Establish Your Thought Leadership Role as a CEO


Being a thought leader doesn’t happen because you declare yourself one; it happens because your audience, industry and the world at large say you are. The process of getting there requires forethought, planning and execution. Start by considering the following.

What role will thought leadership play?
A big part of developing an executive or CEO brand is deciding what role thought leadership should play in your brand. Start by considering the impact a thought leadership strategy could have on you and your organization. How can your thought leadership goals align with your larger organizational goals?

Once you’ve made a case in your own mind, it’s important to engage the support of senior management or your board of directors. Since there are always costs, time and effort (PR, branding, marketing, consulting etc.) involved in pursuing a CEO thought leadership strategy, it’s a smart move to get buy-in before you start down the path.

What flavor is your thought leadership?
The world of executive and CEO branding overflows with self-proclaimed experts and gurus — many of whom have not taken the time or rigorous exploration to define their thought leadership brand.

In general, CEO thought leadership comes in three varieties:

1. Celebrity. These people are best known for their personality. Examples include Richard Branson, Tony Robbins, Oprah Winfrey.
2. Cerebral. These people are best known for their thinking and ideas. Examples include Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde.
3. Consequential. These people are best known for the results they produce. Examples include Steve Jobs, Sheryl Sandberg, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Where do you think you fit in? Knowing which variety of thought leadership you want to be known for will affect the tactical strategy you put in place.

“The CEO Reputation Premium” report from Weber Shandwick and KRC Research asked more than 1,700 executives which external activities they felt were important for CEOs to participate in. The top eight were:

  1. Speak at industry or trade conferences. Being invited to speak at conferences as either a keynote, breakout session or panel partic­ipant is a solid step in creating yourself as a thought leader in your space.
  2. Be accessible to the news media. The more reporters get to know you, the more they’ll call on you when they need sources to interview. In addition, a proactive PR campaign can get you on the media’s radar. Be it radio, television, magazines, newspapers, online outlets or bloggers, the more known you are, the stronger your thought leadership position becomes. One strategy for gaining media coverage is to apply for (and receive) awards. There is an endless number of awards available on a local and national level, within your industry and the general business world at large.
  3. Be visible on the company website. Many CEOs are in hiding when it comes to their online presence. Clear visibility on your company website, a personal website, LinkedIn, About Me profile or other authoritative landing sites are necessary to give people a place to discover what your brand is all about.
  4. Share new insights and trends with the public. There are countless ways you can share your knowledge writ large. Discuss the content marketing strategies that would work best for you with your marketing department to determine which will provide excellent channels for your thought leadership.
  5. Be active in the local community. A big part of thought leadership is reaching out beyond your own business to support your local community. Local groups, causes and philanthropic activities all contribute to your executive and personal brand. One caution: I advise my clients to never pick a cause solely because they think it will help them build their brand. Sticking with causes that you feel authentically passionate about will benefit your brand but, more importantly, will give you a true sense of satisfaction and contribution that will be seen and felt.
  6. Be visible on the corporate video channel. Two words here: “media training.” Before you jump headlong into any video (for your corporate website or CNBC), be sure you have your sound bites down and a level of comfort and competency that represents your CEO brand.
  7. Hold positions of leadership outside the company. In the same way that supporting local causes brings you outside the world of your own business, teaching, sitting on boards and other leadership positions will help establish your seniority in your field.
  8. Publicly take positions on issues that affect society at large. At perhaps the highest level of thought leadership, these are the people who have transcended talking about themselves, their brand and even their businesses to become go-to pundits for the big-picture issues impacting our world.


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