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Why Good Thought Leadership Is Like Good Parenting

Too much thought leadership content from consulting firms has a lecturing, hectoring tone that parents too often adopt with their children. Eventually, (as every parent knows), the kids stop listening. So, too, will the readers of thought leadership content that adopts this all-too-familiar and unpleasant style.

Let me illustrate with an example.

We recently received a draft of an article from a consulting firm. Here are some of the things it said (which by the way, it no longer does):

  1. “We believe that companies serving this segment should take a number of steps…”
  2. “Companies will need to become much more sophisticated…”
  3. “Companies will need to be much more creative…”
  4. “Companies will need to think differently…”
  5. “Companies should do much more in the way of…”
  6. “Companies should do more to maintain customer closeness…”
  7. “Companies will need to think much more carefully about…”

If you Google "companies should," you’ll get about a billion returns. They are not all from consulting firms hoping to impress potential clients, but many are.

In English grammar, words and phrases such as “should,” “ought to,” “must,” “have to,” and “need to” are called modal verbs. They are softer than imperatives (“Think creatively!”), but these particular ones are still rather bossy.  

No one, especially a business leader, likes to be bossed about. In addition, using these verbs sets the author up as someone who knows better than the reader  how to run his business. It makes the implicit assumption that every reader’s company is deficient in the dimensions discussed.

That’s simply never true. Some customers already are maintaining “customer closeness,” and others certainly are thinking carefully about a lot of things. When these companies read that they should do something they’re already doing, they stop reading. Wouldn’t you? Especially if you’re being rudely addressed.

The use of these modals often disguises a lack of insight, and a weak foundation for the thought leadership. If the writer really had the goods, he’d be providing examples, not giving vague recommendations to be more creative. That’s not terribly helpful, is it? If the author is qualified to tell someone how to be creative, why not do so himself and include some original ideas that might actually help the reader?

A hectoring tone, vague recommendations and a weak foundation are often found together. And readers, certainly the senior, budget-holding ones authors and firms are trying to impress, are not easily bamboozled by an officious, arrogant tone.

Here are a few comments a CFO once scribbled on a consulting firm’s white paper about debt financing to illustrate to us his annoyance with vague recommendations:

  • “In the future, financial firms will likely need more and better-quality capital.”
    • Which would be what, exactly? the CFO wrote. 
  • “Modeling and deploying that capital will be even more important than ever as a critical core competency of management.”
    • And how should I do this? wrote the CFO, nearing the end of his patience.
  • Managing liquidity is expected to continue to be a major preoccupation for many financial firms
    • Duh! He scribbled angrily, dismissing the article from further consideration.

So what do senior executive readers want from the thought leadership materials they read? First and foremost, data and examples from which they can extract the lessons for their own businesses.

This article , for instance, explains what the companies that successfully manage risk in emerging markets do, and what the unsuccessful ones don’t. It doesn’t try to advise any one company what to do, recognizing realistically and with a good sense of humility that all companies are different and find themselves in different situations. It does, however, give the reader enough information to decide for himself. And it does so in 4,000 words without using “should” even once.

This is what clients want from consultants: good information, positive and negative examples, and a framework within which to make choices. In my humble opinion, that’s also what children need from parents. Not to be told what to do, but to be given enough sound, reliable information to make good decisions for themselves. Hectoring, in my experience, has never worked with kids or clients.

You shouldn’t do it. You oughtn’t. You need not to.

Are you still listening?