Sabrina Horn knows what it means to succeed in the harsh world of business leadership, especially in high-tech meccas like Silicon Valley and New York. She would tell you herself she has made no shortage of mistakes and failures. The best-selling author and current CEO of Horn Strategy arrived in Silicon Valley in the early 1990s. With just $500 of seed money, she launched the public relations firm Horn Group, which Finn Partners acquired in 2015.
Under Sabrina’s leadership, Horn Group grew to national renown and Sabrina herself got to know some of the tech industry’s earliest visionaries and titans. Her own journey as a leader has prompted Sabrina to realize the importance of being humble, caring, and honest in the world of startups, even during financially challenging times. This idea is the subject of her hot book, “Make It, Don’t Fake It: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success.”
BudayTLP’s Alan Alper, who has known and worked with Sabrina for 30 years, spoke recently with her about the principles in her book, her perspective on thought leadership, the importance of authenticity and integrity for leaders, and other lessons she has learned throughout her impressive career.
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Unraveling Tech’s Thought Leadership Challenges: A Conversation with Sabrina Horn
Alan Alper: Let’s start with the Fake-o-Meter, which you talk about in your book. You use it to analyze the broad spectrum of fakery seen in business. How does it compromise an organization’s ability to communicate with authenticity?
Sabrina Horn: There’s a continuum of all the ways that people fake it — from the innocent, to crossing the line, to jail time. The most innocent form is taken from cognitive behavioral therapy: where you practice the behavior you wish you would exude until it becomes a habit. Another kind of fakery, a bad one, is exaggerating the truth to close the sale or get money from investors. Then there’s fakery by omission — telling the truth but leaving out facts. And then there’s outright fraud.
Most people are in the space where they stretch the truth a little bit. But the issue is that the truth comes out when a journalist or someone else checks the facts. This complicates a company’s thought leadership because it’s a point of view on something, and you can’t fake that. If you exaggerate based on facts that are made up, about what the company is executing on, that’s faking thought leadership.
Visionaries and Wannabes
Alan: You’re a recovering Silicon Valley public relations professional and know first-hand how tech founders and CEOs generate buzz and hype about their products, technical expertise and the problem-solving they bring to market. There can be an emphasis on style over substance. How do you deal with that? How do you separate the well-intentioned earthbound wannabe from the high flyer who deserves a little latitude because they’re a visionary?
Sabrina: A lot of tech people don’t know how to use a PR firm. They think we can just spin some magic and make them larger than life. The best PR has to peel off that onion, ask questions and be like a journalist or venture capital firm, always making sure that the people telling you their story are telling the truth. My firm became better than that and that’s why people wanted to hire us. They knew we’d give them the truth so together we could develop a compelling story.
You can count the really breakthrough companies on one hand. The rest are runners-up; they’re riding the coattails of other companies; or they’re wannabes. They can still be successful but they need to get at the nub of whey they are unique and different, within the context of a larger trend. That’s the art of what we do as a PR agency.
Working With Journalists
Alan: You are not just aiming for placements, but relationships with journalists who understand what you’re trying to do. I remember that your pitches were never self-promoting or dumbed down. They were for stories that our readers wanted to know about. How do you work with clients to ensure there’s enough truth or substance to get the journalists to write about them?
Sabrina: It’s so important for companies to preserve their relationship with journalists. Without them, and without their willingness to work with us, we couldn’t tell the company’s story. Bogus pitches, and not looking under the hood beyond the surface, becomes annoying, and journalists don’t care to work with those companies. PR professionals should be just as hard on their clients, because it forces them to be honest. Sometimes a CEO would ask me if I really need to know something, and I always tell them I need to know the truth so I could come up with interesting angle.
Focus on Your Audience
Alan: Thought leadership is about conveying the best and brightest points of view on a company’s expertise. Research is critical to this. What are the best approaches you’ve discovered to convey thought leadership — in terms of position papers, blogs, videos, articles and other things?
Sabrina: First, it’s understanding the value of those pieces of content and what thought leadership really means. A lot of executives don’t understand it. They’ll say, “OK, I’ve got to come up with a point of view…Will this work?” I’ll ask, “Do you believe it?” It’s really taking a more holistic view of your vision for the tech you are making. How does it disrupt a certain sector or improve how people live and work? Remember that you are doing thought leadership to help someone…it’s not just a pulpit to hear yourself talk. What action do you want the audience to take from your message? What do you want them to do? You have to be strategic about it, rather than putting up 500 words and hoping someone cares.
The Role of PR Agencies
Alan: Do you think that PR agencies are the best equipped to develop deep thought leadership? They’re good at identifying publications and writing bylined articles. What about actually framing ideas and writing compelling thought leadership articles?
Sabrina: Some agencies are. The good ones know they need to hire the expertise to do it. Not just being a good tech writer, but understanding how the technology works and the players in that market and the landscape of how that that software comes together. This is a real specialty. We tried at times to do that, for example when we developed a practice in cybersecurity, and we knew we had to invest in a tech writer that understood that world. Those people are expensive and you need to keep them busy.
Alan: Tech companies, especially in product spaces, struggle to create high-quality thought leadership. They’re smitten with their own products and can’t see the forest for the trees.
Sabrina: Most of them start out with great intentions and something that’s very good. But as it circulates through the company it always gets watered down – everything but the kitchen sink, and no focus. Thought leadership is supposed to be edgy! Somebody like you or me has to ask, what’s the point here? This doesn’t happen enough.
Learning from Leaders
Alan: When you were in Silicon Valley and New York, you mingled with celebrity rock star CEOs and smart subject matter experts. Companies like PeopleSoft and people like Geoff Moore. What did you learn from them about thought leadership done right?
Sabrina: I was impressed by the sheer clarity and brutal honesty of everything they said. They never faked it and the would tell you if they didn’t know the answer. They never dished out dirt on anyone else. That is high-integrity, authentic leadership.
Alan: Sometimes you have to look at thought leadership through a realistic lens. In your book you talk about optimism versus pessimism – how CEOs should covey a north star value proposition. Can thought leadership work if it’s honest but pessimistic?
Sabrina: At the end of the day you have to be honest and realistic. People look to leaders for honesty but also look to them for a path forward. They need to hear, “That may be the case but here are some options to move forward. Here’s what needs to happen.” They won’t read something that doesn’t give them hope.
Ideas and Execution
Alan: In your book you say that ideas are easy to come up with but executing them is harder. Any thoughts about the best way to ideate?
Sabrina: If it’s a bad idea with bad execution, there’s no hope. Good ideas with bad executions sometimes never see the light of day. With thought leadership, you need to know your intention and your objective. Who is this for? Is this what they want to hear, and what are the things they need to know – good, bad or otherwise? What’s missing that will give you an interesting twist? That’s where research comes in. Once you have the thought leadership, you need to convey it in different ways and look at how people responded to every aspect of it. Did anybody care? Unfortunately many companies don’t do that – They waste time and money putting out stuff that doesn’t make a difference.
The ”L” Words
Alan: Your book talks about the importance of the L words – Lead and Lose – and how organizations need to put out a post-mortem to understand where things when wrong. How can they do that with integrity and understand how to do better next time?
Sabrina: Peter Finn, after my company was sold to Finn Partners, asked if we could do some thought leadership through HubSpot and increase revenue to $2 million in a year. I told him no, unless we stepped back and looked at the much bigger picture of how we generated revenue. This isn’t about finger-pointing. We need to understand why something didn’t work and why no one cared. Maybe we need to go back to the drawing board to understand what our audience is interested in. Everyone, starting with the leader, needs to ask the right questions and be honest with themselves.
Sometimes you’ll discover that the campaign might have been fine but the timing was wrong — something else came out that took up more air space and got more attention. Something that didn’t work two months ago may work five months from now because nobody’s competing against it.
Here Comes Trouble
Alan: I loved your book’s explanation of the “trouble ball” (from the board game “Trouble.”) As a journalist I used to think that more press releases you issue, the more trouble you’re in.
Sabrina: The “spray and pray” method is still not very good. It gets annoying and it becomes hard to regain your credibility. If you put out too much thought leadership, you risk none of it being heard. What you do has to be very purposeful and intentional, and very strategic.
How CEOs Go Astray
Alan: Authentic CEOs stand up for themselves and their values. If they don’t, and something goes wrong, they’re complicit. This is critical to the thought leadership agenda that CEOs need to set. If things go wrong it can be disastrous to the company. In tech and beyond, can you speak to why the CEO can be misguided?
Sabrina: They’re humans too. Sometimes they fake it because they are under pressure: If they don’t make the quarterly earnings there will be a layoff. It’s so easy to exaggerate the truth just to keep the wheels on the bus, and we can see where that can lead — for example, with Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos. You need to tell them to stay the course and to find a more honest story to tell…and sometimes that’s not what they want to hear. That’s why leadership is so hard and staying on the straight and narrow is so difficult.
If you put out something that’s wrong, people will call you on it and you’ll be exposed. And if you’re a publicly traded company you’re really dancing with the devil.
Alan: Thank you, Sabrina for these insights!