The most important is to be authentic. To do that, Start with WHO. While it’s a popular idea to “start with why,” it’s more important to first understand yourself: who you are, what motivates you, what lights you up. Knowing ourselves is not an intellectual exercise; it’s a deeply felt one that taps the neural network throughout our bodies and the emotions that motivate us. Pay attention to when you feel a whole-body YES: it should feel expansive and uplifting. You’ll notice patterns of YES from your earliest childhood that form a narrative of your identity.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jen Rice.
Jen Rice is a strategist and coach who works with fast-thinking, game-changing leaders and entrepreneurs who she calls “rebels with a cause.” She’s a 30-year veteran in human motivation and transformation — both personal and organizational. Her “Start With Who” principle generates clarity of self, vision and action for those seeking to create a more authentic future of work.
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?
Absolutely! First and foremost, I’m the same kind of human that I coach: a fast thinker, dot connector and status-quo buster who’s always been a bit dazzled by too many possibilities. As a result, I have a very random career path, drifting over the decades from brand strategy to customer experience to innovation to customer-centric transformation, sustainability, and even large-scale systems change.
A few months before I turned 50 I knew I needed to make a change; it felt like I was living someone else’s life. I sold everything in the US, bought a 1-way ticket to Europe, and proceeded to explore 14 countries with just a camera and a carry-on before I landed in T’bilisi, Republic of Georgia, where I’ve been living through the pandemic. During this time I got recentered on who I am and what’s important, and began to more intentionally design my life and work.
My career now in coaching is flowing so much more easily; I love what I do. I’m also a passionate advocate for expanding how we define and value neurodiversity in organizations, as well as expanding how we define EQ for leadership.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
I thrive in exploring uncharted territory. Throughout my career I’ve been connecting dots, seeing what I call “the third way” — the path to getting unstuck, whether personally or professionally — and then finding the words to bring others along. I also love starting conversations around these topics to pull in collective wisdom.
Being a thought leader is more than just having a platform; it’s using your platform to encourage changes that affect how we live our lives. Having gone through my own “dark night of the soul” and ensuing transformation, I’m passionate about bringing these insights to others. My work takes a different approach — Start With Who — and through my coaching and writing, I’m able to share this idea that fundamentally changes people, helping them step into the fullest expression of who they are in life and leadership.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I’ll start the story with the moment I realized that I was jobless and homeless while sipping my coffee in the charming fishing village of Essaouira, Morocco. This was 2 years ago, right after I flew away from the US on a 1-way ticket. I had a big consulting project lined up in Geneva, or so I’d thought. My client left on long-term health disability leave during my pre-project vacation in Morocco; my best-laid plans were serendipitously dashed. In hindsight, I’m so grateful that I didn’t get that project. Sometimes we need to go through difficult times and have the rug ripped out from under us before we find our own natural footing.
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?
Well, it’s not funny, but my biggest mistake was over 30 years long: trying to be someone I’m not, and working in a career where my skill got in the way of my “hell yes.” I suppose it’s funny how we humans can get blinded by shoulds and expectations.
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 leader is someone who others voluntarily follow into taking a series of actions over time; there’s a sustaining element that endures despite obstacles and difficulties. True leaders are able to galvanize people to achieve something together.
While a leader works in the realm of action, an influencer works in the realm of thought and communication. They may have original ideas, or they may simply be magnifying the ideas of others. Their goal is usually more temporal: to change someone’s mind, or to take an immediate action (like buying something we don’t really need.)
Thought leaders bring these two skills together in unique and original ways. They see what others don’t, and have the communication skills to help others see it too. They’re usually purpose-driven, with a goal of affecting real change at scale. My budding thought-leader clients are nearly always drawn to the Sensemaker Archetype, which holds the complementary abilities of connecting the dots and translating the resulting idea in ways that others can understand and act on. “Seeing what others don’t,” could mean a visionary, but not always. It could simply be your own lived experience, with themes that are both unique and also universal to the human condition.
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 believe there are right and wrong reasons to be a thought leader, and those reasons will likely determine success or failure. If the reason is external — to build your business, create fame and recognition, and make money — it’s an eventual recipe for failure. These outer-world benefits are natural outcomes of exchanging value for value. When we focus on the inner-world benefits — when our work is an extension of our authentic selves and our passions, when we’re living and working and thriving in our zone of genius — then incredible value is embedded within the process for ourselves and others. We’re connected to the rest of humanity like the roots of trees entangled under the earth, growing together. This is true leadership and influence: feeding nutrients into the system and being fed in return.
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 unpack the idea of value exchange. If you’re creating real value for others, you’ll naturally attract value in return. That return value shows up as loyal clients or customers with high CLV: customer lifetime value. So start with the end in mind: who are your ideal customers and what would inspire them to not only do business with you, but continue working with you over time and refer others? Once you’re clear on that, reverse-engineer what you need to say and do to create that outcome.
When I was freelance consulting, I was always chasing clients and I got minimal engagement in what I was writing; I believed I was offering a lot of value, but it wasn’t the value that clients wanted. After I got clear on myself, my ideal client, and the value that they secretly craved — which is to be seen and heard for who they really are — the business impact materialized. Not only is my readership increasing when I write from this place of human-led value, I haven’t had to chase a single client; they come to me. 8 of 10 introductory calls turn into a client (I now have a wait list). Half of my clients renew at a not-insignificant price point. Most of them are actively referring others to me. Focus on creating real value and the business benefits will show up.
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.
Here’s the process that I work through with my clients who want to be thought leaders:
- The most important is to be authentic. To do that, Start with WHO. While it’s a popular idea to “start with why,” it’s more important to first understand yourself: who you are, what motivates you, what lights you up. Knowing ourselves is not an intellectual exercise; it’s a deeply felt one that taps the neural network throughout our bodies and the emotions that motivate us. Pay attention to when you feel a whole-body YES: it should feel expansive and uplifting. You’ll notice patterns of YES from your earliest childhood that form a narrative of your identity.
– I spent decades trying to figure myself out; it was only when I gave my busy mind a rest, paid attention to what brought me joy, and started asking myself how I want to feel in my life and work, was I able to ground myself in my own authentic truth… which is that I’m a gifted adult with shades of Asperger’s and ADHD, dazzled by too many possibilities, and I’m motivated by feeling free, connected, impactful and magical. When I write from that place of truth, magic happens.
- Simplicity. Get clear on the one thing you want to double-down on. If you’re dazzled by too many possibilities, you’ll want to find the golden thread that connects these ideas. For example, I’ve been fascinated with how people tick over my entire life. I’ve conducted countless studies on human motivation, and worked in customer-centric strategy, innovation and transformation. I could also passionately speak on neurodiversity, whole mind wisdom, the future of work, and culture and leadership. Seems like a lot of random topics, right? What connects them all is “Start with WHO.” This is my platform, a single foundation, on which I can write about a variety of topics that all form a cohesive whole.
- Uniqueness. Scan the landscape.Who else is writing and speaking about your topic of interest? If you’ve done #1 and #2 right, you’ll already have a unique, authentic perspective… but seeing how others are framing these topics can help refine ideas and better position them. For example, my original platform was on how to create clarity within leaders and their companies; when I scanned the landscape, I was always running into Simon Sinek’s “start with why”… and with all due respect to Simon — he got people thinking beyond the uninspiring “what” of the moment — I saw an opportunity to promote a more human-centric approach.
- Resonance. This also goes back to “start with WHO.” Not only who you are, but who your audience is. My clients all want to scale andimpact huge numbers of people — but when you speak to a generic audience, you lose resonance and relatability. Think of one person who is moved by the same things that move you, and write to that one person in an open-hearted way. What connects us isn’t our busy thinking minds: it’s what lies under the water line: emotions and how we’re uniquely wired; it’s our shared humanity. I tried building a following while writing from my head, and I failed. I gained traction only after I got crystal clear on who I am and who I’m writing for. And while “gifted adults who are dazzled by too many possibilities and want their unique gifts to be recognized” may sound like a ridiculously narrow audience, I am creating resonance with a surprisingly large number of people who I absolutely love working with.
- Don’t overthink. I call this last phase “navigating like a bat:” using our senses in addition to our brains to guide the way forward. I’ve learned, for example, to pay attention to my body when I’m writing an article. If I’m not feeling a YES, I know you as a reader won’t feel it either. I’ve thrown away seemingly good drafts because they simply didn’t feel right. One tool I use is otter.ai, an AI-based transcription app; I’ll set aside all my “brilliant” ideas, think of one person who’s close to me, press record, and simply say what I mean from the heart. I’ll then use that transcription as the base for the article. It will feel vulnerable, and that’s the point.
- Bonus #6: Know when to get outside help. Unfortunately when you’re first starting out, you’re fighting against the social media algorithms. You also may not have the network and contacts that other people have. You can either spend needless time creating piles of unread or unwatched content, as I’ve done in the past, or hire a PR firm or publicist. I was always resistant to spending that money until I went through steps #1–4 and built my authentic and resonant foundation. Now I’m confident that the money invested will pay off in spades.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who 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 tend to gravitate towards thought leaders who don’t just write about abstract ideas, but have lived and experienced what they write about. For example, Tim Ferriss’ book the 4-Hour Work Week influenced the younger me, and millions of others, because he actually did it: invested time to research what works and what doesn’t. A contemporary example is Mark Manson, who doesn’t give a f*ck what anyone thinks about him; he simply speaks raw truth from lived experience. The lesson for me: to wait a few decades until I learned what I needed to learn through direct experience before stepping out into the limelight with confidence. Especially important with topics like authenticity!
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I don’t mind the term, but it’s certainly unoriginal. I enjoy using Archetypes in my work; my clients have claimed terms like Firestarter, Trailblazer, Galvanizer, Pioneer… There are many creative and more authentic ways to frame up this idea for each individual!
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Earlier I wrote how essential it is to focuson your YES — the work that you were born to do, that lights you up. It’s equally important to know your NO. NO has become my favorite word of late, mainly because I used to be so reluctant to say it. NO can either mean “no, that’s not in line with my path” or it could simply be “no, my time is too valuable, but it needs to be done so I’ll outsource it.” Determine how much your time is worth — how much money would you like to make in a year divided by the number of hours you’d like to work — and outsource anything that costs less than that. Whether an hour of your time is worth 200 dollars or 2,000 dollars, should you really spend time doing bookkeeping? Give someone else a job and focus on solving the problem that only you can solve.
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. 🙂
Everyone craves being seen for who they really are, and once seen, accepted. This is where belonging and autonomy intersect: the me within the we. Paradoxically, our ability to truly see others starts with seeing ourselves. To connect outward, go inward.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
What’s the third way? It’s so easy to get trapped in binary options: either this or that. But there’s usually a third way, if we open our minds to possibilities.
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 really love talking with highly original minds — fast thinkers, dot connectors and status quo busters. Top of my list would be Elon Musk.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.