In an increasingly competitive workforce, people used to tell me, “The best way to differentiate yourself is by becoming a thought leader.”
A couple years ago, upon realizing that my resume looked very similar to most other business school grads, I decided to look into this.
First of all, what is a thought leader?
A thought leader is someone who is seen as an expert on a particular topic or issue within an industry. They share their knowledge and views to educate, inspire, and generate discussion. The most famous thought leaders may publish books, write articles in newspapers, or speak at TED talks. A few examples of prominent thought leaders are:
Given the lofty expectations of a thought leader, I was skeptical of my own ability to become one. I had just graduated from university and had only been working for a few years – how could I possibly be an expert?
Although I’m by no means a thought leader yet, I’ve learned that working towards this goal is easier than you might think. Perhaps only a few people will (or want to) become as well-known as these individuals – but acting like a thought leader will enhance your skill set, create new opportunities, and expand your network.
So I’m here to dispel some of the common myths associated with thought leadership, and to show that it is within reach for students and young professionals.
Some of the myths (and some truths)
1) You need a lot of experience to be a thought leader.
FALSE: It’s not just about what you know, it’s about how you see things. Although it’s important to have foundational knowledge about a topic, effective thought leaders provide a unique perspective. For example, they may critique the way a company or industry is doing something and provide recommendations on how to improve. They also tend to be innovators, creating solutions to important industry problems.
As a member of Gen Y or Gen Z, you can take advantage of your youth when working towards thought leadership. For instance, many workplaces want to know how to attract and retain Millennials, as well how to better advertise to students – topics which many young professionals have first-hand experience with.
2) You have to know a lot of people to be a thought leader.
FALSE: Go back 10 or 15 years, and it was difficult to be a thought leader without a network of contacts within the media. How else were you supposed to get your article published in a national newspaper?
Today, social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook allow the average person to voice their opinions to a global audience. It’s now a meritocracy – it’s more about the quality of your content, and not about who you are.
3) You have to be good at writing to be a thought leader.
FALSE: Although strong writing skills can help you draft a blog post, there are so many other options available to voice your opinions and perspective. If you’re good with design, why not create an infographic to show how solar panels are becoming a more viable option for sustainable energy? If you’re comfortable with public speaking, why not create a podcast to talk about trends in sustainable packaging? Using alternative content-sharing methods will only help you stand out.
4) You have to be passionate to be a thought leader
TRUE: Writing one article is not enough. People turn to thought leaders because they produce insightful content on a regular basis. The easiest way to do this is to find a topic or issue you’re passionate about. If you care about something, there’s a greater chance that you’ll be constantly learning more about the topic. You’re going to want to share your knowledge with others, and will have a more critical and unique perspective on the issue.
5) Thought leadership can help you become more well-rounded.
TRUE: By expressing your perspective as a thought leader, you develop a variety of crucial skills such as communication, multimedia production, and even public speaking. As you gain exposure, you’ll develop a network of contacts who respect you, can advocate for you, and even mentor you. On top of that, the ability to share your knowledge and experience as a thought leader during a job interview or networking event is a great way to make yourself memorable.
6) It’s easy to be a thought leader.
BOTH TRUE AND FALSE: Becoming a thought leader requires sustained hard work, but is certainly attainable. Here’s how you can begin:
- Identify a topic that you’re passionate about
- Develop and clarify your own perspective
- Record a draft of your thoughts (i.e. articles, infographics, podcasts) in a personal portfolio.
- Reach out to existing content curators (like TalentEgg!) to ask if you can write for them. They may ask to see your portfolio.
- If the previous step doesn’t work, you can use LinkedIn or Facebook (or even create your own blog) to publish your work. Ask your friends to like and share.
- Continue to reach out to content curators, websites, and other thought leaders to ask if they can provide you with writing opportunities or feedback on your existing work.
- Some more tips:
- If you’re running out of your own content, you can post thoughtful and relevant pieces written by others. Accompany the post with your own opinion of the piece. This way you’ll help out a fellow thought leader, and they may be more likely to notice you!
- You may want to separate your professional and personal social media lives. You could use LinkedIn to establish your professional brand, and then use Facebook for personal updates. Your credibility may be damaged if you post a great article, and then post a picture from last night’s party immediately afterwards
- Stay focused at the beginning, as you’ll want people to associate you with one topic. For example, if you use LinkedIn to post an article on greenhouse gas emissions one day, and then post an article on the mobile payment industry the next day, people might be confused. If you’d like to share these “unrelated” thoughts, perhaps keep that to your personal social media profile.
There has never been a better time to become a thought leader! Somewhere out there, there is a captive audience that is interested in what you have to say. Plus, becoming an expert on a particular subject is an egg-cellent way to stand out to companies in your desired field. This advice may not make you the next Sheryl or Malcolm, but it will help you to create a network of people (and potential employers!) who look to you for key insights.