This kind of thought leadership generates insights that help executives succeed in their roles. These insights promote dialog, deep understanding and ongoing relationships.
Part 2 of Bob Buday’s conversation with Ajit Kambil, Managing Director in Deloitte LLP and research leader for Deloitte’s CFO Program, focuses on role-based thought leadership strategies, and their packaging and distribution. This discussion is part of a series for “Content Matters,” our monthly newsletter for people who conduct thought leadership research and market that content. We believe that every organization that provides services delivered by people—consulting, accounting, legal, information technology, or training, for example—competes in part on the quality of its thought leadership.
In our last interview, you noted that role-specific thought leadership is an important capability. Why and how does it differ from other types of thought leadership?
When I first entered the professional services business, organizations were primarily using thought leadership to promote new business models and methods, outline new ways of doing things, or using technology to shape the future. Those purposes are still important.
But as organizations began to go to market by industry, developers of thought leadership built in an industry perspective. Now, I think role-specific research is vital. Its primary purpose is to generate insights to help executives, CFOs for example, to succeed in their role and build relationship capital with them.
Relationship capital is a valuable currency as organizations ultimately sell to an executive in a particular role. When you think about relationships, it is not enough to create a piece of thought leadership once every six months to a year and throw it over the wall to your subscribers. That approach neither builds nor sustains executive relationships.
Very interesting. Tell us more about how to use thought leadership to create strong client relationships.
A relationship is about having a continuous conversation with someone. So, for role-specific thought leadership, it’s important to rethink the types of content to create, the content creation process, and the packaging and distribution frequencies to sustain a relationship.
It is a fundamentally different model than traditional, low-frequency thought leadership. Over the last 10 years, I have had the privilege of building out this capability in Deloitte’s first role-based program, the CFO Program. Our overall mission is this: to be the preeminent advisor to the CFO. And our thought leadership model is designed to enable that.
How did the CFO Program Thought Leadership strategy unfold?
The first step was to identify critical thought leadership opportunities where we could add value and help build relationships with our CFO clients. Fortunately, there was no other organization that was doing this systematically. I created a four-part framework to focus and organize our research.
As I don’t want to give away the store, I’ll share just two of those parts here. We decided to focus on what we call critical “moments that matter” and “tactics that matter” to CFOs. Remember, this was back in the Great Recession, which began in 2008, and it was a difficult time for many CFOs. We looked at how they could effectively navigate it. We also learned that a transition into a new job was a critical moment, given that many executives failed to transition well into the role.
So, we explored how CFOs could better navigate the transition into the role for the first time or take on the role in a new firm, and we created ways to help them do that. We conducted research and developed content to help CFOs deal with those moments of matter. In turn, our research-based content has helped deepen our CFO relationships.
People remember who helps them get through a difficult moment.
Our research on “tactics that matter” considered what finance departments and CFOs could do to help improve performance. Examples include managing indirect taxes more effectively or improving pricing to free up or increase cash flows, and improving scenario planning to for better decision-making in volatile environments. Categories such as these helped us target our research, learning, and writing efforts.
We found CFOs had less than 10 minutes of discretionary time a day to absorb new content and turned more often to business news outlets than to academic publications or a traditional 20-page report.
Another step we took at the outset was to survey CFOs on how they consumed information. We found they had less than 10 minutes of discretionary time a day to absorb new content. We found they turned more often to business news outlets than to academic publications or a traditional 20-page report. We created new thought leadership products, packaging, and channels to meet CFOs’ preferences and enhance relationships.
For example, we launched CFO Insights, a biweekly publication that looks at an issue critical to CFOs and frames key considerations and actions to consider. It does so in 1,500 to 2,500 words, which is a very digestible read. Today, it has more than 39,000 subscribers, mostly finance professionals, and it initially grew through word of mouth.
In 2010, Deloitte chose to sponsor WSJ’s online CFO Journal, which includes a Deloitte Module for which we produce daily an article of 1,000 to 1500 words on a timely topic. As CFOs like to learn from their peers, Deloitte interviews a number of CFOs on topics of interest to them. In addition, we have the quarterly North America CFO Signals™ survey, which captures the sentiment of CFOs from large companies on a variety of key indicators and special topics. In 2017, we launched CFO Lens, an app that CFOs can use to access our content on demand. It’s also a resource they can use while attending our CFO events, whether in-person or virtual.
Our electronic channels help us to track if the right audience is engaging with our content, something traditional publishers often cannot do easily.
Together, these products, delivered regularly and consistently, have helped establish our brand and created a continuous relationship with CFOs. These channels cover a significant part of our target audience.
Our goal is not more subscribers, but the relevant subscribers. Our electronic channels help us to track if the right audience is engaging with our content, something traditional publishers often cannot do easily.
We understand that CFOs want high-quality, substantive, and practical information on a timely basis. So, we re-invented our content engine and channels of distribution to engage CFOs at a whole different level and at a more frequent pace than traditional thought leadership models.
It’s not easy to create such a content engine. CFOs are a very discerning audience, and you’re able to give them compelling content regularly. How have you been able to do it?
We had to create an agile operating model to execute this engine. On Mondays, a core team from our CFO Program, including marketing and PR, meets to review what happened in the previous week, lessons learned, and our product utilization. Collectively, we review the editorial pipelines for the next couple of weeks and discuss topics we may want to cover and who will cover them.
On Wednesdays, we have an expanded team call with professionals from our practices, such as finance transformation, and related programs, including our Center for Controllership Program. This team-of-teams call helps us work more closely with our practices, which are seeing first-hand developments in the field.
In essence, the Wednesday calls bring the outside in to update our understanding of what’s on clients’ minds. The collaboration has a three-fold benefit: It helps us fine-tune our content development to market issues, gain adoption of our content by the practices, and leverage content developed by the practices to create CFO-specific content. For example, if there’s a broad report on M&A that our M&A practice is developing, we can pivot some of our resources to draw out what matters to CFOs into a focused article and distribute it over our channels.
Our operating model does not preclude us from doing longer in-depth pieces of research. But we have to be disciplined and take a modular approach to development. For example, if we are studying virtualization, we may interview internal and external subject matter specialists and publish the interviews as individual articles in the Deloitte Module in CFO Journal. From these we can develop interesting hypotheses, and we can use our CFO Signals™ survey to test our ideas. We can then package broader findings into CFO Insights or traditional report formats. Whichever format we use, we keep CFOs’ interests and the time they can commit to reading front and center.
So for those broader research topics, you chunk things up into pieces and deliver findings more continuously. Is that right?
Exactly. The challenge with long cycle research efforts is that we all know a lot can change over the research time frame, which may render the effort obsolete. We are continuously providing bite-sized actionable insights and letting our audience decide what they want to use.
This approach is also important for our internal clients, those serving external clients. It creates a continuous loop in which we engage them in understanding the market and provide them with easy-to-digest insights they can share with their clients. We can get feedback from both constituencies and improve what we do over time.
You can think of this as agile thought leadership development. Get good stuff out and continuously improve it collaboratively to create great stuff.
If you look at Deloitte Insights, there is a series on executive transitions. It began with research I conducted about a decade ago on transition challenges CFOs faced, which I compiled into the report Taking the Reins. Based on our research findings on transitions, we created the Executive Transition Lab, a one-day experience for executives across the C-suite to help them accelerate their transition.
From our experiences in delivering more than two thousand transition labs in the US alone, (and personally delivering more than 350), we have developed 20-plus articles on different aspects of transition. In short, we have converted our own continuous learning into deeper insights for executives.
What are labs, and how does role-based research create value?
We can cover labs and the importance of moving from articles and reports to experiences in our next conversation. Role-based research ultimately creates value by being focused on helping an individual in a particular role really succeed. It helps our client teams better understand a role, connect with individuals in that role, and accelerate their relationships.
As we discussed previously, it is critical to shift content creation to zero in on what is important to the success of the executive, to establish a higher frequency of output in formats written to what executives want, and to develop an operating model that delivers role-specific thought leadership continuously and consistently. This helps to establish an ongoing dialogue with clients that occasional reports cannot foster. You also can use role-based thought leadership and content formats to point executives to other forms of thought leadership, for example, industry or cross industry reports.
So far, the growth of our subscriber base across our thought leadership channels suggests our approach appeals to CFOs and others in finance. As you can see, this model of content creation and distribution differs considerably from other models of thought leadership currently practiced.
It certainly does. You folks have done a remarkable job.