In it to win it: Treating thought leadership as a team sport

Thought leadership can sometimes feel overwhelming when you’ve got to do it all yourself.

But no man is an island, and no one person can build thought leadership entirely by themselves. It’s when you can engage the people around you, and inspire a whole community that thought leadership tends to be truly successful.

Being wordsmiths, we love a good metaphor. So how is thought leadership is a team sport, and how do you get the results you want?

Recruit your team

When you look at the famous thought leaders of the world (think your Simon Sineks or Brené Browns), it can be easy to think that thought leadership is all about the individual.

But thought leadership isn’t a solo sport – it’s a team effort.

When you get your team involved in building the business’s thought leadership, you do four things:

  1. You leverage the incredible expertise that exists within your team;
  2. You strengthen the organisation’s thought leadership by applying multiple perspectives to any idea;
  3. You get your team excited about where you’re going and the impact you can have (which in turn has a big impact on engagement!); and
  4. You demonstrate to the world just how deep the expertise of your team goes.

Getting your people involved helps ensure that your thought leadership will have greater impact both internally and externally – not to mention spread the load off just your shoulders. So as you start to build your organisation’s thought leadership, think about who you can recruit internally to be part of it.

Who are the experts within your team? Who has specialist knowledge that will help strengthen one aspect of your thought leadership?

Who is great to bounce ideas off or will help you take your thinking further?

Who can help communicate or distribute your ideas? This might be your marketing team, your sales people, or somebody totally different.

Your thought leadership team should involve a mix of those who will help you drive the organisation’s thinking forward and those who can help you spread your ideas.

The rules of the game

Like any good sport, there are some rules of engagement that will help your team play a better thought leadership game.

Firstly, make the parameters clear of any brainstorming or thought leadership session clear – what are you trying to achieve? Is it free time to throw all ideas out or are you looking to evolve a specific idea, offering, or solution? Agree on these upfront at the start of any session and then make sure someone holds you to whichever way you choose.

Secondly, welcome every idea. No idea is stupid (unless it’s one you won’t let go of long after you’ve proven it doesn’t work!). In the world of improv or theatresports (it says sports in the title, so we’re going to count it as a sport!), the goal is to never be a dead end. You should always be aiming to keep the scene going. How do you do that? Answer every idea with “Yes, and…”. Bringing that same energy to thought leadership will help you take ideas further and help you avoid the problems that come when you shut down ideas too early.

Thirdly, be clear on who’s responsible for what. Who’s the captain, driving the plays forward and keeping everyone working towards the same vision? Whose role is it to challenge ideas and try and point out all the flaws in them? Who’s going to take them to the finish line, turning the ideas into content that can be shared?

Finally, recognise the team effort. If your team has come up with something collectively, don’t claim it as your individual idea. Attribute it to the business as a whole and celebrate the fact that your team is so awesome. Whether that’s by tagging the whole team in a LinkedIn post, celebrating with cupcakes at a team meeting, or just telling clients about it, look for little ways to celebrate and acknowledge everyone.

Engage the experts

No successful athlete wins big by working alone – they have a coach, a nutritionist, a trainer, people to compete against… the list goes on!

When it comes to thought leadership, you’ll be best positioned to become an authority and move thinking forward if you too, surround yourself with a team of people who can support you and your business to achieve what it needs – think thought leadership coach, ghostwriter or editor, videographer, marketing team, publisher, speaking coach, and more.

Once you’ve identified what ‘winning’ looks like to you, it’s about finding the people both internally and externally you can help you achieve that and reach your best.

Build your fans

Then comes the other group of people who help you play the game – your audience (yes, okay – in sports they would be spectators, but I’m letting my theatre side come in here…).

The best sports teams have diehard fans; people who are willing to come to every game. The best thought leaders have a community of people who are always keen to hear what they have to say; who will engage with their ideas and then spread them further. Just think of the way many businesses will read every McKinsey report as it comes out, then use them as the basis for their own ideas and content.

Jeanine Morris describes thought leadership as “the ability to aggregate followers around ideas to educate, influence and inspire.”

Unlike sports, you can’t really play the game of thought leadership without an audience. Sure, you can do the thinking – develop your ideas, turn them into offerings, try them out on clients. But unless you have an audience with whom to share those ideas, you’ll never be able to take your thinking further or build a reputation as the authority in your field.

As Maurice Dubey from Q4 Associates says, “Thought leadership has allowed us to get exposure out in the marketplace and build our reputation. People have to view thought leadership as a win-win. We all give our thoughts in order to receive a whole lot more back – that’s why we do it.”

We’ve talked about building and keeping your audience in previous blogs – so check those out for more on how to do that.

Thought leadership takes practice

Just like any sport, thought leadership takes practice. In fact, it IS a practice. It’s not something you’re born with and can just be naturally awesome at.

Just like any sport, it requires dedication, consistency, and constant evolution. It means consistently exploring your ideas and turning them into offerings and content that can be shared with the world.

As our friend Bill Sherman from Thought Leadership Leverage says, “We can’t just do a thought leadership activity once and pat ourselves on the back. One white paper, a video, or a webinar simply isn’t enough. Results accrue through repetition.”

We often compare thought leadership to compound interest. At the beginning, it can feel like you’re not having much of an impact. But consistently develop your ideas and share them over a year or two years and you’ll start to see what it can do for your business. And just like compound interest, those results start to snowball. If just 10 more people see, love, and share your content with 10 more people, you’ll end up with 110 people loving your ideas. Continue that trend and you can see how the impact will build up quickly.

Just like any sport, if you’re willing to put in the practice the results will come. So build your team, find your fans, and start practicing. Who knows – you might just win!