To become a thought leader and the go-to person in your industry or niche is a great goal to pursue because it means you have helped a lot of people along the way.
But how do you achieve this reputation?
While the process will take time and effort, to become a thought leader is quite simple.
In this post, we’ll focus on the three steps you need to take to become a thought leader. And these same three steps apply regardless of whether you’re starting out, a seasoned pro or working in an organisation.
Plus, I’ll share several examples of how to do this for when you’re starting out, getting good and becoming a pro. And the essential thing you need to commit to if you want to become a world-class thought leader.
Thought Leadership Strategy
In a previous post on Thought Leadership Strategy, I shared the three things that every thought leader needs to build. Here’s a quick summary.
The goal of any business is to build capital.
Capital is any resource that helps us build wealth.
For a thought leadership business, there are three main types of capital to build:
- Money or financial capital
- Ideas or intellectual capital
- People or social capital
The three steps to become a Thought Leader
These translate into three general goals for any thought leadership business.
- A Body of Work – This represents your ideas or intellectual capital that you build over time. For instance, this might be a series of blog posts, client projects or presentations that you have given.
- A Community – The following you build represents your people or social capital. This might be a group of clients, people who read your newsletter or subscribers to your membership site.
- Cash Flow – This represents the money or intellectual capital that results from sharing your thoughts with paying customers. You may prefer profit or income depending upon what you focus on in your business.
To become a thought leader, it follows that you need a process for building these three things:
- Creating ideas to build a body of work
- Sharing your ideas to create a following or community
- Selling your ideas to earn income, profit or cash flow.
While the process is simple and straightforward the art here is to know what to create, for who and the best way to sell it. Let’s explore this a little further
The Three-Step Simple Process
1 Create an Idea
The obvious first step to become a thought leader is to have thoughts.
Three of the best ways to do this are to learn from someone else, teach what you know and to reflect on your experience. These all require you to stop and think about what is going on around you.
All useful ideas have one thing in common: they show a better way. Think of a situation that you consider is less than ideal or even plain wrong and propose a better alternative.
You can write down your idea in words, as a diagram, as a story or as a collection of statistics that point to the problem and the solution.
2 Share your idea
The second step to become a thought leader is to share your idea with someone else. Depending upon your personality, this might be the fun part or the scary part for you.
If you work in an organisation, this might be as simple as offering a suggestion in your next meeting about what to do next. That’s an idea that might be useful.
Some other alternatives are to:
- Write a proposal for a training course and discuss it with a potential client.
- Publish a blog post online.
- Share a framework or concept as part of a presentation.
If you are starting out the best way to share your idea is to pick one person, ideally, someone you know who will be supportive and share with them one-on-one. This could be over coffee or on zoom.
Ideally, you want to be able to see their face to see what they think of your idea. While words are important feedback you also want to see their emotional response to your idea.
If you have an existing audience, you can post your idea online or share it as part of your other activities.
Remember it doesn’t have to be a formal sharing process. You might just say over coffee, ‘I was thinking about this… What do you think?’
3 Sell your idea
The third step to become a thought leader is to be able to sell your ideas.
This is crucial because ultimately a thought leader earns money from their ideas. Plus, you need this to be able to sustain your business.
Sharing your ideas with people for feedback and having them pay you money for them are two very different things. I might like your idea but don’t want it, don’t need it or don’t want to pay for it. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea, it just means for me, right here and right now, I don’t want to give you money in exchange for your idea. Someone else might give you money. That’s why you have to share your idea with different people to gain a more accurate response of its value.
To create ideas that sell you need to present them in a way that other people can buy them.
For instance, I have a great recipe for Mexican chilli beans. If I verbally gave this recipe to you then you might not remember all the steps. Therefore, it might be better if I wrote it down for you. Even better, if I put it on a web page you could look it up on your phone at the supermarket so you could buy all the right ingredients. Or if I shared it as a video, you could follow the precise instructions on your iPad as you cooked the meal.
The selling of your idea will require that you refine it and package it in ways that people want to pay you for it.
Rinse and Repeat
It follows that this is not a one-off process. When you are starting out, you will create ideas, share them, and then you will need to redesign them to be able to sell them. As you gain more experience, you’ll start to know what works, what people want and what they are willing to pay for.
Regardless of where you are at on your thought leadership journey, these three steps will need to be repeated.
Three Phases to Become a Thought Leader
Given you are reading this, I think I can safely presume that you want to become a thought leader (or a better one). It follows that you will currently be in one of the three places. You’ll either be:
- Getting started
- Getting good
- Turning pro
Here is my big tip for what to focus on during each phase.
1 Getting Started
If you are getting started on your thought leadership journey you need to find out what works for you.
From my experience in coaching people to become thought leaders, everyone does it a little differently. I can tell you exactly what I do, but it is unlikely to work for you because my experience and way of working will be different to you. For instance, I originally trained as an architect so I’m fluent in design thinking. I tend to draw things and work on high-level concepts. Plus, I’m comfortable in creating and sharing ideas because that was what I was trained in.
Your experience and your strengths will be different to mine. To find out what works for you, take on some tests and experiment to discover what works.
My tip for getting started is to give yourself a rating on how effective you are at the three elements of:
- Creating Ideas
- Sharing Ideas
- Selling Ideas
In each of the three areas, score yourself a one if you don’t have experience or skills or feel comfortable doing that. And score yourself a five if you think you have some fluency. This will tell you what you need to focus on.
Next, you need to go out and do it. Like learning to ride a bicycle, you can’t become a thought leader just by reading about it.
2 Getting Good
If you are starting to gain some traction around the three areas of creating, sharing and selling your ideas, then look for ways to grow your capability.
There are eight ways to do this:
- Create more ideas
- Create bigger and better ideas
- Share with more people
- Share more often
- Sell more ideas
- Sell to more people
- Sell for more money
- Sell the same idea in different ways
3 Turning Pro
If you are consistently earning good money from your ideas and you want to turn yourself into a pro, then I suggest you consider mastery. Mastery is all about gaining superior skills.
I would particularly focus on your ability to create ideas and deliver them in powerful ways. While selling your ideas is always going to be important, when you’re truly brilliant at what you do it becomes less of an issue.
The one thing all thought leaders need
You might have noticed that the three stages of becoming a thought leader – getting started, getting good and turning pro – all have something in common. And you’re right – they do.
To a certain extent, they all say the same thing with a slightly different emphasis. They are all different parts of the learning process. As a beginner, you want to test and experiment to find out what works. When you are getting good, you want to grow by getting better at all parts of the process. Then when you are turning pro, you want to pursue mastery and an elite level of skill.
And all of this should be directed to add more value to your community of followers, clients and subscribers.
Summary – How to become a thought leader
Now for a quick summary of what we’ve covered.
To become a thought leader, you need to follow a simple three-part process:
- Create ideas
- Share ideas
- Sell ideas
Your career as a thought leader, including how much money you make and how much influence you have, will depend upon your ability to build your skills in these three areas.
How to become a world-class thought leader
Anders Ericsson (Wikipedia) was a world-class expert on developing skills and expertise.
In his brilliant book, Peak – co-written with Robert Pool (Amazon) – Ericsson points to the way most people learn and practice.
He suggests the usual path to learning anything is to practice until you are good enough to play. For example, if you were learning to play golf you might practice and maybe take a few lessons until you are confident enough to play a round of golf with your friends without embarrassing yourself.
Then you tend to cut or stop practising and spend more time playing rounds of golf. This is when your level flattens out. You don’t improve anymore.
You don’t achieve elite performance because you have stopped looking for ways to improve.
If you want to improve the level at which you want to play – at anything from chess to tennis or in being a thought leader – then keep experimenting and finding ways to improve.
One of the great myths of performance is to think there is a ceiling as to how good you can be. If you want to be a world-class thought leader, then find ways to keep learning and growing.
Mastery is not an end goal, it’s an approach to lifelong learning.
More on how to become a thought leader
If you want more on how to become a thought leader consider these other posts:
- Thought Leadership Strategy
- How to be successful as an expert in business
- What is Thought Leadership?