Competing on Thought Leadership: The Seven Hallmarks of Compelling Intellectual Capital

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By Bob Buday 

With some of them resembling publishing houses, professional services firms sell book after book and issue countless self-published magazines and papers, flooding the marketplace with their insights. They have long since are recognized the power of seminal ideas that create order out of chaos. Now an incerasing number of firms in other sectors are also seeing how so-called “thought leadership” can generate a raft of strong leads and unique service offerings. It is helping them compete for executive “share of mind” at a time when information is more ubiquitous, and cutting through it more difficult, than ever before. Thought leadership has become the new competitive battleground for any B2B firm that competes on the basis of expertise and advice.

It’s no surprise that demonstrating one’s smarts to prospective clients has become so important. Just look at it from your clients’ standpoint. For them, choosing a business partner is a difficult—and increasingly risky—task. Much is riding on the choice: market leadership, competitive advantage, sometimes even survival, not to mention promotions and other personal rewards.

With the stakes rising and the experience base growing, executives are becoming more sophisticated in choosing the firms with which they do business. They consider many factors, including: the firm’s insight into the issue at hand, their demonstrated experience in resolving it, the firm’s image and reputation in the marketplace, price/value, the firm’s approach or methodology, and the chemistry between the firm and the client team. But in the end, buyers really are looking for results. They want to know that whoever they hire can deliver the business benefits they are looking for— whether it’s winning a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, successfully integrating an acquisition, implementing a new enterprise resource planning system or desigining a hospital that can help them reduce costs and improve patient outcomes. It is up to the firm to give prospective buyers the confidence they seek by demonstrating their unique insights into the problem, their experience in addressing it, their success rate, and the validity of their approach.

This is the need that thought leadership fills. It is about developing novel, practical and proven answers to complex or seemingly intractable business issues. Done right, it can create whole new markets, as Tom Davenport has with Big Data and analytics. It can renew the intellectual assets and energy of a firm’s people and attract new employees in droves. Done wrong—or not at all—it can give a firm an image of superficiality and lack of originality. Done poorly, it can squander the millions a firm spends on publications, PR, conferences, books and other programs for bringing its ideas and work to market. With poor “products” being pumped through the marketing pipeline, it can render marketing investments ineffective.

How, then, can a firm establish thought leadership? The first step is to understand what thought leadership is—and isn’t.

The Hallmarks of Thought Leadership

Getting high-level executive attention that, ideally, results in business depends upon a firm’s ability to powerfully differentiate its expertise and substantiate its client results. This requires clear, fact-based communication of the firm’s:

  • Unique insights into the problem at hand;
  • Experience in solving the problem with other clients;
  • Results from those experiences; and
  • Approach to doing the work.

We refer to a firm’s unique insights, client experiences, client results, and approach on a particular business issue, collectively, as its “point of view.” A point of view is the embodiment of the firm’s best thinking on an issue. A well-developed point of view demonstrates a firm’s unique, proven expertise for resolving a critical business issue, and thus is important for attracting clients and creating or enhancing a firm’s image as a “thought leader.”

Powerful points of view address the most pressing business issues in the most unique way and with the highest level of demonstrated success. In today’s accelerating, increasingly complex, and high-stakes business world, executives are more receptive than ever to new, effective ways to address critical problems.

Past methods of developing and communicating a point of view—hiring a ghostwriter to interview a subject matter expert for several hours and write drafts of articles, collecting a team to discuss issues over an afternoon, or taking a weekend to write about a recent client experience—are no longer sufficient. To make their points of view “market ready,” firms need to undertake a number of important activities well before they “put pen to paper.” These activities include case study research of clients and other best practice companies, survey research, literature searches, and brainstorming workshops. In our experience, the exact combination of these activities depends on how the concept measures up to seven key criteria:


  1. Novelty. A point of view must be unique and break new ground. Too many points of view, however, do not satisfy this basic requirement. A novel, proven point of view confers on a firm substantial status and generates significant executive interest. To ensure that their ideas are novel, a firm must be thoroughly aware of other points of view on the topic, both those in business and academia. When asked about how its point of view is different, the firm must be able to show substantial differences in the way it diagnoses and solves the business problem. A novel point of view can address a topic that has been addressed by others (e.g., Sarbanes-Oxley, organizational change management, merger integration, managing for shareholder value, labor negotiations)—but only if it sheds new light on the nature of the problem and/or the solution. Michael Porter’s value chain was a novel approach to an old problem: adding value. Gary Hamel shone new light on the question of "What business are we in?" with Core Competencies. And Kaplan and Norton gave us a new approach to measuring performance with the Balanced Scorecard. A new “label” applied to a previously stated problem or solution, a new case example of an existing issue, or new statistics underscoring an oft-discussed challenge do not make a point of view novel.
  2. Focus. A strong point of view must have a single, overriding message that can be stated in one or two sentences. All explanation and evidence should reinforce the main message. The message should be clear, specific, and intriguing, because of its relevancy and novelty. It should deliver one or more of the following: a new way of thinking about an issue, a new solution to an emerging or existing problem, a new insight into a trend or phenomenon, or a new set of experiences that reinforce or contradict conventional thinking or practice. An inability to find focus may signify the need to further develop the point of view or to create related but separate points of view.
  3. Relevance. A point of view must meet a critical and specific market need. In other words, it must demonstrate a “case for action.” The target client must believe he shares the problem and that he has to take action now. A point of view must be communicated to the right audience—i.e., those who can do something about the problem, who can buy the solution, and who care about solving it. A firm, thus, must understand the companies, industries, and the executives it should target. If a target audience is unaware of a problem that a firm discusses, the firm must provide solid evidence that the problem exists. This requires real-life examples, statistics that point to an inescapable trend (e.g., the limitations of social media for B2B marketing), or other evidence.
  4. Validity. A firm’s solution must be supported with strong evidence of how the solution works and where it has been used. This proof must take the form of case studies of organizations that are willing to go public and will vouch for the efficacy of the solution, and that have their own data to prove the solution’s value. Optimally, the firm will be able to present a number of case studies drawn from  interviews with company executives (not from literature searches). If a point of view’s validity cannot be proven conclusively, it is just theory.
  5. Practicality. A firm must demonstrate that its solution can be implemented. The point of view must outline and detail the approach, and must demonstrate that the firm knows the biggest barriers to implementing its approach and how to resolve them (again, through the use of real examples). In describing its approach, a firm must guard against communicating blatantly that its target clients need outside help to adopt the solution. The difficulty of the problem and the solution— and the insights and experience the firm demonstrates through its point of view—should make it clear to the target audience that it needs assistance.
  6. Rigor. A point of view must have tight, consistent logic throughout. Assertions must follow from previous assertions, and must be grounded in fact and be defendable. The logic of the argument must follow the form of problem/solution. Logic “gaps”—assumptions made by the content experts that may not be held by the target audience—must be filled.
  7. Clarity. A point of view must be communicated in language and concepts that the target audience understands—not the firm’s language and vernacular. The point of view should not demand that the audience learn a whole new vocabulary. No ideas or examples should be unclear. Jargon, clichés, and undefined acronyms must be eliminated. Bold assertions must quickly be followed with statistics, anecdotes, or case examples (too much theory makes a point of view dull).

A point of view can be communicated in a compelling way through the use of such writing devices as analogies, metaphors, anecdotal leads, and hypothetical examples. The structure of the point of view should be:

a) statement of problem;
b) brief statement of solution and benefits of solution;
c) elaboration of problem;
d) elaboration of solution (with examples);
e) challenges to implementing the solution; and
f ) summary/case for taking action now.

Jim Collins book From Good to Great has sold 2.5 million copies in hardcover because the concept was crystal clear and communicated in understandable language with compelling examples. Too many business concepts today lack such clarity—those with substance too often are communicated in the language of the firm rather than the language of the target audience. An important note: Clarity cannot overcome deficiencies in novelty, focus, relevance, and validity. In particular, a clearly communicated point of view that is not novel or lacks validity will have little market impact.

It has been proven time and again that a firm that develops strong points of view will greatly increase its ability to attract clients and bolster the effectiveness of its marketing investments. A firm that develops and markets strong points of view demonstrates its unique expertise and qualifications in resolving client issues - it attains thought leadership - and that makes the client’s decision on whom to hire far easier.