come true. Thus, my second instinct was to answer the question with, I would like to have breakfast with anyone who reads this article and wants to discuss any of my answers or share some of their experiences with me — no matter if they are a celebrity or not. Best case, this breakfast would happen face-to-face, but, as we all learned during the pandemic, video calls can also be a good substitute and elegant way to meet and spend some time together. If you are interested, my answer to the next and final question offers ways to get in touch with me.
How can our readers follow you online?
The best places to follow me are LinkedIn: Felix Holzapfel, Twitter: felix_holzapfel, or my website felixholzapfel.com.
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.