This article was first published in the June 2020 Africa edition of
Accounting and Business magazine.

True thought leadership – by which I mean driving a sector’s thinking forward – requires bravery as much as intelligence. That’s because true thought leaders are not only ahead of the curve but also at odds with the status quo.

For every person who is inspired by what a thought leader says, there are often just as many who will see such activity as a vanity project. No surprise, then, that few business leaders are willing to put themselves out there, since doing so risks alienating swathes of potential new clients.

So why do it? Because the most successful thought leaders stand out from the crowd. They become famous in their niche and earn the coveted role of the go-to person in their sector. As they become increasingly sought after for their knowledge and expertise, these brave souls reap the new business rewards, as well as gaining increased exposure through media coverage and speaking opportunities.

Firms that do thought leadership well can even influence the agenda of their market. When clients go looking for new accountancy firms, the thought leader’s views actually skew the criteria that clients use to judge ‘good’.

Marketers attest that thought leadership can yield incredible results. A survey of companies by Orbit Media found that 53% improved their customer retention, 56% increased their press mentions and 62% had more client leads through thought-leadership activity.

But not everyone can be a leader (or there would be no followers), and the bar is extremely high. Leaders aren’t just up against their accountancy peers; today they are up against the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin.

That’s why, in this sector as in so many others, it’s far more common to see leaders – or their ghostwriters – defaulting to purely educational content rather than railing against important issues such as unfair fees and billing, or the sector’s failure to adapt to market change or technology – and posting hard data to support and strengthen their arguments. While there’s nothing wrong with informative content, it has a far higher risk of falling into the ‘been done before’ category and therefore being instantly forgettable.

The other approach is storytelling which, while compelling when done well, often casts the author as the hero when that ought to be the client.

How to do it well

To gain respect and followers, and change minds, strong thought leaders must avoid self-promotion and focus instead on the issues at hand. This is the key difference between influencers and thought leaders: the thought leader’s focus is on effecting true market change rather than achieving fame.

So here are some tips for succeeding at thought leadership:

  • Get comfortable with upsetting just as many people as you impress. Your thought leadership should repel prospects who are not right for your brand (they were never going to be good clients anyway). The upshot is you’ll be better aligned with the clients your thought-leadership activity attracts.
  • Pick an enemy in your market to rail against – not a competitor, but some idea, way of working, market norm or limiting belief you feel strongly about. You have to be able to approach your cause from every angle, time and again, so it must provoke genuine annoyance in you.
  • Read or watch everything you can find on your topic to avoid creating content that’s been done before, and so you can understand at which point you’re entering the conversation. Going over well-trodden ground is at best a waste of time, at worst a demonstration of a glaring lack of research.
  • Decide on a clear, single-minded vision of how the market should be that is significantly different from how it is now and that, in some way, your firm can help clients head towards (you don’t have to get them the whole way there).
  • Write a manifesto for your vision, even if it is only for internal use –then publish it anyway.
  • Create a content plan for the next year that covers different facets of your thinking. Be prepared to ditch the plan for a new one if there’s a surprising new development.
  •  Don’t be afraid to invest in primary research for your cause.
  • If you are using storytelling to bring your cause to life, make the client (and not the author) the hero. Consider co-authoring a thought leadership piece with a client.

Jason Ball is founder of B2B marketing specialist Considered Content and managed content service Prolific.