Thought Leadership Skills: A Discussion with Talent Consultant Sara Noble
For firms large and small, thought leadership has become like a Hermes bag – prestigious, highly coveted and a sign that you’ve arrived. In fact, all kinds of companies want to make such fashion statements these days – and not just consulting and other professional services firms that for years have marketed their expertise through articles, books, research studies and keynote speeches. Software, financial services, temporary services, business information, insurance, engineering – the list of companies that want to be considered experts in their domains seems to grow by the week.
For nearly 20 years, Sara P. Noble has helped such companies as McKinsey, Harvard Business Review, Bain & Co., and Boston Consulting Group hire people (including editors, digital directors and marketing strategists) who can turn their experts into widely recognized thought leaders. Bloom Group Founding Partner Bob Buday recently interviewed Noble about how companies can recruit the right thought leadership professionals, create a productive working environment, and keep them engaged and happy.
And that is no easy job, as she reveals in this interview. In looking for thought leadership talent, Noble says, it’s easy for companies to be fooled by impressive resumes and writing samples. They often do not understand what skills are far more important than others. They can miss the interview behaviors that truly reveal a good or bad “fit.” And they can overlook what motivates these professionals (note: money alone won’t be nearly enough).
Over the last 18 years, Noble has placed hundreds of thought leadership professionals, at dozens of top-tier strategy consulting firms, financial institutions, media companies and foundations worldwide. Before launching her consultancy in 1996, she held senior management positions on the editorial and business staffs at Harvard Business School Publishing/Harvard Business Review, Inc. Magazine and The Atlantic. Earlier in her career, after graduating from Columbia Business School, she was a strategy consultant at a firm founded by Boston Consulting Group alums.
Her experience has given her a unique perspective on the mistakes companies can make when they develop and staff their thought leadership programs. In this interview, she provides thoughts on those mistakes, and on how to find the right people and encourage their best performance.
- How "content anxiety disorder" leads to poor hires
- The evolving job of thought leadership professionals
- The biggest mistakes in thought leadership
- Finding and hiring the best talent
- Creating a nurturing environment
Bob Buday: Companies are ramping up hiring for content marketing and thought leadership people. What kinds of companies are approaching you these days, and do they know what to look for?
Sara P. Noble: I am contacted by all kinds of organizations, from professional services firms (strategy consulting firms, law firms) to corporations (financial services, pharmaceutical, technology, et al.), as well as non-profit organizations and foundations. The current environment for thought leadership is just riddled with what I call CAD -- content anxiety disorder. Everybody feels pressured to have thought leadership. For branding purposes, some marketing departments have become publishers, developing content with the intended goal – to put it very simply – to look smart.
And in this race to be the “smartest,” I see a great deal of time, money and energy being spent with varying degrees of success in the final output. Many organizations feel compelled to publish but don’t know what, how or who should do it. Nor do they know how to evaluate whether the content is good or bad, or in any way distinguishes them from their competitors. As a result, they’re making mistakes that aggravate their CAD even more.
Buday: What kinds of mistakes are they making?
Noble: The first is not having high aspirations for their content – which must start with provocative and compelling ideas, backed up by original research that will be of service or value to their customers. Content can devolve into purely opinions backed up by few examples or case studies to make the content compelling or credible.
And if volume of content is important, then what often happens is something I call “regurgitation publishing,” -- repurposing old, sometimes hollow ideas in multiple formats, giving them no freshness, no original research, no distinctive examples. They’re pushing bromides that are painful -- just painful -- to read. Some of it is as uninspired as putting press releases up and calling it thought leadership. I’ve seen this phenomenon at both small companies and, sad to say, multibillion-dollar firms.
When that happens, they are likely to put the thought leadership professionals they’ve hired in a box – essentially saying, “Just publish what’s on the top of our people’s minds.” Or “quickly throw something together,” providing the flimsiest of material for these writers/editors to work with. And you can bet that their thought leadership professionals won’t be thrilled about capturing and ghostwriting these ideas.
The best thought leadership professionals are great idea generators themselves, and also highly skilled at doing their own research and reporting. If they find themselves ghosting articles that are void of true originality, concrete research and timely examples, they will question joining an organization that doesn’t recognize this deficiency. They will become intellectually demoralized in short order.
Another mistake I see time and again is having legacy marketing people on staff who dictate the thought leadership professional’s job and work product. These marketers feel that what was done in the past seemed to work, so let’s just keep doing it. And the partners or management seldom question this decision.
The legacy people often operate in a bubble, thinking, “Oh, this is brilliant.” But they often don’t look outside their bubble to see if someone else has written about some topic, in the media or among their competitors. These firms have nobody to curate, monitor or evaluate to make sure their content is as distinctive as it can be.
Buday: We’ve seen that – for example, the marketer who turns a really solid article into a sales brochure at the end by requiring that the last two pages wax on about the company’s services and how great they are. Most self-respecting thought leadership professionals cringe at the thought of their work being turned into sales brochures. And it’s particularly jarring for a reader – a potential client – to go from being educated on a topic to being pitched a service or product in the same publication.
Noble: Exactly. But there is even a bigger problem: These companies often have a hard time distinguishing between good content and bad content. So when they do manage to hire a solid thought leadership professional, they often don’t give him or her the liberty and the license to produce exceptional content.
What I mean is they discourage these professionals from working with people in the firm in a way that will spur fresh thinking – and also look at their competitors’ best ideas and figure out how their firm can distinguish itself.
There is now an avalanche of thought leadership and custom content online and in the press. Reader engagement diminishes as the content choices become more vast. It’s total overload, and firms begin to feel it’s too difficult to stand out in the crowd. Hiring skilled thought leadership professionals, who bring subject expertise, a sense of audience and creative ways of breaking through the fog, can help them do that – if these people are given the liberty and the license to do so.
The Thought Leadership Professional’s Evolving Job Definition
Buday: Do you see any consistency in how firms have defined the job of thought leadership professionals?
Noble: I now see companies defining the role in two different ways. Consulting firms historically have focused on what I refer as the editorial approach: developing quality content on ideas of value to their customers. With good oversight, they do this quite well.
But some companies in industries that have recently discovered the need for thought leadership can have a different goal, which I call the marketing-driven approach. This is about creating content that helps sales teams, or creates opportunities for sponsorships, or in other ways constitutes more sophisticated sales collateral and advertising. The marketing-driven approach to thought leadership is a very different business model and value proposition. It requires some different skills, and an understanding that the content must meet specific sales and marketing objectives.
The big difference is that the editorial approach, if done well, focuses on new, provocative ideas on some management issue, industry or discipline. The marketing-driven approach sees thought leadership as “get to know our firm, our products, our services and what we can do for you.” I’m certainly not saying that can’t be well done, but it’s often more firm-specific, not idea-specific. And if the marketing-driven content producers are not skilled at nuanced storytelling and service-oriented material, the content becomes just long-form marketing collateral.
The best thought leadership makes a compelling argument with original research, then uses these original ideas to present the firm as a market leader to be trusted. You need a solid thought leadership professional to create and develop these ideas. But many companies go looking for marketing copywriters instead. That’s because many of their legacy people are marketing-oriented, and that’s what they’ve always done. Even some top consulting firms still think this way.
Buday: The way we look at that is that the first one is about producing content about the customer issues a company’s products or services address. The second is about producing content about the company’s products or services. The second role, thus, is the traditional role of marketing: creating product/service brochures and so on. That’s important, but it’s not thought leadership, as we see it.
So let’s talk about the first role: of producing educational, service-oriented content about issues in the marketplace – the issues that a company’s products and/or services address. How do companies that do this right organize their thought leadership professionals? Who do they report to in these companies – e.g., marketing? Sales? A central group?
Noble: The most successful organizations I’ve seen have a sort of centralized thought leadership strategy with a broad representation across their practices or business areas. Some have a central committee where people are represented from each practice or business area.
What’s more important than that, however, is that top management commits to making thought leadership happen. If they don’t do that, just forget it. Sadly, on a few occasions I have placed highly talented people into organizations where management spoke convincingly that they wanted to ramp up their thought leadership and publish more widely externally. But in the following years, partners got cold feet, worried about client confidentiality (which can always be protected if done properly); or they didn’t carve out the time; or they noted the ambivalence of firm leadership. The result: Highly talented people are writing partner bios, marketing collateral, and white papers for the firm’s clients.
Assuming management is truly committed to having the firm be regarded as thought leaders in the marketplace, they need to give good editors and ghostwriters editorial oversight of the content creation. And to strengthen the cause, they must have top partners or the CMO overseeing the long-term thought leadership strategy in partnership with the top thought leadership professionals. Top partners or management must have skin in the game and a vested interest for the entire firm to see. That means no more lip service. There must be a thought leadership committee, with partners serving as engaged members of that committee. They need to take these thought leadership initiatives seriously and, by association, give their time and respect to the firm’s thought leadership professionals.
Not surprisingly, internal editors and writers are often viewed by consultants, lawyers, accountants or other professionals as “not one of them.” As a result, the skills of thought leadership professionals may not be understood or appreciated for the value they can bring to the firm. These professionals, if chosen properly, have been trained to think about audience, and trained at storytelling and presenting cogent arguments. They pride themselves on being quick studies. If they have expertise in a field, they are often as knowledgeable as any of the partners or management.
In the worst-case scenario, thought leadership professionals throw around the term “second-class citizen” in frustration when they think top partners don’t have a clue what they do, nor seem to care about them. And worst-worst case, they are treated rudely and dismissively. Good thought leadership will not be sustained if the people producing it are kicked to the curb.
The Biggest Thought Leadership Mistakes
Buday: So if the right ingredients, as you see them, are in place for a thought leadership professional to thrive, is there anything else that can go wrong?
Noble: Yes. One frustration I’ve heard from the people I’ve placed is when they’ve worked closely with the firm’s “thought leaders” on developing ideas, conducted original research and written reports about the research – only then to see nothing happen with those reports. They don’t go to market. They aren’t shared properly internally or externally. They just die from neglect.
I’ve seen too many instances where original research has been done, reports have been written and then nothing -- a black hole. That is really demoralizing and de-motivating for all concerned.
Buday: So what can be done to reduce the chances of this happening?
Noble: There needs to be close collaboration between the thought leadership team and the marketing and public relations departments in these organizations. Often marketing people don’t know how to market a piece of thought leadership. I’ve even seen this in strategy consulting firms.
But it typically happens in industries outside of professional services, where a company sells a tangible, physical product or provides a service that isn’t advice. These companies are great at marketing products. They make sure their various departments are talking to one another. Research and development, marketing and supply chain people communicate and collaborate. But thought leadership is a new thing at these firms. They often don’t include their thought leadership professionals in marketing discussions.
It’s a shame when a firm has some original research but doesn’t have the PR people do something with it; or they don’t know how to use social media to distribute it and get attention; or they don’t have marketing people who know how to leverage it through a webinar or a conference. They should be marketing thought leadership like any other product, and that’s often what they don’t do.
Even some of the top firms don’t have a PR department or an agency on retainer to help them with thought leadership. They just put all these research reports onto their websites, and that’s it. What a waste.
At some companies, the marketing department views research reports as “leave behinds” with prospective clients. They will tout their original research to a specific client, but don’t care about whether they get any press mentions for it, or whether their consultants are used as sources. It’s a shame that they’re not casting a broader net. Consultants, accountants, lawyers and other professionals can be client-focused at the expense of the firm in general. Client focus is a great thing. But the firm’s brand is equally important, and great new ideas can serve both purposes.
That’s why I say you need commitment for thought leadership at the top, not just lip service. Thought leadership needs to be treated like any other product, from its R&D stage all the way to the supply chain and into the hands of the customers most desired by the firm.
Finding and Hiring the Best
Buday: What skills should companies look for in thought leadership professionals?
Noble: I use many criteria when I evaluate candidates. But at the core, there are five attributes of the most successful thought leadership professionals. The most important is intellectual rigor, passion and curiosity. It’s impossible to tell from a LinkedIn profile whether a candidate has this attribute up to the standards required by my clients.
I always insist that candidates be given some type of exercise that gauges their intellectual rigor, skill set, and analytical capabilities. But you would be amazed how few companies do this. Even for the top director positions, these exercises prove crucial in gauging the person’s potential, but also their understanding of the position and the firm.
Thought leadership people have to hit the ground running to engage with the partners or top executives at their level. They need to earn their credibility badge within the first few months on the job. If they don’t, unfortunately, the runway is very short.
That means adding value to any discussion. They must bring their passion and curiosity to whatever content is being discussed so that the partners will actually want to work with them again. They should be asking challenging, provocative and very relevant questions to improve and hone the partners’ ideas. They should be forcing better research and better examples, and using their intellect (and personality) to make content development fun, not onerous.
The second important quality is subject expertise and a sense of history. This is especially critical in such sectors as healthcare, energy and financial services where knowledge of changing regulations, new technologies, and esoteric terminology are critical in being able to work with experts in the fields. The thought leadership professional must be the best-read person in the room and serve as the company’s eyes and ears. That means keeping up with what has been published in the media and by competitors.
This helps them foresee the trends, gauge the market dynamics and ensure that their content is fresh, well-researched and differentiates them from whatever else is out there. They can also cut something off at the pass if it’s a stale idea or veering towards “regurgitation publishing.”
Some partners or company thought leaders will go back time and again to an insight that they believe is revelatory. They will try to dress it up with different accessories, but it is still the same, old worn-out idea. How many times have we read blogs on major business sites from thought leaders, where we say to ourselves, “Didn’t he/she write this same article two months ago, just with a different title?”
Thirdly, needless to say, thought leadership professionals need superior writing and editing skills. They must help an author present a compelling argument and pull them out of the weeds. It’s easy for even a great consultant, accountant, lawyer or other professional to become immersed in too many details; a good thought leadership professional will help them see their way clear to the big idea.
As is often the case, few executives or professionals are good writers; they tend to write pedantic and ponderous prose, steeped in company jargon that they don’t even recognize as jargon. A good editor will excise the jargon and create a compelling read, while highlighting the relevancies of the research and the central arguments.
They also know how to grab and hold the reader’s attention. They make the experience enjoyable, but always provide the ever-important takeaway message … a “door prize.” And they preserve the voice of the author so that the author never feels that his content is “hijacked.”
Buday: Say more about this. How does such content “hijacking” happen?
Noble: Everybody -- the consultant, CEO or manager, or whoever it might be – brings a distinctive voice and some passion to the content. An editor should respect that. But if the content is flimsy, a good editor must point this out delicately and diplomatically, but always follow it up with a solution that makes it better so the author says, “Ah, ok. Yeah, I see it.” The best editors are able to walk that fine line between constructive and destructive criticism.
Buday: I’ve seen people who do this work who don’t like the expert’s point of view, so they just provide their own. In other cases, they do like the author’s point of view but the author is not expressing it clearly enough, so the editor goes out on a limb to say it another way. This requires lots of delicate dancing, in my experience.
Noble: Yes, for editors, there will often be a tug-and-pull with an author, and sometimes they just don’t win. They need to be savvy about which battles to fight and which to walk away from.
So that comes to the fourth prerequisite for hiring the best thought leadership professional: attitude and chemistry. A key part of attitude is being able to integrate yourself into the organization. Thought leadership professionals must demonstrate that they’re team members. I’ve seen editors who would go into their offices and write copy but never got to know the partners except through the projects they did together. Limited integration will result in limited growth and value to the firm.
Another part of attitude is putting your ego in the proper prospective. You never take a thought leadership position thinking it’s going to be your platform or that you can change the institutional thinking or the tone of the company’s branding. Over time you can improve their content and sharpen their branding, but that happens over time and once you are firmly integrated and valued.
For every candidate, I am calibrating their ego, insecurities, and expectations from the first time we have a conversation. These evaluations are purely instinctual and I detect them in the casual conversations I have when a candidate is relaxed. They are not the formulaic interview questions that recruiters often use.
People with the wrong chemistry will alienate others pretty quickly, especially if they fail to accept the crucial attitude of constructive give and take. Ultimately, they fail because they don’t know how to listen; they only know how to talk. You’ve got to learn that, first and foremost, you’re there to listen, and then you’re there to add value after the listening.
Some people think they can do their job without the first step, and that’s delusional in these environments – or in any environment, for that matter.
Buday: Do these big egos tend to come from a certain background – e.g., researchers or journalists?
Noble: Sometimes they may be journalist MBAs working with the consultant MBAs who are making double or triple their salaries. That can be a bad situation if the editor doesn’t fully understand and accept their role in the firm. You automatically have a chip on your shoulder, especially if the better-paid MBAs are younger.
That leads me to the third aspect of attitude and chemistry: being able to have a Zen mindset at times. You just can’t take things personally. Partners are busy. Clients come first. Just accept that and let it roll off.
One of the hardest challenges for editors entering a strategy consulting firm environment especially, is the fact that consultants’ priorities are to their clients. That means as an editor, your work may grind to a standstill if a partner is busy in Singapore and doesn’t return your calls. Journalists especially have trouble adjusting to the stop-and-start pace of the editorial process under these circumstances. They are accustomed to firm deadlines for publication. Now they are working in an environment where deadlines are fluid and squishy, and totally dependent upon a partner’s travels and client obligations.
At times, you must have the patience of a saint. Editors have to understand that the process with authors might start with a PowerPoint presentation, then an outline or draft, and then the many, many eyes and the many, many tongues that weigh into the process.
Accept the job as it is, understand it, and know that the upside is you’ll never be intellectually bored. I would say this is the reason why most thought leadership professionals enjoy the work they do – they like the intellectual stimulation of working with very, very smart people, and having a diversity of content to develop.
And the fifth and last core attribute is this: Thought leadership professionals need a fine-tuned sense of audience and a marketing mindset. Many people I’ve placed over the years are not just straight editors anymore. They not only know how to be good storytellers, but they know how to target the content. They have taken on the role of marketers, especially in organizations where there is a disconnect between the thought leadership produced and getting it out into the world for the benefit of the firm’s branding.
These thought leadership professionals will have suggestions for distribution and placement, and format -- whether it’s written, video, podcast, webinar or conference. And they know how to use social media to the greatest effect. They will attempt to sync up the content with the firm’s larger marketing initiatives and product roll-outs.
The best thought leadership professionals are able to see the big picture of the firm, its strengths and how to market them through content that distinguishes the organization from all the other clutter in the market.
Buday: So they’re not just thinking about the content and how to make the content as good as it possibly can be. They’re thinking about the downstream and how to get this content to market.
Noble: A lot of organizations that I’ve worked with are saying, “If you can get us editors who actually do all of the other things, but then they can actually take on the marketing piece, that would be a big bonus.” I specifically try to find those people because -- what’s that expression? -- “Content is king, but distribution is queen and she wears the pants in the family.”
Buday: What kinds of backgrounds do you see as the most useful in developing the skills, behaviors and attitudes you’ve pointed to?
Noble: The best candidates in my opinion are the “straddlers,” where they might have been in banking in a previous life, and then became a journalist. Or maybe they were in journalism first, then a corporate environment.
When a journalist has had other career paths, it shows that they are intellectually curious and able to adapt to a new environment. But sometimes the partners are just so intractable that I know that they don’t want a journalist and prefer “one of their own.”
So I often search for a needle in a haystack and find consultants or ex-consultants who actually have editorial skills. I’ve found a few people like this over the past 18 years, and they’ve worked out very well. But I refer to these people as unicorns -- very hard to find and very rare.
I think maybe 1% of the journalist population can thrive in a thought leadership role in a strategy firm. I’ll raise that percentage for thought leadership roles in other corporate or non-profit settings. One reason is that a lot of journalists are just not interested in corporate work. They would rather write news and do investigative feature stories, and be in a more media-oriented environment.
The other reason is that most journalists wouldn’t have the patience or diplomatic touch required for the reiterative process. They might be very good editors, and accustomed to going back and forth with staff reporters, but I tell them it’s not the same. These people at consulting, accounting, law or other firms are not kids fresh out of journalism school. They are experts who are very, very confident in every part of their lives and they will think they are 100 times smarter than you are. Many journalists either won’t be up to the task or won’t want to work in such a place.
While many journalists eliminate themselves, the few who remain must meet these clients’ very high standards. The digital people have to be damn good. The editors have to be really, really, really damn good -- the cream of the crop.
Buday: It sounds like some of these companies should be looking beyond journalism for candidates for thought leadership jobs.
Creating a Nurturing Environment
Buday: After you find the best thought leadership professional, how do you make sure your clients don’t lose that person? How can they keep their motivation high and raise their game?
Noble: As I mentioned earlier, an executive commitment to thought leadership ensures that everybody is on board. In the long run, it creates the best environment for the thought leadership professional to thrive.
It would be great if the partners of a firm were given incentives to do thought leadership. And a strong, centralized thought leadership team can back up the professional and help ensure that their work does not go into a black hole.
Organizations should also be careful not to view thought leadership as a way to make money. I’ve noticed that some places attempt to put false monetization metrics on intellectual capital. Don’t do this unless you have a clear business plan to do that, or you are actually selling original research. It’s really demoralizing to content creators to be judged monetarily unless that is spelled out in their job description under the content marketing-driven approach to thought leadership.
It is perfectly legitimate to institute metrics to measure online traffic. In some cases this can indicate if you’re doing a good job or not, whether your content and headlines are really grabbing people’s attention. As with any online property, it can help with fine-tuning online strategy and gauging customer interests.
But many times, opportunities are lost when no one is tracking who is visiting the site. There is also an ongoing debate as to whether firms should open up their site to comments, which would need to be curated and monitored. There are very good reasons for not doing so, like low response or comments that cheapen the article and the firm. If the site is properly promoted via social media and monitored, this can be a door opened to potential clients or greater customer engagement for follow-up by the sales team.
Buday: So what else should companies be doing to keep thought leadership professionals happy?
Noble: If at all possible, let them have some access to your clients. Day in and day out, they’re working with professionals who are talking about clients, and they feel excluded from where the action takes place. These are curious people who sometimes want to change their career trajectory. Give them some exposure to the front line, rather than just letting them hear about it from others.
Some of the thought leadership professionals that I’ve placed have volunteered to do client communications, such as helping with prospective client proposals or key client presentations, just so they can experience the process. Or if a firm has a website that presents case studies or client videos, let these professionals be involved in producing this content at the client’s location.
Opportunities like this go a long way towards keeping them engaged in the work of the firm. Many want to see how their company makes money. Client contact is really a big motivator for these people.
Secondly, if they are journalists, make sure to capitalize on their research and reporting skills. They have developed these skills over their whole careers, and should be deploying them to help with client engagements and research. If they cannot be put on client engagements, since the associates are doing the research, they could be doing valuable research on the firm’s competition.
Don’t let that talent go to waste. I can remember one journalist who was so outstanding at research -- on client engagement matters as well as thought leadership -- they made her director of research. That really made a difference to her longevity with the firm.
Buday: To be sure, some very successful journalists have made it big in the business world, such as Steven Rattner of The New York Times. (Rattner co-founded and was managing principal of the private equity firm Quadrangle Group, and was the lead adviser to U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on the 2009 restructuring of the U.S. auto industry.) He obviously had the analytical and research skills to do more than journalism.
Noble: Absolutely. There are numerous examples of journalists becoming very successful in finance, marketing, strategy. In the strategy consulting and law firms, I have seen great journalists grow into strategic marketing roles. Over time, if they’re dealing with a practice area or certain products or services, they will become the subject experts, if they are not already from their previous career. Many welcome taking on strategic marketing responsibilities like audience development or social media strategy, and ultimately become a director of marketing in their subject area.
By taking on some marketing responsibilities, another career trajectory might emerge broadening their own marketability, becoming better paid and remaining intellectually stimulated. I’ve placed a number of people who have become directors of marketing or content officers, and it’s made a hell of a lot of difference in keeping them motivated and opening up long-term career opportunities.
Finally, let them be creative, encouraging their suggestions for new content offerings, whether it be online journals, webinars, infographics, videos, or surveys. Or let them offer ways to better harness knowledge management internally, or ways for the firm to share information worldwide and opening some windows if the firm is highly decentralized. Have them come up with business plans on the costs of these initiatives.
These are creative people. Learn how to manage creative people and not squander the value they bring to the firm. Thought leadership is a powerful vehicle for branding of a firm. Make sure you have the best drivers at the wheel.