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Rudolf Melik is a modest man, but he is also a thought leader.

A few years ago Melik, co-founder and CEO of Tenrox, a software company that provides project-management solutions, began to craft a series of whitepapers. The papers covered various issues in his field, including best-practices for budgeting, planning, and resource management. After he had written about 12 whitepapers, Melik compiled them in a book called The Rise of the Project Workforce: Managing People and Projects in a Flat World.

Not surprisingly, the book is not a self-serving sales pitch for his company. It is a prescriptive overview of what companies should do to manage, measure, and control resources in our geographically dispersed business world.

Melik didn't set out to be a thought leader. In fact, he might even disagree with that label. But the whitepapers and the book certainly had a thought-leading impact.

Melik now speaks to industry groups around the world, which indirectly drives business for Tenrox. Since the book was published in 2007, Tenrox revenue has grown 20% annually , on average, and the company has managed to remain highly profitable throughout the recent economic crisis.

What Exactly Is Thought Leadership?

A Google search for the term "thought leadership paper" returns almost 1.7 million results. Is it possible there are so many thought leaders around? Or is there some confusion over what thought leadership really is?

The key to being a thought leader is acting like a market leader. Market leadership doesn't necessarily mean market-share leadership; rather, it means being in the vanguard of product trends, service delivery, pricing, customer experience, R&D, regulatory, and other issues within your market or industry. In other words, seeing where the market is going—and getting out in front of it.

A big part of making market leadership pay off is an ability to convey and promote thought leadership. Thought leadership is the outward expression of market leadership. It conveys your views on where your marketspace is heading (or should be heading); by communicating in that way, you show confidence in your organization and in those views.

Do It the Right Way: Five Best-Practices

1. Clearly define your own brand of thought leadership

Before you embark, be sure you know where you are going. That means having a clear understanding of what thought leadership means in general, in your marketspace, and for your company. Such clarity will ensure that other key stakeholders in your organization follow you, and it will help them understand what it takes.

Experts agree that thought leadership is one of the most misunderstood, overused, and abused terms in business.

"Thought leadership is one of those terms people throw around with no idea what it means," said Beverly McDonald, former chief communication officer at Infor, a $2 billion software company.

"People think it means repeating what has already been said in the marketplace and if they do it with more frequency they'll rise above the noise. Or they think it's an alternative way to get their name in the press when they can't get attention with any real news. The bottom line for me has always been that you can't be a great thought leader unless you have great thoughts."

2. Be guided by generosity

Thought leadership is a commitment to a grander goal than lead generation; it's an effort the raison d'être of which is to benefit your industry, not just your own company.

On her blog, elise.com, Elise Bauer says that a spirit of generosity is essential to thought leadership, and it's a good summary of the shift in mindset that should occur when a company makes the transition from business leader to thought leader.

"Thought leadership requires generosity of one's time, intelligence and knowledge," Bauer counsels.

Consider the phrase "a rising tide lifts all boats" as a mantra for your thought-leadership efforts, and understand that with a little patience your company will benefit from your work. Companies will look to you for insight and innovation. The media will quote you, and analysts will respect you. And rest assured that your brand will have earned a new credibility and glow that, although difficult to quantify on a spreadsheet, will build your company's success over the long term.

Brian Carroll extends the definition on his B2B lead-generation blog: "Thought leaders genuinely influence others by creating, advancing and sharing ideas. Their objective is to help others. In business, thought leaders revolutionize the way others (both inside and outside their companies) do business. That's thought leadership."

3. Tell, don't sell

Notorious examples of sales pitches thinly disguised as thought leadership abound in the B2C world. Consider the millions that the tobacco industry spent on studies to disprove a link between smoking and lung cancer. In the B2B world, a poorly executed thought-leadership program won't generate that level of negative exposure, but it won't win you any fans, either.

In our post-credit meltdown marketplace, the consumer—whether B2B or B2C—is more skeptical than ever and can spot an insincere bit of "trust me" marketing a mile away. That is all the more reason for companies to exercise due diligence when starting a thought-leadership program. Be sure it is more "chalk talk" than "pep talk."

For example, if whitepapers are part of the program, be sure you understand that they should offer objective analysis of an industry issue or problem, not promotion or technical documentation of your products. A whitepaper should accomplish the following:

  • Justify why the problem must be solved
  • Objectively explore alternative ways to solve the problem
  • Logically lead the reader to the conclusion that your organization has the knowledge, expertise, and tools required to solve the problem

4. Take yourself out of the story

Ken Anderberg, publisher and editorial director of Health Management Technology magazine, looks for people who take a bold stand on the issues when he selects contributors to the publication's regular "Thought Leaders" column.

That means telling, not selling. It also means taking yourself out of the story. "The contributors should be presenting an overview that is not self-serving," he said. "We're looking for information that is useful for your readers, not a self-serving discussion of a company's technology."

5. Take risks; be visionary

One year after Theodore Roosevelt lost a bid for the White House in 1912, he took a journey down an unexplored tributary of the Amazon River known as the River of Doubt, where he encountered a life-threatening infection and was stalked by cannibals. But he completed the journey, and, eventually, the River of Doubt was renamed Rio Roosevelt by the Brazilian government.

Modern business doesn't offer such colorful adventures, but the successful thought leaders among us take risks, venture into uncharted territory, and emerge victorious as Roosevelt did. Taking that first step can seem daunting, however.

For example, many companies measure a marketing effort's success solely by how many leads it generates. That shortsighted view doesn't take into account the longer-term return on investment of a thought-leadership program.

They are also apprehensive about sharing information that goes beyond what is contained in corporate collateral or on their website.

What they don't stop to consider is that all organizations have a "secret sauce" or "family jewels" that set them apart, and keeping them locked away in the far corners of the organization is not the behavior of a true thought leader, especially not in today's connected world.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul McKeon is the president of The Content Factor (www.contentfactor.com), a content-generation and information-architecture firm based in Atlanta. Reach him via 770-457-2489 ext. 227 or pmckeon@contentfactor.com.