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Thought leadership: what does success involve?

The last time I wrote on the subject of thought leadership, I focused on how it plays an important role in supporting a new CEO during the crucial 1st 100 days. A thought leadership programme that focus on engaging with external and stakeholders is vital in this 100-day period, as the programme will normally help to set the tone for the CEO’s ability to drive long-term success. (you can read this earlier post here)

Thought leadership – also referred to as executive positioning – is a strategic approach to managing an individual’s ‘personal brand’. It is often used by senior business leaders, government officials, industry experts and politicians around the world, and involves an understated approach for personal reputation management. At Cicero & Bernay, I have built and managed a number of thought leadership programmes, and thought I’d share what I believe drives a successful thought leadership programme.

In a nutshell, successful thought leadership does not happen by accident; it happens when a planned approach is taken that follows a proven methodology. And it doesn’t happen overnight; Even in the digital age of instantaneous engagement, thought leadership takes time. But when done properly, it yields considerable results. For success in thought leadership, I recommend that you focus on the following:


Every thought leadership programme must be focused on a personal branding goal – which is no different from setting objectives in any strategy or plan. You must identify where the programme of engagement activities will take the personal brand. Think along the lines of goals such as ‘The most influential leader of retail business’, ‘The most respected authority in the medical field’, or even ‘The most sough-after financial services expert’.

Underpinned by planning

With goals set, you should start by assessing the individual’s current personal brand image: look at print and online media coverage and evaluate content on his or her social media channels. Determine ‘peers’, and then do the same assessment and evaluation for them. The results will be an understanding of the individual’s current personal brand, and that of the peers operating in the same space.

You must also agree important stakeholders who you wish the thought leadership agenda to reach. Who are they, how best to engage with them, what content will resonate with them, and their current perceptions – if any – of the individual for whom you are building the thought leadership programme.

Planning should also involve developing a personal narrative – subjects upon which all content and activity in the thought leadership programme will be based. Similar to how in PR we develop a ‘corporate narrative’ (or message house), the same applies to personal branding to build your content strategy and activity calendar.

Don’t forget training

Training of the individual is a vital component – in areas as public speaking, media interviews, social media conventions and practices, and can even involve non-verbal communication and dress/style tips coaching. You want the individual to be comfortable and capable in all elements of the engagement plan.

Calendar of activities

Your thought leadership activity calendar should be comprised of: media interviews, commentaries, feature articles, round tables, speaking opportunities, awards dossiers and one-on-one engagement. All opportunities should be well-researched beforehand to ensure that they contribute to the overall thought leadership goal and can employ content that is based on the personal narrative.

And let’s not forget the importance of digital platforms: The activity calendar should integrate social media – including Linkedin, Instagram, twitter, Facebook and other relevant channels. Social media from a thought leadership perspective must focus on engagement – not just one-way communication. As well as your thought leader posting his or her ‘owned’ content, the focus should be also on a relevant peer group – replying to others, re-tweeting, commenting and sharing content to build digital engagement that complements the other thought leadership activities.

Importantly, social media engagement comes as second nature to those of the millennial generation, so you may have to convince earlier generations on the importance of these platforms to engage with audiences. Social media is no longer just in the domain of ‘my personal time outside of the office’; personal branding nowadays must include the ‘social media reputation’ factor.

Common sense

Above all else, remember to ensure that common sense prevails in your planning and delivery of the thought leadership programme; the individual might never be a confident public speaker, so don’t force these types of opportunities. Instead focus on activities that require less face-to-face interaction and more written or recorded engagement. And the calendar of activities and engagement opportunities should be planned so that they realistically can be done in addition to the professional commitments of the individual.