Updated May 1, 2022
In the last post, I talked about why becoming a thought leader is vital, and I talked about what a thought leader is. In this post, I want to talk about how to do it.
So, how do you become a thought leader?
In a 2010 article, Dorie Clark describes the path toward thought leadership as being: creating an online presence, flaunting affiliations, giving speeches, TV appearances, winning awards, and publishing a book. (You should totally read this article too!)
Now I get that this seems like a lot. Holy crap it’s a lot.
But, if that’s the sort of thought leader you want to be, it is possible over the course of 5 or 10 years.
So why not start? Here’s a roadmap.
How do you become a thought leader? Position yourself.
1. Choose a niche
Roostervane is about turning degrees into careers. When I started it, it was specifically devoted to PhDs–who widely struggle with career transitions after academia.
That was a niche.
Thought leaders often work in niches.
Niches are areas where there are lots of people interested in a particular subject, but not as much competition as a more generic subject would have.
As a thought leader, much like in an academic specialty, you can become an expert who is known for the command of a particular domain rather than a broad generalist.
Angela Duckworth has a PhD in Psychology, and she’s best known for her book on grit that was published in 2016.
Simon Sinek burst on the scene a few years ago with a speech about millennials that almost broke the internet.
Sarah Kendzior completed a PhD in Anthropology and worked as a journalist–she shot to fame after accurately predicting Trump’s victory in 2016. I first discovered her on Twitter years ago when I realized that she had the best take on current events I could find anywhere.
These people are thought leaders in different ways, but each has an area of expertise that we’d look to them for.
When I started my PhD, a wise mentor once told me that choosing research was like getting married; it’s about choosing what you love but it also takes away a lot of other possibilities.
This is something like thought leadership too. You can, of course, pivot, but in the long run, your goal should be to become the person known for X thing.
2. Choose your domain
I don’t mean a web domain here. I mean the geographic area you’re going to work in.
Someone in Washington could make a full-time living for the rest of their life as a recognized expert on foreign policy.
If your domain is a particular city or country, it will change the shape of what you are trying to build.
For example, if you are building a thought-leadership profile in a country where the first language is not spoken elsewhere, you can choose to work in the language of that country.
The advantage to this is that you will have less competition.
The disadvantage is that your impact will be limited.
These are your decisions to make, but they are worth thinking through.
3. Make your name a brand
Personal branding still gets a bad rap sometimes. But I’m really convinced it’s not going away any time soon.
You need to make your name synonymous with expertise in that thing—whatever it is.
You can read more about what personal branding is in this post.
Build Your Influence
So let’s come back to Dorie Clark’s great roadmap for thought leadership that I mentioned at the beginning. How do you do all the things she talks about, especially if you’re a student or a new grad?
- Create an online presence
- Flaunt affiliations
- Give speeches
- Do TV appearances
- Win awards
- Publish a book
Is this just a ridiculously intimidating list that will make you collapse with exhaustion before you even start?
Well, no. It’s doable. But it takes time to build.
So here are a few of my thoughts on building thought leadership. If you missed my appearance on CNN (kidding! it never happened), you probably can infer that I’m somewhere along the journey and not quite arrived yet.
But here’s what I know about it.
1. Create a social media presence
You can start here. It’s hard for me to express how much innocuous social media posts can change your life.
But they really can.
If you’ve chosen your thought leadership niche, start creating content online.
Clean up your social media profiles and start posting. And yes, even tweets count.
Start talking about your thing online. Share your own knowledge and boost other people’s work that’s interesting.
There’s too much to say about building a social media following here. I’ll do a longer post in the future.
HOWEVER, let me say, try to make your posts engaging and interesting more than heavily pedagogical. Draw people in. Be a bit controversial, try to shake the way we think about things.
And then keep going. Don’t stop. That’s what it takes to build an online presence, and most people don’t do this simple thing.
A couple of helpful posting tools:
Tweetdeck– Post scheduler for Twitter
Hootsuite– Generic post scheduler for several platforms (2 accounts with the free version).
You can also schedule posts in Facebook for Business.
2. Build a blog or website
I’d like to give a little plug here for building a website of some sort.
When I built Roostervane, I wasn’t thinking much about it. But I’ve realized over time how glad I am that I built it, and also, how glad I am that I own it completely.
You can choose to blog for free on a number of platforms. Honestly, of all these, Medium or LinkedIn articles would be my two best choices for growing thought leaders.
- Medium looks pro and is easy to use, with an existing reader base.
- LinkedIn is the same, plus it lines up well with sharing ideas on their platform. The LI algorithm even favors articles created on its platform.
If you’re just going to periodically share an article, I’d either do it on one of these platforms or else pitch media outlets (below).
If you want to write and create content on a regular basis, I want to give a pitch for building your own blog, on your own platform, that you own.
When Brian Clarke started the blog Copyblogger, he had no way of knowing he was be building a platform that would eventually be valued as an 8-figure company.
Likewise, when Michelle Schroeder-Gardner started her blog, Making Sense of Cents, she must have had no idea it would eventually make $100,000 . . . A MONTH.
Using a blog as thought leadership means that you can build your own platform and brand, but also that you can create an asset that you own. You’re therefore doing double duty, creating your own voice and your business at the same time.
That’s why I tell anyone who is serious about this to take the time to learn to build a WordPress site–it’s not that hard. You’ll be thankful you did.
So what kind of site do you create?
You basically have two options.
1. A website under your name
In this scenario, you’d start a blog at yourname.com. This is a fantastic way to showcase yourself and your talents and to build a powerful brand.
The advantage of this is that every time someone sees the site they see your name. The disadvantage is that the asset is mostly tied to you. It makes it more difficult to bring in other writers or even to sell it if you wanted to.
2. A branded website
The other option is to create a brand, as I’ve done with Roostervane. This may not be a shock, but I’m really glad I chose to do it this way.
The beauty of building a brand is that it becomes an asset. Roostervane is an asset that I own. It’s worth money—seriously. I could sell it (don’t worry, it’s not for sale). I can hire other people to write if I want to, which would be weird on myname.com.
A couple of helpful tools
Bluehost– I started Roostervane on Bluehost. They are so great, and any time I had a problem with the site I jumped on the live chat and had it fixed within minutes. I explain how to start a blog with Bluehost in this post.
Kinsta– Roostervane is currently hosted on Kinsta. It’s a step up from a Bluehost starter plan–faster and stronger–but also more expensive.
I get a commission from Bluehost or Kinsta if you choose to purchase through these links, at no extra cost to you. This helps support the work Roostervane does.
Elementor– The drag and drop page builder (that works with WordPress). It’s fast for SEO and makes beautiful pages–Roostervane is built with it.
3. Pitch Op Eds & Articles
You are more than welcome to pitch op eds and articles to media outlets. These can be a fantastic return for your effort and can catapult you to public visibility, fast.
If you’ve done research in a specific area, don’t discount sharing your knowledge with the world around–there are literally thousands of publications you could choose from.
The great thing about building thought leadership in existing publications is that you don’t need to build a platform or find an audience. You can leverage an existing one and focus on what you do best, sharing ideas.
There are some good guidelines for pitching here at the Muse.
A couple of ideas for places you can pitch
Or this extensive Newspaper List from the OpEd project.
4. Publish Books
Publishing books is a natural outlet for many thought leaders.
But can I tell you a secret? So many people imagine that if they toil over the language in a book like a tortured artist they will produce something that reads like Virginia Woolf or Adam Smith.
Surely this will impress publishers?
Publishing in the 21st Century doesn’t work this way, at least for most of us. Go look at the best-selling non-fiction books from 2019 and you’ll find that the vast majority of them are easy to read, engaging, tell stories, and draw you in.
One more thing. Getting a non-fiction book published is infinitely easier if you have an audience of some sort. If you are a well-known commentator or blogger, it’s not a surprise that you can capture a book contract.
Publishers are businesses after all. They want to know that an author can sell. And if you come with a ready-made audience and a recognizable name, there’s a good chance you will.
There’s a fantastic guide for getting non-fiction books published over here at the New York Times.
5. TV (Media) Appearances
If you’ve done all of the above, you’re likely getting very close to some TV appearances. I’d include all media appearances on this list, including podcasts, radio, and other interviews.
You could build relationships with journalists or producers, reaching out and introducing yourself. This might include joining a database like HARO (Help a Reporter Out) which gives a daily call-out for expert voices in a subject.
There are some good further guidelines for getting on the news here. And there’s a great overview on pitching podcasts here.
If you’re following Dorie Clark’s advice, giving speeches would be somewhere on your list. The good news is, if you started to work on becoming a thought leader in the steps above, you’re likely already in a better position to get speaking gigs.
The more visibility you get, the more speaking offers you’ll get.
However, you don’t have to have a high-profile brand to get speaking opportunities. One of the simplest places to start might be local.
Reach out to local associations to see if they look for speakers. A good place to start here might be the Toastmasters, which exists specifically to develop speakers.
If you’ve got a specific area of knowledge, you could even reach out to local schools to be a guest speaker–from elementary to high schools.
Be creative about finding places to share your knowledge.
7. Flaunt Affiliations
The final step from Clark’s playbook that I’ll talk about here is flaunting affiliations.
For many readers of Roostervane, this is not really that difficult. The reason? Many are already in advanced degrees at universities.
Therefore, you might already be . . .
- A master’s student at the University of Toronto
- A PhD Candidate at Penn State
- A postdoc at Harvard
These are affiliations that mean things to people. Even though you are surrounded by people who are, for example, also postdocs at UCLA, the majority of the population are not. This is worth something out there in the “real world.”
You can also build relationships with companies, think tanks, foundations, or media outlets as you choose, and work them into your bio. I worked at Public Policy Forum, a Canadian think tank that you’ve probably never heard of, but it brought me some street cred in Ottawa.
You can decide how to flaunt affiliations, but it is a good step.
Objection: It’s too hard
Well, yeah. If you look at that big list of things it seems overwhelming.
But most thought leaders do all this over the course of a career, not a month.
And keep in mind that, as you get the snowball rolling, it will grow. By this I mean, your momentum as a thought leader grows exponentially–there’s a good chance the hardest months are the first.
Objection: If it’s this easy, everyone will do it
Okay, the flip side is, “It’s too easy to become a thought leader.”
The idea is simple. But in practice, it’s definitely not easy.
So when people laugh and say, “Oh great, everyone will now be a thought leader,” I say, “Of course not!”
Not everyone will. In fact, almost nobody will.
One well-known blogger recently announced a free blogging course–as a social experiment. He said he would walk starting bloggers through building a blog, checking in monthly with them.
A dream come true for new bloggers, right?
By the end of the first month, over half of the students had dropped off. Only a fraction finished.
It’s easy to have the dream of becoming a thought leader. But to execute? That’s hard.
- You have to produce content and build your brand month after month to see results.
- You have to work tirelessly on yourself and your brand.
- You have to take rejection all the time.
- Oh yeah, and you get to suffer the slings and arrows of trolls who can rip your ideas apart, but never have the guts to stand for anything themselves.
Most people just won’t stick with it that long.
So you can have all the knowledge in the world about what makes a thought leader. Only a tiny fraction of people will get started and an even smaller amount will keep going.
I don’t say this to discourage you. I hope it’s a challenge!
Be the one who starts and keeps going–month after month, year after year! And it will change your life.
Objection: I have nothing to say
I’m guessing you do. Even if you don’t feel like it right now, if you stick with an issue you will learn as you go. And you can grow your knowledge of a subject in time.
If there’s something you love to talk about all the time, or think about all the time, that’s a great area for thought leadership. Bonus points if you have an education in it or experience, as I talked about in the last post.
So just friggen start already . . .
Sometimes I look in the mirror and wonder how the hell I became a careers blogger.
I didn’t train for this. I mean, I did a religious studies PhD, which I do feel qualifies me to talk about stuff like purpose.
But in reality, I just got some jobs. I figured out how it worked. Then I started talking about how to do it on a blog. I was fascinated with how careers happened, and the bigger question of how we find work that gives us purpose.
So let my lack of credentials encourage you to put aside your imposter syndrome. Step out and try to build something.
I’m excited to see where it takes you.