The Beginning Is the Hardest Part of Thought Leadership

I once wrote a post here about why developing and writing thought leadership content is harder than many people think. I explained that one of the reasons it’s so hard is that the source of a firm’s insights – its consultants and experts – are almost by definition an inch wide and a mile deep in their chosen specialization. Working at the bleeding edge of current practices, they generally don’t have a good picture of the larger landscape in which their work sits, so their insights will tend to be narrow, abstruse and not easily communicated. Just as often, if they are doing good, solid repeatable work that generates great client results, it is likely similar to work their peers at a dozen other companies are doing. In either case, publishable thought leadership will not readily be forthcoming.

That however, is only the intellectual challenge facing the content developer. There’s an emotional one, too, which we confront every time we start work with a new author, who is usually senior in his firm and possesses a large and not undeserved ego. Consequently, not only does he often think that his insights are worthy of an HBR article, he believes he’s an excellent writer, too. After all, he writes proposals and reports all the time. He just can’t write this specific article at this particular time. He is, after all, quite busy.

So when you reach out to help him, he tends to think that your role is to do what he perceives as the grunt work he doesn’t have time for. Your job, in his view, is to weave a web of words that will adorn his insights for the great unwashed (i.e., readers who are not currently paying clients). But, in fact, your job is to work with him to develop and provide a foundation, a broader context for his ideas, as well as to express them in a jargon-free way that readers can understand.

Some authors and experts are happy to collaborate. Most people who have published previously will; they know that a story is developed, not dictated, and there’s an art and a process to it. Others will never accept any real help, and their chance of publishing a good article will suffer for it. Most people are somewhere in-between – ready either to collaborate on a great story or dictate to you a bad one. Which way they go depends (as so much of life does) on how you begin.

There are three things you should establish as soon as you can:

  • That you are a thought leadership development expert, not just a writer.
  • That you know his field well enough to discuss it intelligently.
  • A rapport.

If you position yourself as purely and simply a writer, you invite the author to tell you what to write and how to write it. (After all, you’re just a writer; what do you know?) If a writer is all he thinks you are, it will be almost impossible ever to persuade him to veer from his preconception of the ideal article, and the result – if you get to one – will not be as good as it could have been.

If, however, you position yourself as a thought leadership content development expert (or however you choose to describe it), you will convey the message that you have skills and knowledge he does not. That sets you up as a collaborator, not someone who’s doing some simple, mindless labor for him because he doesn’t have time to do it himself.

Of course, if you don’t know his field well enough to discuss it intelligently then:

  • Why would he be inclined to view you as a collaborator?
  • You won’t, in truth, be able to tell the difference between insight and pabulum.
  • The author will be justified in thinking that he should tell you what to write.

But if you can establish your expertise and your knowledge, you have a very good chance of establishing a rapport by the end of the first meeting or call. And then you will have a much better chance of together producing an excellent article.



Submitted by Will Milano on

Good piece Tim. I agree. Part of the essential work up front also includes clearly articulating the goals of good thought leadership- how it ties into the firm's marketing (and therefore) business strategy. How will you measure it? What can you report back? One of the big hurdles up front is the "so what" factor...

And along those lines, can you get some competitive juices going among your thought leaders to see whose stuff ends up being most impactful?..

Then, are you making it easy for the consultant/author to work with you? For example, instead of telling them to 'send you a draft' are you taking time to collaborate, interview him/her, help pull out the key takeaways and insights and build from there. AND is it tied to your brand message(s) and themes you're trying to reinforce in the market. If the Marketing team is viewed as collaborative, strategic, and easy to work with that word WILL spread quickly among other Consultants and any barriers will break down. And sometimes a good thought leadership partner has to say 'no thanks' to the blog posts that wax poetic about deep thoughts while walking on the beach last weekend...

And finally, can you show the consultant/author all the ways that the work you do together will be packaged? They are FAR more likely to spend the quality time up front if they know what's being developed could, for example, not just be a single blog post but perhaps a series of 4 blogs. Then package those into a nice eBook featured on the website with a landing page. Record a podcast around it. A live webinar. A pitch to a publication. Link all these things to the Consultant's bio on your website. This goes back to helping them understand the firm's marketing strategy, which for consulting/services firms has to be about multiple touches spread out over time in many different ways and vehicles. Once is never enough...


Submitted by Tim Parker on

Will, thanks for the comment. Re making it easy, we always try and do as you suggest - that is interview and build from there. Actually, an expert-written draft is usually a bad place to start, because it will inevitably need substantial change, but the author will already have invested in it. 

Re paras one and three (the goals and the packaging), we usually find those less important to the author than understanding what he/she wants to get out of it, and making sure that's woven into the marketing objectives, which in a firm, might be broader. 

Finally, regarding competitive juices, if there are several experts on one topic, that might of course be helpful. Another option is to get them to collaborate on one or more pieces. 

Submitted by Alan Alper on

Great piece, Tim; bravo! Much better to be a seen and treated as a collaborator than an order taker!

Submitted by Tim Parker on

Thanks Alan. Thinking about it -- my daughter as an architect, the guy who sold me my last car etc. -- this is perhaps true in more businesses than we might at first imagine. And definitely in this one. 

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