Three Best Practices of Successful Thought Leadership Architects

Like a building architect, a TL architect develops the underpinning for all the work that follows.

By Alan Alper

After 15-plus years helping smart people sound and look smarter, I’ve learned much about thought leadership development from the many subject matter experts (SMEs) who’ve given me the privilege of their time.  From these experiences I’ve come to see myself as a thought leadership architect: someone who works directly with subject matter experts to turn their brilliant, novel but rough ideas into compelling assets that raise the eminence of both the SME and the organization.

Like a building architect, a TL architect develops the underpinning for all the work that follows — by shaping arguments (and pressure testing their efficacy), uncovering substantiating evidence, identifying storytelling formats, coordinating multidisciplinary creative teams, and working with marketing and PR to ensure messaging alignment and effective dissemination across the ecosystem.

Over time I’ve learned that three basic rules of engagement, if applied artfully and rigorously, can boost the thought leadership architect’s success rate in rallying the company’s smartest people to create thought leadership that truly elevates the firm and helps it attract attention. Importantly, these rules apply no matter how much or how little time you’re spending helping experts develop their ideas; and whether your initiative is small or ambitious in its scale, scope, or format.

The following three commandments will unleash your experts’ brilliance and boost the eminence that flows throughout your organization’s ecosystem – and from there, to the media and industry/market analysts and then to customers and prospects.  After all, influencing the influencers is what all great TL architects desire, right?!?

1. Do Your Homework to Gain SME Confidence

 Sounds obvious, but you need to immerse yourself in your expert’s topic before you move forward. Don’t lean on them to get the necessary background that you can get by yourself. You don’t need to be an expert, but a little knowledge will pay large dividends as you feel your way through the initiative. Plus, doing your homework signals to SMEs that you respect their time, and gains their trust.

Therefore, consume all that has been previously written on the topic by others at your firm – and, perhaps more importantly, by your competitors. Only then can you serve as an effective Sherpa who can point out a white-hot path for your SMEs’ unique point of view. You also need to ensure that the resulting PoV aligns with your firm’s strategic objectives (more on this below).

TL architects must begin their work in helping experts shape their arguments by gaining deep knowledge on the topic at hand.

Five-plus years ago, I led a primary research initiative at Cognizant to demystify blockchain, or distributed ledger technology (DLT) as it is commonly known. DLT was transitioning from its cryptocurrency origins to enterprise-grade digital business infrastructure, and we had some early insights on how to help our clients cross the chasm. As a digital immigrant, I needed to study blockchain’s technical elements and process nuances thoroughly. I read all I could on our internal DLT thinking, as well as Blockchain Revolution from digital economy visionary Don Tapscott.

I needed to understand blockchain’s technological subtleties, the implementation challenges for businesses large and small, and DLT’s fit across a variety of applications and business sectors before stepping to the plate. This all came in handy, not only in constructing the survey instrument with my research team but also in interpreting and reporting the findings with Cognizant’s DLT experts. They were both surprised and pleased that a non-techie like me could hang with them and convey their breakthrough thinking. And we conveyed it extensively in a series of long-form reports, short-form PoVs and infographics that spanned industry, functional areas, and geographies.

The takeaway: TL architects must begin their work in helping experts shape their arguments by gaining deep knowledge on the topic at hand. That enables the TL architect to proceed from a position of strength.

2. Be an Ally in Argument Development

 Knowledge, as noted above, is a powerful elixir for all things thought leadership. But as a budding or even established TL architect, your SMEs won’t invite you to the table or (if they do) take you seriously if you can’t convince them you can lead them to the promised land of thought leadership excellence.

I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. You walk into a meeting or conference call having read a summary or an article abstract, assuming your SMEs’ ideas are encased in logic and supported by water-tight facts and figures. You also believe they have solid examples to prove they know of what they speak.

SMEs may get testy with you for probing and questioning. Just remind them that if they can’t convince you of the primacy of their thinking, they are unlikely to influence anyone else.

Mid-conversation you realize that their ideas have merit but need more evidence and proof that they work. The SMEs may get testy with you for probing and questioning. Just remind them that if they can’t convince you of the primacy of their thinking, they are unlikely to influence anyone else.

Consider this: Your SMEs may not be fully equipped to transcend their arcane language and articulate their PoV so it resonates with the target market. Frequently, their arguments make sense only in their own heads – and to those who breathe the same rarified mountain air where big ideas germinate and flower. However, you believe they will need additional research and evidence to unlock their brilliance. They will also need your help in structuring their writing to illuminate their best thinking and make it relatable to the target audience.

So give them confidence that you can shape and extend that thinking. Help them see you as someone who understands their brain and can carry their message to a larger audience willing to open minds and wallets. Get to the point where you can  finish their thoughts, anticipate the follow-up questions, and have ready-made answers – or at least alternatives for getting from A to B to C on the TL development journey.

 Here’s an example of how this plays out. I commissioned a study in the fall of 2020 to understand the key challenges business leaders are facing amid the COVID pandemic in keeping their data and analytical models up to date. Our SMEs knew this was an issue. But they lacked data and storytelling support to show that companies relying on old data and analytical models were struggling mightily amid market turbulence and supply chain disarray. Jamming closely with the SME team, my colleagues and I created data visualizations that told the story with compelling imagery, facts and figures. It was a grueling process that only succeeded once we gained their trust – i.e., that we had data and storytelling techniques to translate their gut instinct into veritable truth.

A pressure-tested argument built on solid facts, with relatable and reinforcing real-world evidence, ensures your PoV can weather the headwinds of the many critics and haters who thrive on belittling others’ TL.

The takeaway: Confidence cuts across numerous vectors inside your organization and externally to influencers. A pressure-tested argument built on solid facts, with relatable and reinforcing real-world evidence, ensures your PoV can weather the headwinds of the many critics and haters who thrive on belittling others’ TL. By challenging their authority constructively, you will ensure your SMEs gain the eminence they richly deserve!

 3. Generate and Reinforce Multidisciplinary Camaraderie

 As illustrated above, winning TL development requires exceptional collaboration. Showing knowledge about their topic breeds confidence. Working with them to develop their thinking on it builds even more confidence. But then it is up to the TL architect to assemble a team to package an interesting idea into a compelling presentation – with great copy and accompanying graphics.

You must build a team that will take raw ideas and refine them into solid TL deliverables. Early on, the TL architect must identify a writer, copy editor, graphic designer, animator, videographer, data analyst and project manager to keep the trains on track. Get this team involved early and often so they are intimately familiar with the SME’s IP and vision. That will also enable them to plug and play iteratively as ideas are shaped, refined, pressure-tested and fashioned into breakthrough deliverables.

You’ll also need someone from marketing to ensure early on that the project aligns with the organization’s strategic imperatives and reflects key messaging and positioning tenets. And at the same time, you’ll need marketing and PR’s commitment to get the word out. There’s nothing worse than creating a great piece of TL that few targets have seen!

The takeaway: Top-notch TL takes a village. SMEs may generate the big ideas. But without a solid, multidimensional team, TL can easily devolve into flotsam and jetsam. In fact, it is the team that makes and/or breaks the TL development process. Succeed on a process level and your firm’s chances of being heard above the din – and winning in the marketplace of ideas – dramatically improve!

 What has worked or failed at your organization? Feel free to share here or @ Alan@BudayTLP.com.

 Alan Alper is a Principal and Chief Operating Officer at Buday Thought Leadership Partners. Prior to joining Buday TLP, he spent 15 years running the thought leadership practice at Cognizant Technology Solutions, a global IT, business process and consulting services company. Previously, Alan spent 25-plus years as a reporter, editor and analyst covering the IT space. He can be reached Alan@BudayTLP.com.

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