What Most CEOs Get Wrong About Becoming “Thought Leaders”

The term may make you grit your teeth, but “thought leadership” can be more than just another bland marketing strategy.

What Most CEOs Get Wrong About Becoming “Thought Leaders”
[Photo: © Túrelio (via Wikimedia-Commons), 2002]

CEOs and their marketing teams have long taken “thought leadership” to mean penning blog posts and taking speaking gigs–and so it does. But there’s a much wider range of options out there, and the narrow few that most business leaders tend to tackle can make for diminishing returns and a whole lot of similar-looking content.


What’s more, most CEOs may not realize that being a “thought leader” is more than just a marketing strategy–or can be, anyhow. Ideally, the content you generate isn’t just a way of promoting your ideas, your business, and your work. It can actually change the nature of your industry. That requires setting a higher bar, but when you do, the content you produce as a thought leader can help raise the value of ideas and the spread of information in general within your space.

In other words, if you’re really an effective thought leader, you aren’t just slavishly self-promoting–just as your business aims to do with its products, you’re helping your audience solve a problem or fill a need with your ideas. So while “thought leadership” has become something of a dirty term, that’s largely because so many “thought leaders” are frankly doing it wrong.

1. They Think It’s Merely Marketing

The problem is that most CEOs still don’t realize the incredible opportunity that they may be missing out on. Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes recently pointed out for Fast Company, drawing on a survey, that over 60% of CEOs didn’t even have a social media presence. Some thought it would be distracting or could even hurt them and their companies. But as Holmes rightly argued, social media is where thought leadership needs to start–for CEOs especially.

I’ve long had a different perspective myself, largely thanks to the way I began my career. I started out in Internet marketing by writing my own blog and building my personal brand all before launching my first startup.

Looking back, that background has helped me capitalize on the benefits of thought leadership (and web content in general) faster than many other entrepreneurs. It’s also had material business advantages. Through my blog, I was able to build rapport and trust with my customers and business partners and helped boost their confidence in my abilities–and, subsequently, in what my company could offer.

But once a CEO realizes they can create a competitive advantage and position their companies as innovative and audience-focused, thought leadership starts looking a lot more valuable. It can quickly become a virtuous circle, too: The more effort you put into getting your ideas out there, and the more they catch on, the greater the likelihood that people will share your content more and more widely. I believe that it was the confidence in my voice from my personal blog right from the get-go that’s helped propel my current company forward ever since.


2. They Don’t Take Social Media Seriously

Thought-leader content often does best on social media–especially when a CEO opts to take center stage rather than leave it to her team. I find that our customers want and expect to hear from me. So you have to actually put out your thoughts–not bland, group-workshopped ideas–and respond meaningfully to others when they need help.

The underlying premise of “thought leadership” itself, after all, is that the CEO got to where they are by collecting knowledge and skills, and developing the aptitude to oversee a company. That’s why most people don’t really want to hear from a marketing manager about what’s happening in the company.

The CEO offers a human face that others are more likely to trust–and social media is the idea place to do that. As Holmes also pointed out in his article, when CEOs post on social media, nearly 70% of senior professionals, according to Weber Shandwick and KRC Research, say that it makes their companies seem more attractive places to work.

3. There’s No Underlying Strategy

Here’s where marketing does play a role. While CEOs need to take the reins and establish an authentic voice on social media and elsewhere, companies still need to devote a portion of their overall content marketing plan on their leaders’ messaging. They shouldn’t be identical–readers can tell in an instant when they’re being fed canned messages–but they should inform one another.

In my case, I continue to regularly generate lists of story headlines that I consider relevant or that reflect the feedback I’ve received on social media. After all, it’s about having a productive (not superficial) conversation with your customers, partners, and peers. My thought-leader content also tries to grapple meaningfully with the sorts of questions and ideas that crop when when I meet with clients and other industry leaders.

CEOs don’t have to participate on every platform, though. Some may be more conducive to a positive response than others, and it’s important to figure out which ones give you the most consistent engagement, then double down on those. For me, blogging has continued to be my go-to channel, but I also regularly use Twitter and Facebook to further disseminate my content and gather responses. Using more than one channel also helps reach different people all while keeping your message consistent.


Lastly, take the time to measure the results of your content just as you would an ordinary marketing campaign. That can help confirm why it’s so important for you to become a well-known expert in your field–and keep up your momentum.

Done right, thought leadership should boost brand awareness, traffic, and sales to your website (depending, of course, on the type of business you run). I tie every post I write and tweet I put out to realistic metrics then track how I’m doing over time.

You’ll want to make tweaks as you go–in fact, you’ll need to. But with a little diligence, “thought leadership” doesn’t need to be another craven, overdone marketing gambit. It can help show you where you as a leader have the most impact and where your business has the most room to grow. It’s your job to know that, isn’t it?

John Rampton is an entrepreneur, investor, online marketing guru, and startup enthusiast. He is the founder of the online payments company Due. Follow John on Twitter at @johnrampton.