Being a thought leader raises visibility for an individual or a company, creates brand awareness and does so in a way that is not self-promotional. It can help advance a person’s career because of the visibility gained through writing or talking about something in which the person has expertise and passion. It helps an individual stand out from the crowd. Investing the time, energy and, in some cases, money to become a thought leader will reap rewards in the future. For example, speaking at industry events, becoming media trained, continually developing your story and widely communicating what you know through the press, social-media channels, blogs, webinars, podcasts and presentations at conferences will significantly raise your profile and help people find you.
Vivian Kelly, founder, and CEO of Interprose has been working with technology and business leaders for more than 30 years to craft and tell their stories in creative, authentic ways. From defining the strategy to managing the nuts and bolts of content development and digital design, she’s helped numerous companies go from zero to hero through awareness-building PR, social media and marketing campaigns.
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?
Thank you for the opportunity to share.
Despite my schoolgirl ambitions to be a nurse, I’ve worked in business-to-business technology my entire career. I was born and raised in Reading, England, and became an American citizen in 2008 after moving to Reston, Virginia, in 1992. My journey as an entrepreneur began in 1998 when I formed a public relations company.
Before starting my own business, I once needed help to handle a difficult situation with a group of unhappy employees. Looking for inspiration, I read Don’t Fire Them, Fire Them Up by a former Xerox sales executive, Frank Pacetta, about motivating staff in the most positive way possible by nurturing and valuing them. I quickly learned that leadership starts and ends with people, and it changed my life.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
I am in the business of thought leadership. A big part of what I’ve done throughout my career as a brand builder helps identify, create, embolden and empower technology thought leaders, including reluctant ones who have gone on to thrive.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, was instrumental in sealing my intracompany transfer to America with General Electric. It was early on in my marketing career, and GE had hired “The Iron Lady” as a guest speaker for an exclusive customer dinner at the swanky Claridge’s hotel in London. I was managing the event, and gained kudos for Denis Thatcher accompanying his wife, as he hosted a separate table of business leaders. At the end of the night, the President of GE Information Services was so pleased with the outcome that, on the spot, she authorized my transfer to the company’s U.S. headquarters.
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?
An hour before the aforementioned dinner that GE held for its VIP customers, my president had a last-minute request to change the venue where she would greet Mrs. Thatcher. Given my youth and eagerness to please my boss, I informed the former Prime Minister’s protection officers that she would now meet in the host’s suite instead of the hotel conference room they’d just swept for explosives. Bearing in mind Prime Minister Thatcher narrowly escaped assassination by a bomb in her hotel eight years earlier, my request was not insignificant. Despite their resistance, they scrambled the sniffer dogs to the Claridge’s suite and quickly declared the space safe, and the two most important women in my life at that time were none the wiser.
The critical life lesson from that experience is to expect the unexpected and try to plan accordingly. Thought leaders need to always be ready, so anticipating the what-ifs will help prepare you for anything.
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?
Thought leaders influence people’s thoughts and opinions with their expertise in an industry or topic, but they are not influencing people to buy or do something. They share their knowledge to help educate people so they can make informed decisions. Thought leadership is not about marketing or selling a product; it’s about provoking thinking and making people curious about a particular topic.
You don’t have to be a typical leader such as a business executive or elected government official to be a thought leader, but you do have to earn it. You need to be passionate and knowledgeable about something, know your audience, create content that your consumers will pay attention to and be interested in and build a large following with whom to interact, so you activate the advocates in your ecosystem and motivate them to move your ideas forward.
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 raises visibility for an individual or a company, creates brand awareness and does so in a way that is not self-promotional. It can help advance a person’s career because of the visibility gained through writing or talking about something in which the person has expertise and passion. It helps an individual stand out from the crowd.
Investing the time, energy and, in some cases, money to become a thought leader will reap rewards in the future. For example, speaking at industry events, becoming media trained, continually developing your story and widely communicating what you know through the press, social-media channels, blogs, webinars, podcasts and presentations at conferences will significantly raise your profile and help people find you.
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?
Thought leadership benefits companies, as well as individuals. For example, I’ve worked with more than 20 CEOs who achieved their exit strategies for their companies through public offerings, mergers or acquisitions, partly by being visible and known for their expertise and leadership in a particular field. When large companies look to acquire startups to get a head start with a product in a new market, their researchers will explore those companies and CEOs who have market penetration or widespread visibility. When companies are known as thought leaders, it can help attract suitors for acquisition, grow revenue and build value for business through brand awareness.
This is true for individuals also, as becoming a thought leader can provide career insurance, which is critical for professional growth. Being a trusted source of insightful information that can be relied on will gain respect and attention not only from followers but also managers, recruiters and future employers.
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.
- Be your authentic self. No matter the area in which you intend to become a thought leader — technology, travel, food, politics, consumer goods, the economy, etc. — it’s critical that you are authentic. Be you, not the persona you think people want you to be. Your voice, personality and writing style are as important as the expertise and opinions you share.
- Develop the right content for the right audience. You need to continually develop and fine-tune your story, what it is you want to be known for. It is equally important for you to self-qualify your thoughts and make sure that what you are writing or saying is going to be of interest and helpful to your intended audience. For example, is it too technical or not technical enough? Does it go into the right level of detail or need to be high level according to who’s reading, watching or listening? Always be thinking and questioning yourself first, then publish.
- Be discoverable. Thought leaders need to be well known, so discoverability is critical to your success. If you have content but no people or platforms to share your ideas, you may be an expert — but you are not a thought leader. You need to start building a large following, which can be done in a number of ways. Establishing a social media presence is a must. Do your homework to determine where your target audience hangs out, and they may get their content from multiple places such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Activate your advocates to amplify your ideas. For example, leverage your LinkedIn community to like or share your content. Create video interviews and post on a YouTube channel. Develop podcasts. Become media savvy and establish relationships with reporters who cover your area of expertise and invite them to call you if they need objective, third-party insight for their articles. And interact with the people following you. When they comment, comment back — and like and share their posts.
- Establish trust. It’s unfortunate, but fake news has become the norm. To succeed in the long term, maintain your integrity and always be truthful and candid. Being known for your honesty will establish credibility with your authentic audience. Don’t feel like you have to embellish anything. If you don’t know, say so.
- Listen and learn. It’s important to understand what like-minded people think, but your opinions will be more influential if you’ve taken the time to learn what naysayers think so you know what to overcome. Your followers are already on board, and they’re willing to help you scale your ideas. Understanding the other person’s point of view will lead you to share more careful and considered opinions to try to get naysayers on your side, as 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’m motivated by well-known visionaries as much as anyone. Who doesn’t enjoy hearing what lessons people like Steve Jobs, the Dalai Lama, Jeff Bezos, and fellow Brit Richard Branson have to impart.
However, a standout thought leader for me is poet, playwright, and broadcaster Lemn Sissay, who is the epitome of authenticity. He is remarkably positive despite overcoming extreme adversity, having been abandoned by his foster parents and raised in an abusive care system. His infectious smile and warm personality draw you in. His beautiful words stem from unimaginable sorrow. You can’t help but be inspired by this incredible gentleman who thrives on living in the present. He generously shares his life experiences to benefit others going through the same thing. Above all, he has something real and interesting to say, and people want to listen.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
A thought leader is an acceptable and recognized term, so it doesn’t need to be avoided. However, it’s more than being “a sage on a stage.” A thought leader is experts in their fields, but they also need to engage and connect with their fans to keep their ecosystems alive and relevant.
Most importantly, thought leaders should never call themselves “thought leaders.” That’s for others to decide. It’s a position they must earn.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Informed leaders know that helping employees achieve a healthy work-life balance has a positive impact on their company, including improved productivity, engaged and committed workforce and reduced staff turnover. The best chief executives lead by example by taking time off themselves and fostering a company culture that encourages it, removing the guilt from employees to follow suit.
Everyone needs time away from the workplace to get a different perspective on things, and business leaders are no exception. To do this, they should interrupt their routine by eliminating work-related interruptions. Whatever it is they enjoy doing outside of the physical or virtual office — for example, making time to exercise, leaving early to put the kids to bed, taking a vacation, going for a hike or catching up with parents — doing something different will help free their minds and enable them to do their best thinking.
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. 🙂
Ending homelessness and loneliness are important to me.
There are so many worthy causes, but I have a special interest in people who are introducing creative ways to solve the ever-increasing problems of loneliness and affordable housing. I’m inspired by headlines like “University Students Get Free Board in Exchange for Time Spent with Seniors,” about a social experiment by Western University in 2017 that placed students in a retirement home to interact with the senior residents, and share meals and living quarters. I love the idea of providing opportunities for both young and old to learn from each other.
Similar multi-generational housing programs are being established all over the world, providing companionship for the elderly while giving students a break on rent in return for light chores and housework. For example, Symbiosis in Canada connects students who are looking for affordable housing with seniors who have a spare room and can offer a little bit of extra support and friendship.
I feel passionate that children and young adults should be given the best opportunities in life, too, no matter what circumstances they’re born into. FACETS, in my area, is one admirable organization that provides not only safe and affordable housing but also education and community development programs to help break the cycle of poverty.
These types of initiatives and many other approaches are making a huge difference in people’s lives.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice. It is not something to be waited for, but rather something to be achieved.” (William Jennings Bryan)
I am absolutely convinced we choose our destiny, at least in our personal lives and career choices. We’re all presented with opportunities. Where our paths lead us depends on whether we decide to grasp and run with those opportunities or not. What is it they say …? Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right. If you believe in yourself, you can! Be bold. Think beyond limits. What’s the worst that can happen?
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 lunch or breakfast? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Lemn Sissay — and if he’s reading, Ryan Gosling. ☺
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