Thought Leadership: The Key To Innovation Success

Have you ever started a new job and wondered, “What the heck have I gotten myself into?”

That’s what I was asking myself when I started working as a newly-minted industry analyst at Forrester Research. By the end of my first week, I was seriously questioning why I accepted the role.

Before starting at Forrester, I had the impression industry analysts were grey-haired, high-end consultants. By the end of that first week, I came to realize that I wasn’t hired to be a grey-haired consultant. I was hired to be something called a “thought leader”.

I’ve been thinking about my thought leadership journey lately. The shift to remote work has increased the urgency for innovators to establish themselves as thought leaders inside of their organizations. But thought leadership is something you have to work at, practice, and continually improve.

When I say “thought leadership”, what pops into your mind? Do you picture Steve Jobs or Bill Gates? Maybe you picture Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi. Those are some notable examples, but we all have the same capability to become thought leaders. Thought leadership is about establishing yourself as an expert in a particular domain in which you’re seen as credible and where people turn to you for advice.

Based on the lessons I learned through my own thought leadership journey, here are three tips to establish yourself as a thought leader inside your organization:

  • Don’t be afraid to make the big call. Early in my thought leadership journey I led a strategy session for executives at a major software vendor. I remember thinking “Holy crap, these high-powered execs want me to tell them what to do. Who am I to tell them what to do?” I completely failed during this session because I was still playing the consultant role. After the session, my mentor and boss at the time told me “They’re not paying you for what you think might be the case. They’re paying you for making the call!” I learned a tough lesson in that first meeting: The most important thing you can do as a thought leader is to make tough calls. Step up and say “Here’s my recommendation and here’s why”. You won’t always be right. But if you’re constantly hedging your bets, always saying “maybe” without making any calls, it kills your credibility.
  • Focus on serving your audience. When you first begin your thought leadership journey, it’s easy to believe it’s all about you, or about proving to others that you’re the expert. There’s a misconception that thought leadership is all about having an inflated ego. But real thought leaders I’ve worked with deeply empathize with their audience. They understand the person or role they’re serving and what that person is trying is to accomplish.
    For example, whenever I’m writing or researching a big idea, I will print out a picture of a specific person I’m writing to. Last year when I researched “Designing The Future of Work”, I printed out a picture of a client I worked with who was struggling to improve remote collaboration. I used his picture to remind me of my audience and who I was serving. It reminded me I don’t write research to look smart or show off my insights. I do it to serve my audience. As you’re establishing thought leadership inside your organization, take time to pin down who you intend to serve. Is it a specific group of users, or external customers?
  • Always strive to share your authentic self. I’m always seeing aspiring thought leaders struggle because they have an image in their head of what a “thought leader“ should look like. Sometimes I even find myself worrying that I should be saying something else or speaking in a certain way. But being a thought leader isn’t about trying to look the part. It’s about finding your authentic voice and sharing your authentic story.
    When I first started as an industry analyst, I led research on BPM practices and software. I loved it, but I also wanted to explore other areas. I was fortunate to have research directors who allowed me to explore new areas I was passionate about. That’s what led me to begin researching design thinking. Writing about design thinking felt like speaking in my most authentic voice. If I had continued to write about BPM, everyone would have seen I wasn’t as excited about that topic. When you start building your influence as a thought leader, ask yourself: What is my authentic voice? What am I trying to communicate? How do I want to have impact?

You have to believe right now that, if you work at it, thought leadership is something you can do. I want you to feel the confidence to step up as a thought leader. If there was ever a time for innovation leaders to step out and build influence, it’s now.

Wondering where to start? Thought leadership is a topic we dive deep into during our Innovation eXcelerator Program. This is a new innovation leadership coaching program I launched to help you master facilitating design thinking, low-code ideation, and building out your innovation playbook for 2021. I designed the program specifically for innovation leaders looking to build their team’s innovation mindset, get consistent innovation breakthroughs, and improve the effectiveness of ideation and prototyping activities.

We also recently launched the 5-Day Innovation Challenge, a free online challenge that walks you through best practices for developing yourself as an innovation leader. I dare you to sign up and see if you can complete the challenges assigned to you each day.