A great thought leadership campaign should include more than the CEO

Why Thought Leadership Isn’t Just for CEOs Anymore

By Richelle South

“Establish Your Thought Leadership Role as a CEO.” “What Most CEOs Get Wrong About Becoming ‘Thought Leaders.’” “CEOs, Be Changemakers and Leverage Thought Leadership.” There is no shortage of advice out there about how to organize thought leadership campaigns. The curious thing is that almost all of these articles are geared toward one person and one person only: the CEO. In a way, this makes sense, as a CEO is the leader of their company, the visionary whose plan and purpose carry their business forward. But in today’s changing corporate world, there are numerous reasons why it just doesn’t make sense for the CEO to be the single focus of a thought leadership campaign. In fact, it may be time to let the rest of the C-suite shine.

The CEO isn’t the only one who’s thinking big-picture anymore

One important reason it no longer makes sense for thought leadership campaigns to be so CEO-centric is because the C-suite itself is changing. Take the CFO, for example. The position itself is relatively new; in 1978, fewer than 10% of US companies had a CFO, but by 2000, 80% of them did. It’s no surprise, then, that such a new position is continuously redefining its role. In fact, according to Forbes, the majority of CEOs want their CFOs to become more strategic players in the company and engage in bigger-picture thinking. The days are rapidly waning when the CFO only needed to crunch numbers and approve (or reject) budgets. As they turn toward value-creation and company strategy, CFOs’ intellectual capital positions them as thought leaders.

As with CFOs, the CMO’s role in the C-suite has been transforming, too, as the line between sales and marketing continues to blur in an increasingly digital marketplace. At the turn of the millennium, according to the Harvard Business Review, companies that wanted a single point of contact who could handle marketing, sales, and, well, dreaming, created the CCO, the chief commercial officer, “who can manage innovation, product development, marketing, and sales—across all platforms, both digital and bricks-and-mortar.”

Again, this expansion opens up CMOs (or CCOs) to a macro-level view that makes them ideal thought leader candidates. CMOs are already champions of thought leadership—92% of them think that thought leadership is “the single most effective way to differentiate their firm.” And they’re used to idea generation—nine out of ten company campaign ideas are driven by their marketing teams. As such, CMOs are uniquely positioned to lead the charge into thought leadership and brand-building through storytelling. And they’re on the frontlines of both marketing trends and thought leadership trends, the good and the bad.

The same Harvard Business Review article found one “strikingly consistent finding” in their study of the changing C-suite: no matter what three-letter acronym you boast, “technical and functional expertise matters less than leadership skills and a strong grasp of business fundamentals.” Thought leadership is a way to prove you have both of the latter, and should be thought of as a valuable career-building tool for everyone in the suite.  

There’s a need for influencers across the company

One negative trend in thought leadership is, surprisingly, a lack of originality. For example, a large-scale study of CMOs in 100 British companies showed that a whopping 81% believed that their company struggled with generating new insights for thought leadership. So if 92% of CMOs believe thought leadership is “the single most effective” vehicle to make their company stand out, but almost as many feel their company is falling short, then it’s definitely time to make a change.

A report by Dent Global suggests that part of the problem is that too many companies encourage a culture of “facelessness,” where employees hide behind their company brand. But very often when we think of powerhouse companies, we associate them with particular figures—what Dent calls “Key People of Influence.” And while these influencers can be CEOs, like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, often they are other executives. One of the best-known “Key People,” in fact, is a COO: Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, who is famous for her thought leadership around women in the workplace.

One of the best ways to develop these “Key People of Influence,” according to Dent’s report? Publish thought leadership. Of 40 executives who authored books, all 40 of them said that they felt they gained more credibility in their field. Publishing helps executives hone their thinking around trends and issues in their industry—and, hopefully, leads them ever closer to that spark of originality that makes true thought leaders stand out from the rest of the pack.

Thought leaders of the future

Ultimately, thought leadership campaigns are crucial to an organization not only because they brings customers to your business and your brand, but because they attract employees. This may be especially true of millennials, the next generation of business leaders. Seven in ten millennials want to work for a business that shares their values—but those values are much more visible with public influencers as the faces of an organization. And a CEO who can step aside and allow other executives to shine as thought leaders will send the message that the company values its employees and is invested in developing their careers as individuals—which is, incidentally, another key factor in attracting millennial job seekers.

Thought leadership campaigns work best when a diverse range of people across a company are publishing frequently, bringing their specialized knowledge and unique insights to the public. No longer just the job of one single company monolith, thought leadership can and should be used to showcase ideas from a full spectrum of employees, indicating not just that your employees are insightful and brilliant, but that your company values them enough to share their vision with the world.   

With contribution from Colleen Abel of Hippo ThinksPhoto by Flickr user tec_estrombergSome rights reserved.

Richelle South is Hippo Thinks’ Content Strategist for APAC.

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