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When CEOs Need to be Seen as Thought Leaders (and When They Don’t)

Chief executives don’t have to show deep expertise on societal issues, only deep empathy and action. But CEOs who can convince external and internal audiences of their mastery of critical company issues give their firms a competitive advantage. 

By Bob Buday, John Randolph and John Shannon

CEOs everywhere are weighing in publicly on burning societal issues – racism, the economic impacts of the pandemic, widening income inequality, and more. The reasons for speaking out go beyond just doing the right thing: it could impact their company’s financial performance. Consider that 69% of more than 11,000 people surveyed this spring said that how CEOs react and communicate on societal topics will “permanently affect their decision to buy from their company.”

Other surveys in recent years have come to similar conclusions. In 2018, 84% of 33,000 people in over 25 countries polled by Edelman PR wanted CEOs to comment on big societal issues. The majority (56%) had no respect for CEOs who stay silent on such matters.

We believe many CEOs need to go beyond showing their compassion about social issues. Some CEOs now need to demonstrate their competence in steering their company through the current economic crisis.

No doubt the public believes CEOs have significant influence over what their companies sell, how their employees operate, and the conduct they expect of suppliers. In short, the CEO role is viewed as a potentially powerful force for good.

Yet we believe many CEOs need to go beyond showing their compassion about social issues. Some CEOs now need to demonstrate their competence in steering their company through the current economic crisis.

And what a crisis it is. Recent CEO surveys show extremely pessimistic outlooks through the rest of this year and, for some, long into 2021. A June survey of the Business Roundtable’s CEO members (whose U.S. companies collectively account for $7 trillion in annual revenue) found the majority don’t see economic conditions for their firms returning to normal until the end of 2021. About one quarter don’t see a recovery until 2022 at the earliest.

Screen Shot 2020-07-23 at 6.42.55 PMThat will put CEOs on the hot seat, one that’s already been hot for years. The average CEO lasted 5 years on the job over the last decade, compared with 9 years in 2000. “The COVID-19 crisis is a once-in-a-century event, and no training or experience in previous downturns has prepared CEOs for it,” wrote three McKinsey consultants in a recent article.

The ultimate arbiter of such CEO competence will be whether the company performs better financially than its peers. However, CEOs can further show their competence by communicating their expertise in solving their companies’ key issues. In short, they need to demonstrate that they are thought leaders.

Showing that they are thought leaders on the right issues can help CEOs gain the confidence of external and internal stakeholders. In choosing those issues, they must consider which stakeholders are most critical at the time – customers, shareholders, employees, acquisition targets or another. A CEO who is considered a thought leader can persuade investors that the firm is in good hands, customers that the firm’s expertise is deep at all levels including the top, internal and external talent that the firm is a great place to work, and other stakeholders on issues that make the company more attractive and competitive.

In an economic quagmire like today’s, businesses must tap every significant competitive advantage possible. The CEO’s perceived credibility to pull the company through the crisis is one of those advantages. However, we believe it is largely untapped in most organizations.

To be clear, we are not saying CEOs must be thought leaders on the social issues they increasingly are addressing. While they should weigh in on these issues regularly and forcefully, they don’t need to become experts on pandemics, racism, income inequality or other societal ills. Becoming a social activist does not require CEOs to be a deep expert on those social issues.

Instead, we argue that CEOs in some companies should strive to be viewed as experts on certain aspects of running their company. It they become seen as a thought leader on those issues, it could help their company attract customers, investors, employees, companies to acquire, and even a fairer hand of regulators.

More than any other role in a company, CEOs have the greatest ability to get their firms recognized as thought leaders.

CEOs like GE’s Jack Welch in the ‘80s and ‘90s,’s Marc Benioff and Satya Nadella of Microsoft over the last decade, Richard Branson of Virgin in the last three decades and David Ogilvy of Ogilvy & Mather some 50 years ago demonstrated this. So have many other CEOs.

More than any other role in a company, CEOs have the greatest ability to get their firms recognized as thought leaders. External and internal audiences put more stock in what a company’s CEO says than they do in any other employee. And they should. Wrote Peter Drucker: “The CEO is the link between the Inside that is ‘the organization,’ and the Outside of society, economy, technology, markets and customers.” As ex-P&G CEO A.G. Lafley wrote in a 2009 issue of Harvard Business Review, adding to Drucker’s words: “It’s a job that only CEOs can do because everybody else in the organization is focused much more narrowly, and for the most part, in one direction. … The sustainable growth of the institution is the CEO’s responsibility and legacy.”

When the CEO is an acknowledged expert, outsiders (shareholders, customers, business partners, the media, etc.) may be more likely to assume that the CEO sets the tone for the entire company – i.e., that if the CEO is an expert in a certain area, many other people in the company are too. For example, advertising legend David Ogilvy’s famous book “Confessions of an Advertising Man” in 1963 laid out his beliefs on great marketing. The book helped Ogilvy & Mather grow from a small “creative boutique” to one of the four biggest ad agencies worldwide by the mid-1980s, with more than 100 offices in 40 countries attracting advertisers, Ogilvy wrote in a subsequent book.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Welch’s push to be seen as a management expert helped win over shareholders and attract talent. For sure, GE’s financial performance was most important in increasing its market value nearly 30-fold to $410 billion. But his stature as a thought leader had to have helped. In 1999, Fortune magazine anointed Welch “Manager of the Century.” After he died this year, a New York Times obituary called him “the most influential business manager of his generation.”

Since then, we’ve seen a number of CEOs – Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates, David Cote (ex-chief of Honeywell and now running Vertiv), Bill Gates and Satya Nadella of Microsoft, and Howard Schultz (Starbucks) among them — make similar moves.

Why Social Activism Does Not Equal Thought Leadership

This year’s pandemic, racial demonstrations and other tumultuous events have provided CEOs a soapbox for saying where they and their companies stand. But speaking out on social issues has been a CEO trend for several years.

In 2016, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan told The Wall Street Journal that “Our jobs as CEOs now include driving what we think is right … action on issues beyond business.” He joined CEOs like Tim Cook (Apple), Schultz and others. “CEO activism has gotten lots of media attention lately, and public relations firms are now building entire practices around it,” wrote two business school professors in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article.

CEO activism on social issues is laudable. But it shouldn’t be confused with thought leadership. A CEO who publicly gets behind anti-racism policies, a “green” environment, and reducing income inequality needs to show passionate affinity for those issues. But that doesn’t mean she needs to be an expert on them. That should be left to the experts – the people who have studied, written about and have become the authorities on those topics. A social activist doesn’t have to be perceived as an expert on the issue to get behind it.

For example, a CEO can be passionate about giving opportunities to inner-city minority youth. But the public doesn’t expect him to be a subject expert on the problem or the solution. He just has to recognize it as a problem worthy of addressing, and then start addressing it.

A CEO who publicly gets behind anti-racism policies, a “green” environment, and reducing income inequality needs to show passionate affinity for those issues. But that doesn’t mean she needs to be an expert on them.

In contrast, a CEO who is a recognized thought leader on some issue gains that recognition because he is seen as a deep expert on the roots of the issue and better ways to solve it.

Speaking out on social issues doesn’t require a CEO to be an expert on those issues. Why, then, should a CEO become a thought leader on certain issues? Why can’t he or she leave that to others in the company?

Many companies employ multiple experts who want to be viewed publicly as thought leaders — professional services firms especially. These are the people who do work with clients, and thus having clients view them as thought leaders increases the chances that client want to work with them. But why would it matter if the CEO was perceived as a thought leader, as we contend in this article – especially if that CEO was not going to work with clients?

We see three primary reasons:

  • The halo effect. You’ve heard this term before. The originator of the concept, Edward Lee Thorndike, was an American psychologist and Columbia University professor in the first half of the 1900s. In 1920, he used the term in a paper that he wrote about a psychological experiment with officers and soldiers. Thorndike found that officers rated soldiers who were taller and more attractive as smarter and better soldiers. His insight was that people form opinions about others based on a few key traits. Brand marketers since have claimed the halo effect of a strong company brand creates customer affinity for all its products and services, present and future. Apple, for example, benefits from the great halo effect of being a technology and design innovator, especially in the ease with which consumers can use its devices and their elegant design. Our use of the halo effect in thought leadership is different. When the CEO is seen as a thought leader in a certain domain, audiences can perceive the entire organizations has having that expertise. When customers view a CEO as a leading expert on how to solve a certain problem, they presume such expertise filters on down the organization.
  • Media magnetism. The media covets CEOs’ views more than they do any other executive in an organization, given their perch at the top and the difficulty of getting access to them. Many journalists regard a CEO interview as a coup. There is some research basis behind this assertion. A study that looked at media coverage from 2010-2012 of 36 Fortune 100 companies correlated the visibility of CEOs with the overall visibility of the companies they ran. In other words, CEOs who make themselves more available to the media also increase the media’s coverage of their organizations. (The researchers determined “visibility” as a function of the audience of each medium; the position, length and prominence of articles; and other factors. The researchers also noted that too much CEO visibility can result in a declining tone about the organization in media stories.)
  • The ascender-to-the-throne advantage. CEOs who didn’t launch their companies are perceived as having earned their wisdom from having ascended to the top of an organization. Their expertise was gained from knowing how to get employees to collaborate and solve issues. Thus, these CEOs’ expertise is seen as coming not from academic smarts or research, but rather from their managerial chops – i.e., EQ, not just IQ (EQ standing for emotional quotient or emotional intelligence). For this reason, a CEO’s words of wisdom may have a better chance of appearing practical and proven rather than theoretical. (This is particularly a juxtaposition against consultants and academics breathing revolutionary ideas they’ve never implemented.) This would suggest that audiences would put greater trust in the messages of a CEO-as-thought-leader.

The impact of a CEO who is recognized as a thought leader is not surprising. CEOs occupy the most influential role in their organizations, one whose impact on overall company performance has even been quantified. “What the CEO controls – the company’s biggest moves – accounts for 45% of a company’s performance,” said three McKinsey consultants in a 2019 article.

Which Companies Should Make Their CEOs Thought Leaders, and On What?

If you accept our core premise that some companies could benefit greatly if their CEO were seen as a thought leader, the next questions are these:

  • What kinds of companies would benefit, and what others wouldn’t, and why?
  • For companies that would benefit, on what issues should the CEO become a recognized expert?

Our overarching answer to the first question is the companies that would benefit most either sell expertise for a living (and need to show it to lure more customers) or must demonstrate deep expertise to win over investors and other shareholders, talent, acquisition targets, suppliers and other business partners, or regulators.

Our answer to the second question is that the issue on which a CEO needs to be a thought leader depends on which stakeholder(s) is most important at a moment in time. For example, a company like GE or Boeing that has run into huge financial difficulties need CEOs to be seen by investors as thought leaders on how to turn around large companies. The table below lays out our logic on this.

While every CEO needs to be seen internally as a strong leader, we don’t believe all of them must write and speak extensively on how they manage their organizations.

Please keep in mind that while every CEO needs to be seen internally as a strong leader, we don’t believe all of them must write and speak extensively on how they manage their organizations. In fact, some of the world’s most successful CEOs – Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway immediately come to mind – publish and speak with relative infrequency on how they run their companies. (Buffett and Bezos leave much of their talking to their annual letters to shareholders, which can be a joy to read. Here’s an analysis on Bezos’ letters.)

And while we believe some companies don’t need their CEOs to be seen as thought leaders, we’re not discouraging them from writing biographies that look back on their careers. For example, recent biographies by Robert Iger (Disney chairman, and CEO from 2005 to February 2020) and Tom Golisano (Paychex founder, chairman and ex-CEO) shed intriguing light on how they ran their companies.

Row by row, now let’s take each stakeholder group and explain the expertise a CEO should show, why it’s important, the sectors in which this is especially important today, and examples of CEOs who have done this.

Impressing Investors

Despite today’s need to appeal to many stakeholders, investors and shareholders cannot be ignored. CEOs of public companies must continue to demonstrate their competence – especially difficult in many sectors today that are shrinking due to the pandemic.

While Jack Welch was the textbook case of a CEO-as-thought-leader in the 1980s and ‘90s (he created his own management institute after retiring from GE), CEOs whose financial performance has been lackluster this year will feel the same pressure (including GE’s CEO since 2018, Lawrence Culp Jr., who inherited a mess).

Screen Shot 2020-07-26 at 10.32.22 AMTo win over investors, these CEOs could learn lots from the thought leadership practices of Welch (who pushed concepts such as the “boundaryless corporation,” speaking with candor, Six Sigma and many others): write books, dispense wisdom freely with the media, and give memorable public speeches.

To get investors to view the company positively, these CEOs (like Welch before them) should paint a vivid picture of their vision of the industry’s future – or at least, the sector’s possible future paths given that digital technology is probably altering it. About three-quarters of people surveyed by Edelman want CEOs to be “visible” about the future of their industry. CEOs of companies in need of a turnaround need to be more prosaic: what must be done to right the ship.

Attracting Customers

Every professional services firm should consider how they could turn their CEO into recognized thought leaders. These firms sell complex, high-ticket offerings to highly sophisticated audiences. Their products are hard to understand and intangible. Marketing them with a human face who can connect deeply with customers’ problems can make the product better understood and memorable. Whether they’re running a law, accounting, consulting, IT services, architecture or other firm whose people deliver expertise to clients, these CEOs have the opportunity to show that deep expertise exists at every level, starting from the top.

Screen Shot 2020-07-26 at 10.33.38 AM
The classic case of this is David Ogilvy, who was years ahead of his time when he wrote his first book “Confessions of an Advertising Man.” He published it in 1962 to attract new clients, prepare the firm to go public with its shares, and go global. It was a management book disguised as an autobiography, as one marketing blogger wrote. Ogilvy later said (in his book “Ogilvy on Advertising”) that “Confessions helped his New York “creative boutique” become of the world’s four largest ad agencies with more than 100 offices in 40 nations by the mid-1980s.

We view Bill Gates’ 1996 update of his 1995 bestselling book “The Road Ahead” as his attempt as CEO to make Microsoft’s appear to be Internet-centric. The firm had been beaten to the market when Netscape’s Navigator web browser arrived in 1994. A few weeks after the book was published in December 1995, Gates shifted the firm’s strategy to be Internet-centric, saying he had “vastly underestimated how important and how quickly the Internet would come to prominence.” In 1996, he updated “The Road Ahead” with a discussion of the current and future impact of the Web.

CEOs of some professional services firms have gone the thought leadership route, too. Since the 1990s, two CEOs of Simon-Kucher & Partners, today a $400 million global pricing strategy consulting firm, have followed this track. The firm’s first CEO to become a recognized thought leader, Hermann Simon (who led the firm from 1995-2009), has written more than 30 books, including three during his CEO tenure. Simon published a book in 2015 whose title (“Confessions of the Pricing Man”) bore a similar ring to Ogilvy’s first book. In 2016, Simon-Kucher’s co-CEO Georg Tacke and now-partner Madhavan Ramanujam published the book “Monetizing Innovation,” which they supplemented with two Harvard Business Review articles (here and here). That book has been a factor in the firm’s rapid revenue growth, from EUROS 240 million in 2016 to EUROS 358 million in 2019. (Disclosure: Several colleagues of mine and I helped the authors with their book and HBR articles.)

With stories like these, we’re surprised there aren’t more CEOs of professional services firms, especially the largest of them, that have tried to elevate their and their companies’ credentials as experts. All three of us have personally seen it work for many years, at CSC Index, when its then-CEO (Jim Champy) became known (along with his book co-author Michael Hammer) for the business reengineering concept. Under Champy’s leadership, Index’s revenue more than doubled to $200 million in six years. In the 1990s, Champy and Hammer built a cult following among CEOs and COOs who were passionate about reengineering.

Communicating the CEO’s Expertise to Employees, Acquisition and Funding Targets, and the Public

Some CEOs should become thought leaders to help their companies address one of three other stakeholders: employees; acquisition, investment and funding targets; and the general public. Let’s explore each one.

Standing Out in the Rush for Talent

The war for talent is acute in many sectors – high-tech, pharmaceuticals and consulting, among them. At the beginning of 2020, the Conference Board again found that the biggest internal concern for CEOs and their teams around the world was attracting and retaining top talent. Other research shows why it’s a top priority: It’s difficult to do. More than four out of five executives at Fortune 500 companies didn’t feel they were very successful at it, a 2012 McKinsey survey found.

CEOs have a big role to play here. How employees feel about their CEO appears to heavily influence their overall rating of their company. Research by Glassdoor, a web service that collects employee and ex-employee ratings of their companies, found a strong statistical correlation between how employees rated their CEO (approve or disapprove) and their overall satisfaction with their organization. The study was extensive, covering 816 CEOs at 690 large public companies from 2008 to 2015. (Note: The study didn’t ask employees about whether they viewed their CEOs to be a thought leader. It did review such CEO characteristics as age, gender, education, compensation and job tenure.)

Who, then, is better than a CEO to paint a vivid picture of why their firms are a great place to work? And wouldn’t it help if that CEO revealed his or her key beliefs and the practices that had made it so? As Jack Welch appeared to executive talent over two decades, wouldn’t job seekers be attracted to a firm whose CEO had novel views on how to nurture valuable people – especially those who prefer or must work remotely?

Of course it would. And for this reason, several CEOs have worked hard not only to be seen as leaders but also as thought leaders. The tech industry provides several examples.

Screen Shot 2020-07-23 at 3.07.34 PMMicrosoft CEO Satya Nadella is one of them. In 2017, three years after becoming the third CEO of Microsoft, he published a book (“Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone”) on turning around the firm’s business and its culture. Part of it centered on a concept he adopted from a bestselling book by Carol Dweck: establishing a growth mindset in which people embrace learning new things (vs. a fixed mindset that discourages learning).

Nadella’s “brilliance,” wrote London Business School Professors Herminia Ibarra and Aneeta Rattan in a 2018 article, was to “combine a clear-eyed look at what was wrong, with modeling the growth mindset.” Microsoft’s people “would shift from being ‘know-it-all’ to ‘learn-it-alls.’” Nadella, they said, “so embodies the message that people are inspired. It’s immediately apparent that he believes it to the core of his being.”

Enticing Acquisition and Investment Targets Into the Fold

Private equity, venture capital, special acquisition companies (so-called SPACs) – they’re all in the business of buying or investing in other companies, helping them grow and then exiting them at a big profit. Until the last decade or so, these sectors had been a veritable desert for thought leadership. Their CEOs kept their and their firms’ practices to themselves, perhaps so they wouldn’t attract public attention.

Private equity CEOs such as Stephen Schwarzman (Blackstone), venture capital firm owners like Ben Horowitz, and David Cote, CEO of the firm Vertiv Holdings, show that thought leadership is currency.

But no more. Private equity CEOs such as Stephen Schwarzman (Blackstone), venture capital firm owners like Ben Horowitz, and David Cote, CEO of the firm Vertiv Holdings, show that thought leadership is currency.

CEOs of these firms who become highly regarded not just for the growth of their firms but also because of some wisdom make their firms more attractive as acquirers, investors, and places for investors to park their money. As Schwarzman said in his book (What It Takes): “Investors are always looking for great investments. The easier you make it for them, the better for everyone.” (Note: Schwarzman has said his book has a broader audience that includes students, early and midcareer people, entrepreneurs, and executives.)

Ben Horowitz, co-founder and general partner at the 11-year-old, $12 billion in assets under management VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, has published two books (last year’s “What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture,” and 2014’s “The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There are No Easy Answers.”) In “What You Do,” he maintained that establishing the right culture is as important to startup firms as is creating a winning product. A relatively new VC firm, Andreessen Horowitz has grown rapidly, in part on the basis of thought leadership in a sector that was once bereft of it. “What really sets [the firm] apart is its inbound marketing initiatives via thought leadership,” wrote an intern in 2018. (A 2014 Harvard Business School case study on the firm said that its 43 recruiting and marketing people were “an order of magnitude larger than that of any other VC firm.”

Even Wall Street CEOs have gotten into the thought leadership game. In 2018, investment banking powerhouse Goldman Sachs hired ex-Honeywell CEO David Cote to be CEO and chairman of a new unit. The company bought a struggling industrial firm (Vertiv) last year, which has become the base upon which Cote will acquire other industrial companies. This year, Cote (who previously turned around Honeywell) published a well-received book (“Winning Now, Winning Later”) that can’t but help catch the attention of other industrial turnarounds.

Getting the Public on Your Side

The public – and the government agencies there to protect it – is the last stakeholder group we’ll look at. One could argue that, given the increase in corporate social responsibility, every company today should be seen as caring about this.

However, companies that face particularly large obstacles in getting the public to agree to its existence, its products, and its practices should consider developing their CEO into an expert on the societal issues for which it at least has partial blame. The expertise a CEO needs to convey here is about the good and bad aspects of its products. The CEO must also be authentic in communicating that his or her company is working arduously to reduce the negative impacts of its products and practices. It can’t be empty rhetoric.

One of the best examples of such a CEO is Marc Benioff. The company’s founder and now CEO, he for years has backed social causes, the latest of which is taking care of homeless people. (In 2019, he announced a $30 million gift to UC San Francisco for a new research initiative on homelessness.) He has embraced a tag placed upon him in 2015 by a Wall Street Journal reporter – “an activist CEO” – after resisting it at first. And he has written extensively about the homeless problem, including in his 2019 autobiography “Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change.” “Fighting for a cause that matters to our stakeholders is just as much a CEO’s job as preparing for a quarterly analyst call,” he wrote in his book. “Protecting the health of our community is just as much a business priority as delivering innovative technology to our customers.”

No doubt that being a positive force for addressing homelessness, LGBTQ rights, environmental, pay equity and other problems has helped Salesforce attract talent and gain the trust of customers. Benioff’s beliefs appear to connect strongly with customers possessing similar values. For example, at a conference session this January that he shared with Benioff and the chairman of MediaLink, Alan Jope, CEO of consumer packaged goods giant Unilever, said, “Originally we started working with Salesforce because it is such a great tech company. But the depth of the relationship has become more based on values.”

It’s hard to argue with Benioff’s actions. Salesforce’s revenue has grown from $8 billion to $13 billion from 2017 to 2019, and it’s on course to hit $22 billion by 2022. Its market valuation was in July. “We are focused on the shareholder return,” he told Fortune magazine in 2019. “But we are focused hand-in-hand on the stakeholder return. And we think our shareholder return is higher than others over the long-term because we have focused on all stakeholders.”

Zuckerberg – and only Zuckerberg at Facebook — needs to become a thought leader on how Facebook will solve the problem that others have defined for him.

What if Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided to take a similar journey – e.g., becoming an expert on the impact of social media on politics, the media industry, health and other major consumer concerns? What if he admitted the social network’s negative consequences – and showed how the company was working intently to fix them? And the steps he believes Facebook and other social networks must take over the rest of the decade to avoid being corrupted by bad actors?

Certainly, many advertisers are displeased with Facebook’s policies about what content is legitimate to run on the platform – hate speech, factually incorrect political messages, and so on. Zuckerberg needs to be truly transparent about how Facebook is going to curb such content and when, in explicit terms. Zuckerberg – and only Zuckerberg at Facebook — needs to become a thought leader on how Facebook will solve the problem that others have defined for him.

If Zuckerberg truly decided to become a thought leader on the positive and negative consequences of social media – and then worked hard to reduce the latter — he and his company might get a much more sympathetic ear.

Five Keys to Getting a CEO’s Expertise Widely Recognized

If a company feels it would benefit greatly by having its CEO weigh in authoritatively with one or more of those stakeholder groups, we suggest that it not rush into it. The chief marketing officer or head of thought leadership should carefully determine how it should be done. Halting such a thought leadership program a few months in – e.g., because the CEO didn’t make enough time for it — could leave a bad taste for all involved.

While establishing a CEO as a thought leader can be a powerful marketing tool, it’s also a major undertaking – especially for the content development and marketing people who must help the CEO. The CEO, and not just the CMO, must be hungry for this initiative to succeed.

In addition to having that kind of ambition, managing five aspects of such a program will determine its impact:

  • Defining the CEO’s topic territory. The stakeholder table that we lay out in this article is your starting point here. Most organizations will find multiple stakeholder groups that they want to influence. But this is where the CEO and CMO will need to decide what to emphasize. Quickly trying to position a CEO as a thought leader on multiple issues for multiple stakeholders will likely result in the CEO not looking like an expert on any of them. As marketing guru Seth Godin warned CEOs years ago in writing blogs: “Nobody is going to read your blog, link to your blog or quote your blog unless there’s something in it for them. Save the fluff for the annual report.” In fact, becoming a true expert on a compelling topic may require considerable primary research (especially on best practices), along with codifying a CEO’s past experiences. It’s far easier to go deep on a narrower topic(s) than it is on broader and numerous topics. Your topic territory should guide you and the CEO on the issues on which he or she must have compelling content – and which issues are out of bounds. Don’t be tempted to wander off the ranch here.
  • Creating and executing a content development plan that makes the core insight greater than the sum of the individual writings. Let’s take the first part of that sentence – creating the content development plan. Here’s an example. Let’s say a news company’s senior management decides that the CEO needs to become an expert on how digital technology has changed the sector over the last 25 years and (more importantly) how it will change the industry over the rest of this decade. First, divide that subject into component pieces (e.g., the evolving digital reader, the evolution of digital devices, subscription trends, and so on). The content development plan should lay out a schedule of publications by the CEO on the components of the topic. Now let’s take the execution of the plan: After, say, 10-12 articles are published, the CEO, CMO and others involved in this thought leadership program should stand back, review what they’ve published, and look to “connect the dots” on issues from the broad themes and insights that have emerged from their writings. If they commissioned primary research during those months – such research is necessary if the CEO’s experiences of “best practices” need to be broadened — they should draw on that content after coming up with the findings. By the way, this is how the CEO’s book could be developed: publishing it article by article, then weaving them together for a book manuscript .
  • Delivering content in channels that convey authority. The content components that we describe in the previous bullet point should be published on the company’s website as a CEO blog, or “CEO Corner.” That will become the foundational content for a CEO to use in taking his or her insights into marketing channels that convey much more authority: external channels that stakeholders trust for offering substantive advice. Such authoritative channels are not pay-for-play. They aren’t conference presentations requiring payments to the organizers. They aren’t advertorial. Instead, authoritative channels are those in which the authors “earn” their way in – not pay their way in. They include getting published in prestigious management journals (Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review,) or the opinion sections of business (FT, Wall Street Journal, etc.) and industry publications; keynote speeches at highly regarded industry and general conferences (the World Economic Forum would be one of them); and broadcast media (e.g., CNBC, Bloomberg TV). It’s difficult to get space or airtime in these channels because they have huge audiences, many firms trying to get in front of them, and highly selective gatekeepers. But having the message come from a company’s CEO will carry a lot of weight.
  • Ray Dalio

    Making the CEO highly visible and engaging in social media. Over the last decade, many of the best CEO-as-thought leaders aggressively used LinkedIn, Twitter and other social channels to spread their messages. Importantly, they also used those channels to engage with their audiences – that is, to respond to comments and questions. That made them accessible thought leaders, willing to interact with people and respond to both positive and negative comments. Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates (the world’s largest hedge fund, with $130 billion in assets) has been one of the best CEOs in using social media to spread his “Principles” point of view. He has 1.6 million LinkedIn followers and close to 500,000 Twitter followers. And he often responds to LinkedIn comments.

  • Using the CEO’s time wisely and sparingly. Don’t draw your CEO into the labor-intensive parts of this work: writing, first-level analysis of research data, creating detailed outlines for articles, or even creating the content development plan. Your CEO will spend enough time creating overarching messages that need to be distilled into detailed outlines; giving speeches and press interviews; going over article and book manuscript drafts; and reviewing first-level research findings. The CEO shouldn’t be asked to spend more than four hours a week on this – unless they want to.

The last point is one on which we anticipate some CMOs will get pushback from their CEO. The demands on every CEO’s time are enormous. But done well, this initiative should not tax a CEO. Some CEOs will be unsure of the value until they see it. They should speak with other CEOs who have seen the rewards. Other CEOs may wonder if they have profound and novel ideas. They need to realize that they won’t be carrying the weight of this on their shoulders. This is what a well-functioning thought leadership research function does well.

The CEO Thought Leadership Opportunity

For certain companies, developing a CEO into a widely recognized thought leader will be one of their most important marketing initiatives this decade. While a number of CEOs and their marketers have attempted this in recent decades, few of these leaders have been recognized as top authorities on their topics. Professors and consultants are more likely to get the kudos. A biannual ranking of the world’s 50 top thought leaders (by the firm Thinkers 50) affirms this. Over the last decade, we counted only five CEOs in that illustrious group.

This is a lost opportunity. But so is a CEO who writes his or her autobiography after they step down from the job. CEOs who need to be seen as thought leaders should be writing autobiographies while they are CEOs. And they should be writing them as management advice books first and autobiographies second. CEOs who write autobiographies when they no longer are CEOs impart wisdom that others can follow. That’s of value. But it’s of little value to the companies they leave behind.

We see the greatest opportunities for CEOs-as-thought-leaders to be at companies with large growth ambitions and a hunger to change how the market perceives them. The industries in which we think these companies can be found include consulting, IT services, software, financial services, law and research.

But we don’t mean to be exclusive about the opportunity. We believe they are substantial for many companies beyond those sectors – CEOs who feel their companies compete today and for the foreseeable future on the basis of possessing superior expertise.


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