how to become a thought leader in your field

Becoming a thought leader in your field – someone whose ideas influence others – comes with huge professional benefits, both in and outside your company: It will increase your visibility and standing with the people with the most influence in your company and your field, increase your authority and credibility, and probably position you and your team to get more resources and attention. It will also increase your access to other thought leaders, which can improve your own work.

You might be thinking, “yeah, that sounds great but it can’t happen overnight” — and that’s true, but with effort in the right places, it might happen faster than you think. At Intuit QuickBase’s Fast Track blog today, I talk about four steps that will get you moving down that path. You can read it here.

{ 108 comments… read them below }

  1. bob

    Oh please no “thought leader” talk! Sorry but that is the most self-indulgent cliche in business.

    What happened to being an expert in your field?

    1. Not me

      +1

      While we’re at it, what happened to “later” and “from now on” and “in the future” and why have they been replaced with “going forward?”

      1. 42

        Off-topic, I know…but…but…

        Why aren’t room, “ROOMS” anymore? Now they’re “spaces”. And an outside decorative fountain isn’t a fountain, it’s a WATER FEATURE.

        My New Year’s Resolution is going to be to refer to my stove as a Cooking Feature. Inside my food-preparation space.

        1. Not me

          “Water feature.” That’s a new one. Wow.

          I don’t like “space” but I’ve caught myself using it a few times. :'(

        2. Not Myself

          Former landscape design student – water feature is the all encompassing term that includes fountains, ponds, bubblers, streams, etc. It’s like calling a chair ‘furniture’.

          1. Turtle Candle

            Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. A garden water feature could be a tiny fountain bubbling over a few rocks, a bigger fountain, a small pond, a larger pond with koi, a flowing stream, a whole network of ponds and streams… it’s not a fancy word for fountain, it’s a collective word. And while, yeah, if I had a koi pond (I wish! I’ve always wanted a backyard pond) I’d probably just call it a koi pond, if I’m looking for general information about how to get water flowing in my backyard I’m glad that I can search for “water feature” rather than “koi pond” OR “backyard pond” OR “backyard fountain” OR “bubbler fountain” OR “backyard stream” OR “lawn pond” OR “garden pond” OR “garden fountain” OR etc. etc. etc.

            Terms of art aren’t necessarily buzzwords.

        3. FD

          Rooms implies it’s walled in, and open concept is a big thing right now. You may have one large room, but you’ll have a living space and a kitchen space.

      1. videogame Princess (used to be skryimFanatic, but got bored)

        Alright, I guess I see what you mean. I am a bit on guard about things I would see as “buzzwords” because from what I’ve read they cause a lot of trouble to people who really know what they’re doing. But I guess you’re definition of a thought leader includes those who can get past the cloud of buzzwords and actually explain what they do to people who don’t get it. The

      2. Cassie-O

        I agree. Ideally, all thought leaders would be experts. But clearly only a small percentage of experts are thought leaders.

        I think it’s a useful term, but no one should be specifically advertising themselves as a “thought leader”. That just sounds conceited. There is value in learning to speak up in your field in an intelligent and useful way. Who cares if someone then uses a buzzword to describe you…that can’t be prevented.

    2. videogame Princess (used to be skryimFanatic, but got bored)

      Thank you! The term “thought leader” is a buzzword, and like most, it has no meaning at all. Buzzwords cause a lot of issues, especially to people who are actually experts. They both obscure meaning and make someone seem more knowledgeable than he is. For instance, take “hadoop.” Leaders in a company love “hadoop” and constantly want to use it for their “big data” when in fact it is a very limiting programming language used for very, very large data (5+ TB of *unstructured* data). But if programmers attempt to use a practical programming language to solve a company’s problems, that company’s leader will be disappointed. Why? Because their data is BIG and they need to use HADOOP to solve their issues. I suppose Allison is trying to use “thought leader” as a way to actually get people to take this seriously, given that being a thought leader is more desirable than being an expert, but companies should try to cut down on buzzwords and try to actually listen to and convey meaning instead.

        1. JL

          It took me ages to convince my colleagues that I found it more respectful to be called ‘Social Media Manager’ than ‘guru’, ‘ninja’, ‘warrior’ or whatever infantilising name was floating around the industry that day.

      1. Tanith

        So what’s the right term if “thought leader” and “field influencer” are too buzzy? How about “vocal expert”? “Expert/leader”? Just “leader”?

        I don’t just want to be an expert in X topic, I want to be a “________”.

        1. videogame Princess

          If thought leader has to do with self-advertising, then that advertising should do the work for you. Then again, I’m still not sure what it means to be one.

        2. Mike C.

          The right term is to be good at what you do and be recognized for it. The rest is just self aggrandizement and braggadocio.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            I agree it would be obnoxious to go around calling yourself a thought leader. But I find it a useful shorthand term for what I wanted to communicate with the article.

            1. AcidMeFlux

              Also, it’s not necessarily a term that would end up on a business card (as social media ninja shouldn’t either) but it is evocative and has its place in some kinds of communication. Hey guys, I’m an English teacher and I have my wince-reactor set to super high these days for buzzwords; but let’s not be grumpy old farts either. Language does and will change. It’s up to us use it intelligently.

          2. Honeybee

            Mmm, I don’t know about that. There’s a difference between being recognized for good work and being a leader in an area. Besides, sometimes you have to put yourself out there for recognition – you have to bring your work and its excellence to the attention of those who can reward you for it.

      2. Lia

        I ran across someone whose LinkedIn Job Title is “Nerd” (this person runs their own consulting company). Um, okay.

        1. Ad Astra

          I think I’ve seen something like “fun engineer” before. I forget what he actually did, but it was a professional job in an office and stuff. Not the Chuck E. Cheese equivalent of Subway’s “sandwich artist.”

        2. AnonInSC

          I had someone I didn’t know ask to connect on LinkedIn. They were a “mentorist.” No. I generally don’t accept folks I have absolutely no connection with, and I certainly won’t connect with someone I suspect wants me to pay then to mentor me. I have/had had great mentors already who actually know my field and state!

    3. AcidMeFlux

      Because “expert” sounds like “I’m the beginning and end of it all”. “Thought leader” sound more like someone who’s interesting in leading but also participating.

  2. Ed

    I liked the article. I’ve been doing most of those things for the last year and it’s been working. Good advice Alison!

    1. Grand Bargain

      Can you say more? I’d love to hear a little of what you are doing and the context in which you operate.

  3. TFS

    Also, it’s difficult to talk about anything anymore without using buzzwords (especially if you want people to find/read it). I think the advice is great.

  4. Mike C.

    I’m having a real difficult time taking this term seriously – too many people who use this are absolutely clueless and are just trying to make money off of a short term fad.

    1. Sharon

      I agree with you. And also people who are really good BS’ers who talk a good game but don’t really say anything of substance. Get them in a room with a genuine expert on the topic and watch the eyeballs roll.

  5. Bend & Snap

    Sorry, this is not a buzzword. It’s a measurable effort that goes beyond being an expert. It’s about being a recognized authority with a voice, a platform, and awareness of expertise aligned with critical topics (Alison, for example, is a thought leader).

    People can call it BS all they want but it does have substance and meaning with people who speak that language.

      1. Bend & Snap

        It’s not even new–I’m in PR and have been using/hearing this term for more than a decade. I think there’s a broader awareness of the term due to social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn; now people can do their thought leader thing without writing a book or hiring a PR agency.

        1. Mike C.

          It doesn’t matter how old the term is, it’s still completely ridiculous. It evokes the image of some smarmy Silicon Valley ‘trep on stage giving a terrible TED talk to an insular crowd who cannot imagine anyone having lives different from their own.

          1. Bend & Snap

            What are you basing that analogy on? I fail to see how having, and sharing, original, often predictive thoughts on an area of expertise and giving that practice a name is “completely ridiculous.”

            1. Mike C.

              Because so many people who claim to be “thought leaders” are actually full of shit. I see this in the business world, I see this in advocacy, I see this all over the place on a regular basis.

              How can you be a PR professional and have never come across this before?

              1. Bend & Snap

                I’ve come across your type of rudeness before, definitely.

                Again, it’s a widely accepted term, and people don’t get recognized as thought leaders without substance. Scoff all you like, but people who are good at this, whatever you want to call it, are the people who help lead their companies to successful exit strategies, who build a following for a new idea, way of thinking, or business model, who can polarize a segment of business by contributing ideas and perspective.

                Of course not everyone’s good at it, but the cream rises to the top. You have to earn the thought leader label with the people you’re speaking to, you can’t just declare yourself a thought leader and be credible.

                1. SilverRadicand

                  Agreed. There is a huge difference between being considered a thought leader by those in your field and simply declaring that you are a thought leader (which is what is sounds like you are referring to, Mike C).

                  Like any kind of leadership, the truth of whether you actually are a thought leader comes from how others view you, rather than what you claim.

              2. steve g

                Mmmm I’m in energy and there are actual thought leaders, people who can speak at length at the drop of a hat about all of the analysis and figures and market rules and overlapping areas of legal jurisdiction and the physical layout of the grid and the rationale for existing market rules and how utilities prep for blackouts and…you get the picture. if you ever meet one of these people (and most of my colleagues probably think of many of the same people as thought leaders), you won’t see it as a bs thing

              3. Honeybee

                Lots of people who claim to be lots of things are full of shit. There are lots of “actors,” “artists”, “I know the owner”, etc. Lots of people call themselves experts without actually being one.

                That doesn’t mean that the word itself is ridiculous, though. It just means that – as in everything – there are people who are are blowhards and like to make themselves out to be something they’re not.

    1. videogame Princess

      Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it really seems that if you have a voice and a platform you shouldn’t have to point it out–kind of like saying you have “attentn to detale”–if you have to say it because it doesn’t stand out on its own, then you don’t have it. But really, this is just my thought, and I don’t know if it’s true or not.

      1. Charby

        I don’t think that the author is suggesting that you can or should tell people that you are a thought leader, but that doesn’t mean that isn’t a conscious decision and a conscious effort on the part; the steps listed in the Intuit article are a big part of that. Kind of like how you shouldn’t tell people that you have “attention to detail” but you should work hard to make sure that you are conscientious and detail-oriented in your work product.

          1. JL

            If you’re worked towards this goal, you deserve recognition for it. How would you suggest thought leaders refer to themselves without coming off as a little pretentious?

  6. Cassie-O

    My professor taught us that you can become a worldwide expert on a particular topic in the span of about a year…so long as the topic is very, very narrow. Over the course of a year, read anything and everything on this topic (especially peer reviewed journal articles). Talk to others, interview others, catalog your thoughts, add your own perspective. Then don’t be afraid to share your expertise!

    1. Wendy

      I’ve heard it said that as you narrow down your field of expertise, you are learning more and more about less and less, until you know everything about nothing! :)

  7. grasshopper

    I have no quarrel with being a recognized expert in a field, but the term “thought leader” bothers me. It just seems so 1984: thought-police, thought-crime, thought-leader.

  8. Cath in Canada

    Answering questions relevant to your field somewhere like Quora is also a way to get noticed. I haven’t been as active lately but for a while I was answering a lot of questions about genetics/epigenetics/cancer research there, and I got a lot of new twitter and blog followers (and emails, some more rational than others) as a result!

      1. Cath in Canada

        Epigenetics in particular attracts a lot of attention from snake oil peddlers of various kinds… I was being asked to help promote various supplements and whatnot that would “improve your epigenetics”. I just ignored those ones! I was also asked to provide some feedback on an idea for a sci-fi novel, which was a lot more fun – I did answer that one. And then lots of emails asking me what I thought about new publications and the like.

  9. Clever Name

    Wow, why all the hate towards the term “thought leader”? There are certain buzzwords I dislike (I cringe whenever I hear “low-hanging fruit” because a certain former boss used it all the time), but this isn’t one of them.

    Anyhow, so how does one go about figuring out where the thought leaders hang out? I do go to industry association meetings, but only if I’m interested in the topic of the presentation. I’m not great at reading people, so how do I tell who the “thought leaders” are?

      1. Clever Name

        LinkedIn. Yeah. I guess I should spend more time there? I actually use Twitter a lot for my area of interest/expertise.

    1. Jennifer

      It’s way too cutesy, and not something that anyone really uses in real life, and doesn’t apply to most jobs.

      “Thought leader” is CEO-type crap.

    2. Ad Astra

      That’s funny because I like “low-hanging fruit” and don’t care one bit for “thought leader.” I’m sure experience goes a long way toward shaping those perceptions.

  10. hbc

    I feel like you become a thought leader naturally, or you don’t. Thought leaders don’t start a blog because they want an online presence and to leverage that into access, they do it because they’re tired of seeing other people make avoidable mistakes, or they want to correct all of the misinformation that’s out there, or because they like to write and this is the topic they know best. They go to forums because they need to find out something specific and get drawn into a discussion, they don’t go with the express purpose of influencing people and gaining respect.

    It’s the difference between being the kid in class whose occasional questions are relevant and show thought, and the kid who makes sure to sit in the front and ask something (anything) every class.

    1. KT

      Beautifully articulated. I think most “thought leader” wannabes do it because they saw a blog post about how to make money on the internet, while the real experts are writing because their passionate or simply because they are so ahead of the curve.

      1. LQ

        I think you can decide you want to become that person who really strives and works hard to know all the things and be a go to kind of person, and if you’ve never really done it before then having a plan for it is good.

        Saying either you got it or you don’t is kind of depressing because it seems like that means no one can ever change.

    2. Heather

      I’ve been trying to put my finger on why “thought leader” and “personal brand” bug the shit out of me while “expert” and “reputation” don’t, and I think you just nailed it. Thank you!

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        I hate hate hate “personal brand,” but that’s largely because I think the whole concept is a crock of shit and not really about the words themselves.

      2. Not So NewReader

        Personal brand sounds contrived, forced, synthetic, not that I dislike it or anything. I think it confuses the crap out of some people and it sends the wrong message. “Oh my personal brand is to act like an honest person.” Uh, why not just BE an honest person? I don’t understand why the illusion is more important than what is real.

        Thought leader does not seem as bad to me. We have to have a term for people who are influential and widely respected in their fields. I believe that any term we settle on will be overplayed by the media and worn out. Words wear out, just like shoes, cars and computers. It sounds like thought leader is coming close to its expiration date. However, the main point bears out- how do you become a go-to person or a guru in your field? How do you build a strategy that puts you head and shoulders above most people in your field? And what do you do with that status once you achieve it?

        Alison is a prime example. People want her opinion. She gathers more and more new readers every day. It’s one thing to become a thought leader, the very next step is what do you do with that status? Alison has found her version of the answer. She has helped a huge number of people (millions?) find jobs and/or stay employed by working through difficult situations.

        So for a minute take out the words “thought leaders” and put in a word such as “thinkers”.
        We need these people. We need them to think about all the problems we have in this world and find actionable solutions. So maybe I am not one of these thinkers, but if I see someone who is I can use advice here to encourage this person to grow even more. My boss is one of the people in my life that I think is an outstanding thinker. I would love for her thoughts to reach more people, she has something to say that is worth listening to. She blows me away with how she uses logic to drill down through a situation.
        Just my opinion, but our world is in such a shape that we need to raise up those people who have potential to be leading thinkers.

        1. AcidMeFlux

          This is a brilliant answer and, as we were discussing last weekend, one reason why a “^” or like button would be useful.

    3. Honeybee

      I think different people have different motivations, and whether a person who becomes a thought leader is motivated by gaining status/respect/influence or by sharing knowledge is kind of irrelevant to whether they actually ARE a thought leader. Besides, those motivations are not mutually exclusive – I know plenty of people (myself being one of them) who have entered forums in a topic they know a lot about to both foster community and to influence people. I joined a college advising community when I was already in college for the purpose of helping high school students, because I’d had a rocky application experience; I definitely wanted to help other students apply to college, but I ALSO wanted to gain respect – not the least because gaining respect and influence often means you can help more people. I’ve been on the site a long time, and people recognize my name there; they PM me specifically with questions and other longtime readers will refer people to me in areas they know I know about. That means I just get to answer more questions and help more students, which is pretty awesome.

  11. Menacia

    Honestly, I prefer decision leaders since it seems to me there are already lots of thoughts but no one can decide what to do with them! :)

  12. Merry and Bright

    My boss’s boss loves to tell us how he is getting all his ducks in a row. It makes me think of one of those fairground games.

    1. TFS

      I was surprised at all the hate for the term “thought leader”. It’s not one I’ve even heard much, and while I get that it’s buzzwordy, it’s hard to come up with another shorthand for what you’re trying to get across. I hope people can get past that and see that there are good thoughts in the article–thank you for sharing!

    2. Mimmy

      I confess that I haven’t read the article, but “thought leader” does sound like another buzzword, which I personally don’t like, and I know others don’t. BUT I’ll still read the article (I’m kinda curious, actually!). I suggest readers keep an open mind.

    3. Clever Name

      I know. I’ll admit I’m annoyed by the comments dissing the term used in the article. It’s just a variation of arguing over semantics that seems to happen on every goddamn post. I would actually like to discuss the content of the article and not get caught up in something that is frankly irrelevant. Feel free to hate the word “thought leader” but the point of the article is how does one position themselves for influence and leadership in their field.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Yeah — if this were aimed at a commenter or a letter-writer, I’d have pretty much a zero tolerance stance on it. I’m not enough of a prig to ban it when it’s directed toward my own word choices, but in general this is exactly the kind of thing I don’t want us doing to letter-writers (with the acknowledgement that there’s no letter in the mix in this case).

    4. videogame Princess

      Yes. I think my comment (as well as some of the others?), was simply because of those who label *themselves* as thought leaders–the people with whom we are most likely to associate the term, and who often appear a not a little self-congratulatory. The term “thought leader”, I guess, isn’t actually meaningless, just overused–just like my “Hadoop” example earlier. Guess I need to step back occasionally and distinguish between “what” and “who.” Anyway, it really was great advice. Sorry about the strong comeback.

    5. Ad Astra

      I much prefer the sound of “How to become influential in your field,” but you know what? “How to become a thought leader in your field” is way better SEO, and that matters when it’s your job to write stuff on the internet (and when it’s your job to manage content/drive traffic on the internet).

      1. AcidMeFlux

        I feel like thought leaders can be low profile yet influential, which is a nice change in these ego fueled internet days.

    6. Windchime

      Yeah, I wonder how many people actually read the article. It was really good. My boss is the type of person described in the article; he doesn’t go around calling himself a “thought leader” (and I know you weren’t suggesting that he should!). As you say, it’s just a way of describing a certain type of person.

      Strong reactions today.

    7. AnonymousaurusRex

      I have to say that when my CEO approached me and said that we need to figure out how to me “thought leaders” in a field, I totally laughed off the phrase and thought it was gimmicky. But really, I can’t see how else you can explain the concept you’re talking about here, and buzzwords have a purpose too.

      I think the advice is great, Alison! I’m sorry people are sniping so negatively on the word choice.

      Also, I just emailed the article to my CEO, so thanks!

  13. FD

    I think there’s a key distinction to be made here.

    If you’re putting “Thought leader” on your business cards, you are definitely doing it wrong–just like putting “visionary” on your business cards is absurd.

    But that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a thought leader, or that it’s not something you can aspire to.

    Think about someone who’s an expert in their field–let’s say a top chocolate teapot designer. They might have gotten there because they just were in the right place at the right time, and kept at it because nothing else interested them more. They might also have gotten there because they decided to consciously pursue expertise in that field. Neither are ‘better’ experts–they’re just different.

    Thought leaders can sometimes happen naturally. Steve Jobs didn’t set out to be a thought leader in personal computing–it just happened through a combination of luck, talent, and running with what he had. They can also happen through design–Ramit Sethi, who wrote I Will Teach You To Be Rich, wanted to become known for unorthodox personal finance advice, and took steps to make the connections he needed to get there.

    Not everybody’s going to WANT to become a thought leader–it’s time consuming, and it’s not worth it for everyone. But if you’re interested in becoming one, I think this is really good advice on how to achieve it.

  14. Ad Astra

    I’ll spare you my opinion about the term “thought leader” since plenty of people have already chimed in. Alison’s giving good advice, but my perception has always been that people in a thought-leader role commit a huge amount of time to cultivating that image. It’s like they never turn off. Maybe it’s just in my field.

    1. FD

      I think that’s pretty accurate! Most people I know who go for it on purpose are really passionate about their field.

      1. Ad Astra

        Ah, yes, “passionate about their field” is a much more charitable way to describe it. I assume the work of becoming a thought leader is disingenuous social climber BS, but that’s not really fair. Some people really do live and breathe teapot assembly.

        1. FD

          It can be–but just being good at networking won’t really get you all the way, in my experience. You can make connections by schmoozing, but to really maintain it, you have to have useful, unique things to say or ways of approaching things.

    2. Not So NewReader

      They are at saturation level. They are totally immersed in their field of endeavor. I think it’s especially noticable at the beginning of a career. To launch successfully as an outstanding leader, a person must get totally saturated in the knowledge involved with their field.

      I see at the opposite end of spectrum, people approaching retirement no longer sustain that level of immersion. These are the people that say things similar to “I don’t know about the new stuff, and I don’t care to learn.”

      The people that I am thinking of are not concerned with cultivating an image, they are actually doing it, they are actually learning every nook and cranny of their field. In doing so they do not have much time/energy to put into thinking about how things might appear to other people.

  15. Macedon

    I think this is a great article about marketing yourself as a thought leader (I’m personally indifferent to the semantics), but I’m hesitant to say there’s a straight and narrow path to becoming one. I kind of think thought-leading is connected to vision, innovation or both – and I don’t know that I’d say these’re things you can teach. In that sense, the title feels slightly misleading.

    On the other hand, social media’s a marvellous platform for the art of faking it til you make it — there’s an argument to be made that ‘marketing’ comprises a fair chunk of ‘being’ on it, these days.

    1. Bend & Snap

      This is a good point. One of my colleagues said “my thought leaders have no thoughts.” There’s only so much you can market without substance and originality.

  16. steve g

    IMO experience, use the linkedin articles sparingly (in point two) unless they are your own articles, and even that case, only if they are on new/interesting information – not just articles to “make content.”.

    Also some industries have public working groups or hearings, mine has an industry-standard “electronic data interchange” group between regulators and competitors for example (more interesting than it sounds). You want to get influence? Read the meeting materials and legal docs for those working groups, then participate. Speak when you can add some viewpoint other people don’t have, and write thoughtful comments if you have a unique pov (and your company let’s you). In my example, the people that stood out as thought leaders were the ones who knew with of the regulators’ ideas would work based on customer types and types of complaints, costs of IT implementation, overlap with other electronic markets, and who could eyeball a cost benefit analysis – THOSE people stand out

    1. Saro

      This is a really interesting insight, thank you Steve. I am going to see how I can apply this to my own field (law and international development).

      1. steve g

        Oh I’m sure they exist in the legal arena. In my area, working groups take place at every regulator level (ferc, public service commissions, etc).

        The only caveat are your internal office politics. Attending them is seen as representing your company, which is fine from the working groups’ perspective, but your boss probably doesn’t want you calling into or attending meetings willy-nilly. Also, you’ll find out that someone at your company is already engaged with some of the public working groups/rule change committees, etc, though that doesn’t mean you can’t participate as well, you just need to navigate your office politics about that. In my personal experience, our regulatory team was happy for the help attending meetings because they were sick of travel + appreciated a pure “business” approach to regulatory/legal discussions.

  17. super anon

    this is such a timely article! i’m trying to figure out ways to become known in my field and make a name for myself with the hope that one day i can become a consultant (what i do is very specialized and there’s few people who do it). thanks for the great advice as per usual allison! :D

    ps: fwiw, i didn’t mind the term thought leader – i thought it was a great way to convey the sentiment of the article – i knew exactly what i was in for before i clicked it.

  18. Chalupa Batman

    I instantly thought of a few specific people when I read this article, so I was pretty pumped when an article about how to do that magic thing they do so completely effortlessly (in my mind) and unpretentiously. I think that, at least in my field, making it look like it just kinda happened might be one of the ways you know you’re doing it right.

  19. Swarley

    This is a fantastic article. I’ve especially found #4 to be beneficial. In addition to being helpful to others in my field, I love being a sounding board for friends and colleagues who work in different fields, but have questions relating to my area (and don’t necessarily have someone in their own work place to go to for advice). Not only does it strengthen the networking relationship, it also allows me to improve the way I talk about my field to others who don’t have the same background.

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