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How To Become a Thought Leader in a Post-COVID World

Hint: The answer could be in your next email or meeting at work.

Woman on laptop gazes out window
[Stocksy United/File]

Jesse Sostrin is Salesforce’s Global Head of Executive Development, which means he spends a lot of time thinking about the future of leadership. He is the author of five books, including The Manager’s Dilemma, Beyond the Job Description, and Re-making Communication at Work, all of which helped to establish his place in the next generation of influential thinkers challenging conventional ideas about management, leadership, and success on the job. Here on The 360 Blog, Sostrin’s column offers periodic insights on the challenges of leading people, teams, and organizations into “the next normal.”

In this virtual-first world – where our two-dimensional tiles and mute buttons level the playing field in every interaction – it is even more challenging to be recognized for subtle insights, big impact, and ahead-of-the-curve ideas. Your flashy zoom background and home studio lighting can help, but this is about substance over style. To quickly boost your impact on colleagues, clients, and stakeholders, become a thought leader in your field.

Of course, this prescription is easier said than done. The pressure to translate one’s professional experiences into valuable “thought leadership” can give even the most capable leader serious indigestion. Where do I start? I can’t do this, I’m not a writer or a public speaker! Should I just hire an agency?

Questions, concerns, and competing options like these can feel overwhelming, but they’re resolvable. Whether you’re an executive in search of greater influence, or an aspiring leader looking to increase your impact, following these strategies can help you find your voice and take the first step toward becoming your own best version of a thought leader.

Define thought leadership for yourself

It’s not about books, articles, and podcasts, nor is it about charisma, microphones, and stages. Being a thought leader is about sharing your unique way of thinking with others. Sure, the conventional picture of a thought leader conjures images of professional speakers, authors, and commentators, but those are just roles that distract from the larger point: You’re a thought leader when you start hearing your ideas and words come back to you in the voice of others.

When the force of who you are and how you think starts to shift the hearts and minds of others, you’re doing thought leadership. What’s important is that you define the scale and scope of your own aspirations for yourself so that you don’t create an unfair comparison that erodes your confidence and momentum.

Once you’ve done this exploration, tighten it up by putting it into a niche statement. This is like a flag you put in the ground to keep you focused on just the kind of thought leadership that’s important to you:

  • I support … (describe your target of influence)
  • Who feel … (describe their pain point)
  • To … (describe the change they will experience)
  • So they can … (describe the payoff or benefit

For example: I support new sales managers, who feel information overload, to tell simpler and more powerful stories so they can connect more deeply with their customers

If you’ve done an exercise like this before to strengthen your personal brand, perhaps give it a refresh for the post-COVID realities you’re navigating. It’s a good idea to revisit this quarterly to keep it – and yourself – current.

Man gives a presentation to colleagues
[Stocksy United/File]

Think spotlighting, not spotlight

Some of the best thought leaders are skilled at spotlighting the subtle element that others missed. They don’t necessarily change the entire paradigm or offer out-of-this-world insights. In some cases their observations are so obvious you may wonder why you didn’t think of it. And that’s the genius: Thought leaders find a way to illuminate a specific detail or subtle nuance in a way that allows others to see something bigger or learn something new – even if that insight was sitting in plain sight.

To improve as a spotlighter, study your work with a counterintuitive lens and see if you can uncover a few of the missing insights others have overlooked. One leader sharpened her skill in this area by reviewing past sales presentations with a new mindset. Instead of taking the first-person view of the seller (exuding confidence and planning to win the work), she imagined she was the staunchest objector determined to pinpoint hidden flaws in the pitch.

This perspective-taking exposed some overlooked areas that she was able to address in future presentations. But the real impact showed up when she converted her findings into thought leadership. She built a short but entertaining presentation titled, “Don’t Step Into the Same Hole We Did,” and shared it with some of the other teams in her region. Not only was she able to build some new relationships, but she was seen as an accessible, solution-focused leader in the group. It was her spotlighting that led to the spotlight, not the other way around.

Focus on difference with distinction

Your industry may be a crowded field, but there is only one you. And since your thought leadership is ultimately just a reflection of your thinking, there is absolutely room for one more. But without clear and incisive thinking, there can be no sharp expression, and in the end, no impact. If you aspire to be a thought leader, start by increasing the clarity and precision of your thinking.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to intentionally consider and reflect on your own thoughts about the day-to-day issues and ideas that fill your to-do list, but don’t always claim your focus. Instead of just checking the box and moving through your task list, pause on a few items and go deeper. What do I really think about that? How would I express that perspective to others? Once you refine your thoughts, consider what’s unique and different and try to communicate that. Don’t just say it to be different; say it because it reflects how you think differently about the topic.

For example, one leader reported that the topic of delegation surfaced, yet again, at his weekly leadership meeting. Instead of tuning out, he decided to practice distinctive thinking. As he listened, he realized that the majority of comments reflected a focus on delegation as a “compliance” issue. Managers didn’t want to police the progress of their subordinates, but they felt like they needed to, and that left them only halfway invested in the idea of delegation. So instead of adding to the same debate, he shared his perspective on “delegation as a tool for developing others.” This positive take shifted the tone of the conversation and allowed people to change their approach. His thought leadership in the meeting was consequential, even though the stakes were not high and the venue wasn’t public.

Business people attend a presentation
[Stocksy United/File]

Find your ideal channel

Your thought leadership can take many forms and it can be shared in many different places. Instead of unrealistically expecting yourself to fill them all, give yourself permission to focus on one or two that work for you.

For example, if you’re a high-touch relationship builder, then you may be more successful inviting people to a virtual breakfast and using a personal conversation to make your mark. If so, then embrace the vivid expression of your thoughts and ideas via informal thought leadership, but don’t beat yourself up about not writing a blog post or a white paper. 

Or, if you really want your thought leadership to land you a TED talk, then you’ll need to take those formal steps to prepare for that highly-competitive endeavor. But if you’re simply looking to have more consistent influence on your team by sharing your ideas more confidently and consistently, then it’s a waste of energy to lament not being on the TED stage. Conversely, if data analytics or the written word is your powerful channel, then spend time honing your craft and use every email, memo, and data visualization as a vehicle for your powerful messages to deliver their impact. 

The point is that there are innumerable channels, and it’s okay to focus on just a few that give you the personal platform to shine. To define your ideal subject area of expertise, explore these questions:

  • What’s your playing field?
  • What do you care about in this arena?
  • What kind of impact do you want to make?
  • Which of your talents and resources can you leverage?

In this post-COVID world, virtually every channel remains wide open for your thought leadership. And the options are numerous; emails, group meetings, 1:1 interactions, virtual events and presentations, blogs, guest posts, quotes and mentions in media, LinkedIn articles and posts, comments on social media, slides (SlideShare), whitepapers, podcasts, infographics, vlogs and video content, formal research, and many more. Instead of accepting the pressure to have “one of each with your name on it,” pick a starting place and build from there.

Becoming a thought leader isn’t a superficial vanity play. Promotions are at stake, business can be won or lost, and reputational value can all hinge on whether you’re perceived as an influencer in your field. You already have expertise, credibility, and passion, so you’ve done the hard part. The next step is to translate those elements into a distinctive voice others want to listen to.


Jesse Sostrin, Ph.D. is the Global Head of Executive Development at Salesforce and the author of several books, including “The Manager’s Dilemma” and “Beyond the Job Description.” He writes and speaks at the intersection of individual and organizational success.

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