How to make your CEO a thought leader

Here’s a valuable secret about making your CEO a thought leader: you can’t.

What you can do, however, is help your CEO let her “inner thought leader” out. Even the most time-challenged, bottom-line-fixated, publicity-averse Chief Executive can start turning her or his intellectual capital into corporate currency if they (and you as their “Content Consigliere”) observe these five essentials:

  1. Make it quick and easy
  2. Make it authentic
  3. Make it about more than your company
  4. Make the thoughts truly lead
  5. Take it to the next level – make it a conversation

No. 1: Make it quick and easy
Yes, all CEOs are very, very busy. According to one survey, they average nearly 58 hours per week working, including 2.4 hours per weekend day. Nonetheless, in the new world of business, where research shows that you need to be seen as a thought leader to get invited to RFPs, “too busy” is no longer a good enough excuse.

Rather than expect your CEO to spend yet more hours at work, writing articles or even working with a ghostwriter, try a different approach: video-first content creation. Get him to set aside an hour periodically (say, once a month, or even once a quarter), to be interviewed on video about the leading topics on your editorial calendar. Any successful CEO knows his “stuff” cold, so you can simply tee up the topic (preferably ahead of time) and then let him talk in front of the camera.

A good interviewer will not only efficiently extract the CEO’s thoughts, but the video will also capture the CEO’s personality. And because you’ve started with video, you automatically generate a trove of content assets for editing multiple short videos, audio podcasts, and text-based content, including articles and blog posts. That multiplicity of assets is important – as Nicole France, the Head of Thought Leadership for Cisco puts it, “We need to produce all of our thinking in as many channels as possible so that we have the greatest potential and likelihood of reaching the people we want to reach.”

A good interviewer will not only efficiently extract the CEO’s thoughts, but the video will also capture the CEO’s personality.

No. 2: Make it authentic
A traditional bylined article by a good ghostwriter will get your company and leader’s name out there. It will express your thinking. But it will not reveal the persuasive essence of the thinker. Conversation, captured on video with all of its passionate imperfection, will do just that. Whether you end up using the result as video, audio or even in text, your on-camera conversation can capture the personality, humanity, intensity, self-apparent incisiveness, or any of the other intangible qualities prospects look for, so they can say to themselves “I like her. I trust her. I can work with a company like that.”

And trust-building is one of the biggest needs a CEO has today. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer put it bluntly, declaring “CEO Credibility at Lowest Level Ever.” Lively, engaging, even challenging conversation pulls your CEO out from behind the packaged facts and product features to present the head and the heart of your organization, human-to-human – and humanity may just be the most important factor in closing that credibility gap.

No. 3: Make it about more than your company
Thought leadership isn’t identical to content marketing, but there is considerable cross-over. One critical area of commonality should always be kept in mind: thought leadership content isn’t about your company or even your CEO.  It’s about helping your audience, your industry, your prospective customers.

Real thought leadership content isn’t about your company or your CEO. It’s about helping your audience.

A study of the demand generation capacity of thought leadership, conducted by Edelman and LinkedIn, reports that helping your audience – providing immediate relevance and utility – trumps all other qualities of desirable thought leadership. Phil Gomes of Edelman said, “At the end of the day nobody wants to be sold to. But if the thought leadership that is produced is the equal of that term, then you make your audience smarter, and you make them look like heroes.
As a matter of fact, one of our most interesting findings [came out of asking] what makes for really good, effective thought leadership. Number one was, ‘It has to be meaningful to what I’m working on right now.’”

No. 4: Make the thoughts truly lead
If your CEO wants to achieve thought leader status, however, her thinking, and the content that carries it, needs to step out ahead of the pack, look forward, and really lead. That means going beyond current best practices to provide ideas and insights on what’s next. It also requires a willingness to butt heads with conventional wisdom.

An Economist study reports that executives define “compelling” thought leadership as being innovative, big picture, transformative and credible. Ninety percent say they’re looking for ideas that challenge their opinions or understanding about a topic, while 96% are specifically seeking out ideas that go beyond their current thinking.  In other words, think big, think deep, think ahead, and present original ideas that make others think.

Think big, think deep, think ahead, and present original ideas that make others think.

No. 5: Take it to the next level – make it a conversation
Effective thought leadership can have many important roles: creating awareness; differentiating your intellectual capital; and burnishing your corporate image, to name a few. In other words, thought leadership is executive-level marketing. Increasingly, it is also (per the Edelman/LinkedIn research) just table stakes.

One way to rise above the crowded fray is to move beyond your own thoughts, to include those of others, via “conversation leadership.”  This can be as simple as including interviews in your executive-level content mix, in which your leaders are interviewing other leaders, thereby positioning themselves as the nexus of important industry conversations (which they get to shape as they share their own perspectives).  Or it can be as far-reaching as starting a regular live event, such as a forum or roundtable, to which you invite strategically selected participants.

No matter the format, that “strategic selection” is key to the power of conversation leadership. That’s because an interview series, live forum, et cetera gives your top executive(s) the power to call up potential prospects, not with a pitch but with a valuable offer of burnishing the invitee’s own professional image. So while thought leadership creates awareness, conversation leadership creates relationships.  Or in other words, thought leadership is marketing. Conversation leadership is new business development.

Thought leadership is marketing. Conversation leadership is new business development.

In the industrial space, GE, via its former Vice Chair Beth Comstock and her interview series, was an early and excellent example of using conversation leadership on top of robust thought leadership and classic content marketing efforts. In professional services, brand consultancy Seigel+Gale leverages conversation as a central part of its marketing efforts, both with online interviews and live events.

Executive thought leadership is no longer an option – how will you approach it?
Your CEO’s “inner thought leader” is waiting to come out. Your company needs it to come out. So…what are you waiting for?

Contact Chuck Kent, Chief Conversation Officer



About the Author
Chuck Kent, the Chief Conversation Officer at Lead the Conversation, works with executives to help them more easily create authentic, compelling thought leadership content – and to lead industry conversations. He is a writer, brand strategist, content creator and expert interviewer. Chuck is also a Contributing Editor for Branding Magazine, for which he created the monthly Branding Roundtable.

Lead the Conversation is an executive content creation service that makes it easier for busy top management to develop authentic, compelling thought leadership content, such as videos, bylined articles and blog posts. We also create opportunities for conversation leadership, such as interview series and other forums.
Lead the Conversation provides a practical way to develop authentic thought leadership content for busy executives. We also help the C-Suite create and lead industry conversations, to which they can invite other leaders, turning prospects into relationships.

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