A common linkage with a number of fashionable buzzwords that define modern day office vocabulary is that their exact definitions are loose and they mean different things to different people. This is the result of their usage in different contextual settings and how interpretations have been made to suit the specific setting in which they are currently used.
‘Thought leadership’ is a similar such contemporary catchphrase which is often heard in the corporate dictionary. However, unlike a lot of modern day verbal hogwash, ‘thought leadership’ has tremendous positive personal and professional implications.
What is thought leadership for most of us?
There are a lot of definitions available in the public domain – however the most prominent one going around is that a thought leader is someone who is known for their innovative ideas, expertise, and is widely recognized as a source of guidance in their industry. Essentially, as per this popular definition, one has to be an out and out authority on a pertinent subject, someone who has changed people’s lives to be a thought leader.
While this is extremely aspirational, it is at the same time extremely daunting to think you have to achieve what the likes of Steve Jobs, and Larry Page and Mark Zuckerburg and Jeff Bezos have achieved to be a thought leader.
However, we all know that these individuals are once in a lifetime geniuses. So if such an achievement is numerically so unlikely, why does everyone ask us to be thought leaders, why is the term thrown around so much?
The answer lies in the implied meaning of the phrase ‘thought leadership’ and that is what we should continually strive toward. Leadership is all about striving to take charge of a given situation, about getting out of your comfort zone, about taking actions to make things better, about solving problems, about becoming subject matter experts, about trying to continuously improve, and about challenging the status quo. It is these qualities that your management wants to see more of and where you create a niche for yourself to be accepted as a thought leader.
Let us accept a grading system and call the illustrious people above as ‘thought champions’. The idea here is not to invent another buzzword but to accept that while we must strive to get to that level, we must indeed imbibe a lot of their traits to still be workplace leaders. Given our roles and responsibilities we must always seek to excel in our jobs and train our minds towards gaining deep subject matter knowledge to solve problems. For example - If you are in customer service think what needs to be done to reduce complaints and provide a superlative experience, if you are in Human Resources, think empathically to only providing a workplace that brings the best out of individuals, if you are in sales think about how to make that jaw dropping offer, if you are in content think of how you mesmerize people with your words. The keywords here are ‘think better’ and ‘do’ – this is tacitly, what management in their own context means when they say – become a thought leader. The idea is to keep evolving, for you to become an expert who not only solves problems by your knowledge; you do so by becoming a more effective professional.
Why is promoting thought leadership important for a company?
It is no secret that the modern day corporate environment is extremely competitive, expectations from companies and individuals are through the roof – be it customer offerings, compliance issues, employer branding, business to business dealings or even matters relating to CSR, there is no room for error, innovation is key, contextual and specific problem solving is the norm.
In such a setting, only those companies will survive and do well – who offer differentiated offerings, remarkable experiences, value added products, where excellence is the norm and the ordinary just does not cut it.
A motivated, experienced, knowledgeable, and personable human capital is probably therefore the single most important need for the contemporary organization to possess in such a competitive setting.
How should a company promote thought leadership?
If we think of thought leadership as an aspirational attribute for all workforce employees and think of the company’s offerings as a logical cumulative extension or a by-product of a heightened state of its human capital, it follows as a no-brainer that all companies that want to do well should focus on enabling such a state*
While it would be futile to list a prescriptive to-do list, as all workplaces are different and unique, certain common principles might still be considered
- Build brand loyalty – the most motivated people are those who believe in the company and what it stands for and are aligned to the organizations goals. If they believe they are there to earn a monthly salary – the battle is half lost
- Encourage transparency and communication – one’s ability to clearly communicate his / her thoughts in an easy to understand manner is vital at all levels. Keep discussions transparent and rational, avoid petty office politics and let energies focus towards getting voices heard. Visibility creates a sense of belongingness to employees
- Reward innovation – once your workforce knows it is beneficial to think out of the box, only then they open up their repertoire of knowledge and ability
- Incentivise domain knowledge and skill building – this is obviously, a must have if you aspire to become industry leaders. Give serious focus to learning and development functions
- Focus on differentiation and problem solving – focus on the process along with the desired outcome – what is the problem, what is the most eloquent way to solve it, then proceed to solve it
- Keep continued consumer/ customer value addition as a guiding theme
- Create an involving, friendly culture and a stimulating physical workplace
*This line of thinking is different from the traditional line of thinking to that of a COMPANY DISPLAYING thought leadership in such and such area and domain. Here we are saying that rather than thinking of thought leadership as a differentiated company offering of products and service, we think of thought leadership as a heightened aspirational and productive state of individual employees, which in turn leads to the differentiated offering of products and services besides providing the company the wherewithal to excel in the modern day competitive environment.