Mara Stefan is Vice President of Global Insights at Manpower Group, a $20 billion talent services firm – one of the largest in the world. Over her 25-year career, Mara’s has done nearly everything in thought leadership, from working with executives and their organizations to create thought leadership content to developing and executing thought leadership marketing strategies.
Before she joined Manpower, Mara headed global thought leadership marketing for the IT services giant Cognizant Technology Solutions, elevating eminence for the company’s Center for the Future of Work and its Digital Business and Technology business unit. She later led thought leadership strategy at The Adecco Group, another large talent services firm. There, she launched a digital thought leadership publication called Insights Magazine and led the firm’s thought leadership charge at the 2022 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos.
Earlier in her career, Mara founded Emerge PR, a tech public relations firm that helped small and large clients with content creation, market research, executive functioning, and more.
Throughout her career, Mara has helped subject matter experts and their companies gain recognition for their blockbuster ideas and solutions by facilitating partnerships with big names such as TED, Thinkers50, and the WEF.
In this episode of Everything Thought Leadership, Mara talks in depth with Alan Alper about her career journey, working and partnering with industry luminaries, the role of thought leadership for technology companies, and more.
Transcript: Mara Stefan and Alan Alper
Alan Alper: Mara, can you walk us through your career arc and how you landed as a thought leadership professional?
Mara Stefan: I started out doing tech PR in my post-college days at a company that did PR for tech companies in Portland, Oregon area. Learning how to pitch the media was part of my internship. These were back in the days when you would pitch clients to the media and then get on an airplane and go meet them in person. And so those days have changed quite a bit, as you can imagine. As I built my career in PR over two decades, I was always looking for how to position a young company against the big players — either for an agency that I worked for, when I was a partner in the Horn Group, or even when I ran my own agency before coming in house to work with you at Cognizant. Young companies couldn’t differentiate themselves just on doing traditional PR, which is very scripted with its press releases, media campaigns and other activities. We didn’t call it thought leadership in those early days, but we’d work with a young tech startup and ask them: How are you different? How are you going to win against this player or that player in the market, how are customers are going to use your products?
Geoffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm” was so instrumental for the tech companies because they were using that as their playbook. You needed to find ways to establish credibility in small sub sectors and own that sub sector before you move on to the next one. Geoff had this whole analogy and the metaphor of the bowling alley: You’d have to set up all the pins before you could actually realize market dominance. We were working with companies that were thinking about that, and we were figuring out how they were going to be different.
When I got to the Horn Group, I was a new mom, and just learning how to manage my career and raise a child. This was a lot of work for me to manage and figure that out. Eventually I became a partner in the firm, which gave me the confidence and the credibility I needed in my career to go in and have a conversation with powerful players.
When you were the managing editor of Client/Server Journal, I remember you’d always kind of give us a little bit of the acid test: Does it work? Tell me more what’s going on. Do you have real clients? You had a whole checklist of things that helped us determine if we had a client that was ready. Sometimes we’d have to tell a CEO, your technology may be fantastic, but you’re missing this or that and we’re not ready to push you forward. You may not know it now, but you’re going to thank us later.
When I started my own PR firm, Emerge PR, my second son had been born and I wanted to do what I knew how to do, but do it on my terms in a way that allowed me more flexibility. I had learned some major lessons after working with Sabrina Horn, and we remain good friends today. Back then, in 2005, I was helping a certain type of company emerge. They were not brand new startups or big, publicly held companies. They were the companies in an emerging growth sector; they had VC funding, experienced CEOs, technology that was actually proven and customers that were using it, and the analysts had looked at it. Plus they were willing to invest in marketing and PR; if a company wasn’t willing to do that, it was going to be very hard for us to do more.
After 14 years I made a later career pivot to come over to Cognizant, and I blame you entirely, Alan. When you asked me to come in, help the guys from the Center for the Future of Work stand up their code halos, I was super excited to help them. That was a fun project.
Working with Brilliant People
Alan: You’ve worked with some very interesting characters over the years — I noted Philippe Kahn, Dave Duffield, Patti Seibold, the guys from the Center for the Future work at Cognizant. How do you approach extracting the best and brightest from the minds of such brilliant people? And the same time managing those egos?
Mara: I think it starts with earning their trust and respect. I’ve been a partner and I founded my own company; I was an entrepreneur who had done the work of launching a business and hiring and firing people. I could think of myself as an equal, and that helps neutralize any egos.
Sometimes you just have to acknowledge how bright they are without being patronizing. The people at the Center for the Future of Work are brilliant, and to this day I have worked with few others who are as brilliant as those folks are. Also, having one-on-one conversations lets everyone show their human sides. You’ve got to meet them person to person, set egos aside, and ask, what are we trying to accomplish? How can I help? This supports everyone’s ego and helps everyone get to the heart of the matter.
Alan: The goal is to make it understandable and help it resonate with people they want to have influence over, or at least have conversations with? Talking above their heads doesn’t help anyone, does it?
Mara: I remember issuing a report as the pandemic began. The world had shut down and we had no idea of what’s coming. And we were really fast to move; it took us just 12 days from the time we brainstormed as a collective group at the Center for the Future of Work to the time we got the report ready to go and published. I remember thinking that this was really early and this was good…but maybe not good. Nobody had written about this topic yet. We were putting a report out 14 days into something that was catastrophic, and we were not sure the world was ready for it. That didn’t mean it’s not going to be valuable, it’s not going to be appreciated, or it’s not going to be written about in the future. But our timing was early. And then I said, keep in mind who we are. We are the Center for the Future of Work; that makes us futurists. That was not an easy conversation to have with a colleague, a superior in particular.
PR vs. Thought Leadership
Alan: In your mind, where does PR end and thought leadership begin? You’re putting the quality into your work, you’re getting those ideas developed, and then you’re disseminating them through the right channels so that they’re reaching the right people at the right time?
Mara: I’ve got more than 20 years doing PR in some fashion, and I’m never going to step too far away from it because I understand its value. But thought leadership is more of the engine for creating the content and the asset. The media is just one channel for exposing the content of the assets that we’re going to develop. It’s the activation arm, but so is social media. And actually, frankly, so is sales. At Manpower Group, I sit between all of those parts of our commercial business, and I support all of them.
Alan: You spent the early part of your career in tech, and then tech services. And then the last couple of years, you’ve been looking at things from a non-tech perspective, a human resource staffing point of view. From a thought leadership perspective, what are the differences between where you are today and your past life?
Mara: With tech, often there’s software, a service, and a way of solving the world’s problems using technology. AI is the latest and greatest. The IT staffing business is still a service-based model, but tech meets a need because it solves a business problem. Staffing solves a human challenge — talent scarcity, talent shortages and many other things. People are worried about the tech industry having all these mass layoffs, but there’s still going to be a talent shortage in the years to come because we have an aging workforce. Moreover, some people are not coming back into the kind of traditional white collar or blue-collar roles. We’re really thinking about new ways of describing that work, because it’s also changing. Because we can look at these problems through that future of work lens, I’ve been able to take all the lessons learned from being on that team to both my former employer and my current employer, because these issues aren’t going away.
Building a Thought Leadership Foundation
Alan: At Adecco, you built a thought leadership function pretty much from scratch. Can you walk us through how you did this?
Mara: Through the World Economic Forum I met a woman named Cynthia Hanson, who was running the foundation for the Adecco Group. She had been handling the thought leadership in that group. She brought me to Adecco because she knew about the work we had done at Cognizant. It felt like a perfect fit to be able to do what I had done at Cognizant for this large European multinational company. Adecco was moving thought leadership back to the corporate function under the global comms team. So global leadership at Adecco got repurposed under me, and I built a small team. What I loved about that group was I had social media; I had content that supported the function; and I had access to research. I was able to partner with a couple of external players, as a way to quickly build credibility for the Adecco Group in the future of work space.
When Resources are Scarce
Alan: What were the challenges in pulling all of that together?
Mara: The typical ones: not enough resources and not enough budget, which can make it very hard to to do all the things you’d want to do. Operationalizing thought leadership at Adecco became an exercise of stitching many functions together. When you’re doing corporate thought leadership, you have to stay close to sales, marketing and communications; no thought leadership gets done without those functions all coming together. We also had a really solid social media presence. The company had a newsletter, and it was long but not very engaging or pithy, and we didn’t do a lot to market it or improve the number of people reading or subscribing. I had been inspired by the digital magazine we had put out at Cognizant, and felt something similar could be a better tool than the newsletter. We could design it, make it punchy and creative, and make the future of work more interesting. The magazine became a way to catalyze the great work that was happening, and it became one of our best assets.
The Power of Good Research
Alan: So what do you have planned at Manpower Group?
Mara: Manpower Group is a different role. I head up global insights, which is not traditional thought leadership. And I love that it gives me the chance to do more than I was able to do previously. It’s not a communication function, and there’s a very strong research component that I didn’t have in any of my previous roles. And I’m really concentrating on looking at the data and leveraging what we have. The thought leadership will come later.
Alan: How will you build this research institute that could be the wellspring of all of your great ideas?
Mara: I’d love to see us think more about the future of work. It would be different than what we did at Cognizant and very different than what I was able to do at Adecco, but we’d create something entirely new and amazing. And because I have access to great data, anything that we create is going to come out of leveraging that data.
Alan: You seem to believe that really strong foundational research — be it primary or secondary and a combination of quantity and quality — is critical to thought leadership excellence and success.
Mara: I really liked working with The Economist, during the Adecco run up to WEF in 2022. We wanted to really understand talent scarcity and wage inflation. If you remember, during the pandemic, salaries were going way up and demand for talent was so great. Companies couldn’t hire enough people…and of course, now we are reacting to that glut. The Economist’s impact group helped us build out a model and a research project so we could take advantage of their data and understand what was going on. It was exciting because we were able to develop and promote that project, then bring it to Davos for the WEF meeting.
Alan: So The Economist gave you the econometrics from which you then provided some perspective, some direction on how people should be thinking about the future state of the global economy. People would pay a lot for that because it’s so important to running a business.
Mara: That’s right. Consider this, too: We all have bias, and partnering with an outside vendor prevents some of the bias. When you work with data that’s not your own, you in effect leverage an external voice to bring light and truth to whatever you’re doing in an unbiased way.
Alan: We talked a little bit about media partnerships and sponsorships with large organizations, WEF in particular. You and I worked very closely on that at Cognizant. And the thing that always surprised me to some degree was that people only think of WEF in terms of the annual meeting in Davos. They don’t think about all the other opportunities to hear about the best and brightest ideas, and also to get their own best and brightest ideas out into the marketplace and get recognition and maybe even revenue for those ideas. There are global events, issue-oriented platforms, and programs and committees focused on diversity, ethical use of AI and other important topics. How can you choose and forge the right partnerships to get your thought leadership to the people who really matter?
Mara: Well, WEF is one of the preeminent organizations that looks globally at issues that we care about — ESG, technology, water, solar, pay equity, and others. Few other organizations can do this, and if I could find one that did, I would point us there. Through nine years of working with WEF I realized it’s important to identify the necessary executive level sponsorship and support early. I love going to the mountain at Davos, but the real work for that organization gets done throughout the rest of the year. To manage a partnership like that, it’s important to be clear on where the other people within your organization can feed into the communities, the platforms, the work streams. The CEO may not have enough time to do that, but other industry experts should be willing. For example, I love [the WEF’s] Agenda blog because it gives us an opening to offer guest blogs from our executives who are experts in AI, women’s rights or other relevant topics. I’m not doing a hard sell, and I’m not doing PR the way I would have done it. But if the topic is relevant, and it matters to my colleagues, then it’s great to be able to work with them to be place that content.
Alan: So it really comes down to this: If you’re an executive looking at a strategic partnership, or any partnership with WEF, you’ve got to look beyond the bright lights and big stage of Davos. To be heard, seen and have impact, and to understand what’s going on in the world, you need to be part of those other programs that may be underappreciated.
Mara: That’s exactly right.
Turning Thought Leadership into Recognition and Revenue
Alan: Give us a little detail on how you convert a great thought leadership program into recognition and revenue. What metrics, facts and figures tell the story so that upper management understands, and feels as if there’s real benefit to be gained from a major thought leadership Initiative?
Mara: Make sure that all the stakeholders understand what you’re trying to accomplish. For example, Manpower Group is a very large global IT services with staffing, professional staffing…all kinds of things. My goal is to create really great assets and content that can be used across sales, marketing, and communications. When you when you get that right, sales has another asset that’s going to open up a dialogue with the client. And the client is going to be able to say, I really trust what I just saw here…This research really bears out [our thinking and] lets me have a conversation with the companies for whom we can solve problems. So in my current role, it’s been great to have so many different stakeholders who can [utilize] the content that we’re producing.
Alan: It’s all about the data. So given the ongoing economic uncertainty, what advice do you give your fellow thought leadership professionals on where to place their program bets and what investments they should be considering?
Mara: I think everyone is watching right now to see if this unsteadiness in the market is temporary or longer term, I’d say make good investments. That might mean doing less: not trying to boil the ocean with thought leadership. It’s a big toolbox, which is which is awesome thing, if you’ve got the budget, the dollars, and the team to support all the different ways you can go to the market with the thought leadership assets. But, you might want to think about one or two really important campaigns or programs that get to the heart of what you’re really trying to do, and start with that. And if budgets free up, you add on and it becomes an ongoing thing to build from.
But there’s a right way to do this, and it depends on where [clients] are in their lifecycle. For example, startups value brand awareness; they need to be seen. So I might invest money in a media partner that can elevate me more quickly, or elevate the company more quickly. Big companies like Cognizant need a different approach. I might think about promoting new executives in the organization, for example, to show their value and what they believe is important for the future of their organization.
Alan: So what’s next for thought leadership? And what’s next for Mara?
Mara: On thought leadership — I love that there are organizations like yours that are really putting a spotlight on what it is, and what it isn’t. I remember sitting at your conference, and I was really excited to listen to all of those amazing presentations. You had a whole thing about podcasting; you had big players that really do thought leadership well … because they know how to produce hundreds of pieces of content a year. And then you had other players who weren’t focusing on producing very much, but on making it really valuable and really interesting. I think our profession is going to continue to evolve. I think our future looks pretty bright, we’re becoming a much more strategic part [of business].
Alan: And in your own progression as a thought leadership professional …Where do you see that heading?
Mara: I wish I knew; every day is an adventure. I love the work I do. And for me … It’s about the relationships and the people. And I say that because I’ve discovered in my new role that we create new assets in record time because we had the opportunity to get together to think about what we were trying to do.
Alan: Well, enjoy the adventure. I know that you’re going to be successful. You do collect great ideas, great people, great relationships and new ways of thinking and presenting information and ideas that can be critical to your target market. So, kudos to that and to your great career, and thanks for joining us on Everything Thought Leadership. Great conversation.
Mara: Thanks for having me.