Last week in Part One of this series Think Write Grow author Grant Butler defined thought leadership, talked about making thought leadership happen in practice and confirmed that just about anyone can become a thought leader. In this Part Two interview we cover thought leadership and personal brand, building trust as a benefit of thought leadership, and finally, how to unearth your goldmine of thought leadership assets.

Thought Leadership can be an important component of personal brand, principally because it builds trust among those who determine the strength of your personal brand. However thought leadership assets often lie hidden in a firm - they need to be unearthed to realize their enormous benefit.

SL: What are the similarities and/or differences between thought leadership and building a personal brand?

GB: Developing, publishing and promoting thought leadership can be a really important part of building a personal brand:

  • The key thing for professionals to consider is whether they want to be seen as someone who has innovative and market-leading ideas, and in turn whether that is going to be a key element of their personal brand profile.
  • If they do want to be known as a thought leader then they should actively share their ideas and also consider the terminology they use to describe themselves in the descriptions they use on websites, in conference flyers and elsewhere. Would they describe themselves as an ‘expert’, a ‘leading expert’, a ‘thought leader’, a ‘leading thinker’ on their topic and so on? Once their positioning is clear, they should reinforce it through their actions and their words.

SL:  In the case of building a personal brand Marty Neumeier, author of “The Brand Gap” would probably say that your personal brand is what others think, not what you think it is. Is the same true of someone being regarded as a true thought leader?

GB:  This is quite a tricky issue. For the most part, I’d say that Neumeier is right and that being a thought leader won’t become part of someone’s personal brand until their leadership position is validated and reinforced by feedback from others. From a practical point of view, this is certainly the way things work – magazine editors and conference organisers are far more likely to publish or seek out people who are already widely recognised as leaders in a field.

But I would hasten to add that there is a rich tradition of people who turned out to be leading thinkers long before everyone around them recognised their genius. Galileo and Darwin spring to mind, so my advice is to focus on being right and communicating as well as you can. If you do that, then being recognised should eventually look after itself.

SL:  In TWG you indicate that a stand-out benefit of thought leadership writing is that it builds trust. What I understood from that is that like brands that they trust this would mean people would buy now and ask questions later – so in this way thought leadership can act as a type of independent third party trusted adviser recommending a firm or adviser. This seems to me to be one of the most powerful benefits of thought leadership materials and in the past has been where the benefit has become evident. Your thoughts?

GB:   I think it is true that the more potential clients have become familiar with a person’s expertise and thinking by reading their articles and books or seeing them speak, the fewer questions they will have before signing them up for work.

  • The ideal is to be known as the ‘it’ person in your field, so that your credentials are so well established that clients see you as a valuable and unique commodity that they want to work with – almost no matter what the cost.
  • There are certainly a range of top barristers and corporate lawyers in Australia, and internationally, that fit into that category and they can charge a steep premium. Of course, their value is likely to have been created through their work and past successes but it will usually have been enhanced through complementary thought leadership activities.
  • A more general example might be Edward de Bono. Most firms would pay tens of thousands of dollars for him to address their partners and clients purely on the basis of his written work and reputation. He has become a trusted intellectual and can easily sell his time to people who haven’t met him.

SL:  I suspect each professional service firm, regardless of size, has a potential goldmine of thought leadership “assets” within it, but is probably unaware of many of them. How do such firms get from where they are – lack of appreciation, possible lack of tools to do something about it, to taking full advantage of their thought leadership assets? How best do they incite action and implementation?

GB:  A really valuable first step is to complete an audit of all of the firm’s thought leadership assets. You can tackle this in two ways:

  1. first start by identifying what you seem to have, such as articles, blog posts, speeches and presentations. But also map out your key focus areas and sales processes and ask what thought leadership collateral you have to support each area. For instance, if a firm says it has deep expertise in the resources sector, does it have any articles, white papers or books to back up its claim? Once you know your baseline then decide what material would be most useful and valuable and fill in the blanks, either by dusting off existing material or commissioning new work.
  2. The other big step is to focus on who you employ and what they know. The best thought leaders – the people with the most innovative ideas – will often reside below the level of the firm leadership team. Almost by definition, they will be the people most closely engaged in the detail of complex client work, especially in cutting-edge or highly debated fields, or topics that are of wide significance.
I hope you have enjoyed reading author Grant Butler’s insights, a thought leader talking about thought leadership – the final in this series will be posted next week. Grant can be contacted on