Thought leadership: How business executives can close the communications and revenue gap

Everyone feels obliged to play, company leaders say, but few know how to do it well.

Thought leadership: How business executives can close the communications and revenue gap

The business community has a thought leadership gap—and a big one. They’re trying to fill it with money, which is a start, but will only go so far.

But judging by business leaders’ own estimates, whoever manages to bridge the chasm will see plenty of money coming back their way.

The divide is stark: More than 9 in 10 top executives (92%) say that thought leadership is “critical to building authority in my industry,” according to a recent Harris Poll survey of company leaders (director level and above) from a mix of industries. Similar numbers say that they personally consume thought leadership (90%) and that it indicates industry leadership (93%). And yet few seem to be doing it well: Hardly more than a quarter (28%) said that their organization has a robust thought leadership strategy while only 20% characterized their company’s approach as highly effective. Ouch.

Getting it right is important for more than just executive vanity. The executives surveyed estimated that thought leadership drives an annual value of $2.7 million for their brands—a figure that rises to $3.6 million among Fortune 100 executives.  

Thought leadership as a concept is relatively new, originating in the early 1990s—just about the time that the internet started democratizing media. As traditional gatekeepers disappeared and platforms proliferated, so did opportunities for leaders to demonstrate their expertise.

And pursue them they have. A whopping 89% of executives surveyed said that they use thought leadership to drive sales, while 85% use it to build trust with clients or prospects and 83% use it to build brand authority. Looking ahead, 91% said that it’s an “important part of our growth strategy” and the same number said that it would directly increase revenues.

The COVID-19 pandemic made it even more important, dramatically accelerating the transition to hybrid work and rearranging how we conduct business and connect with each other in a way that places even more weight on communication: 93% of business leaders told us that thought leadership is more important now because “it’s harder to get noticed in a more virtual working world.”

That dovetails with another information age trend stretching to the early part of the century: a growing emphasis on soft skills in the C-suite over traditional hard ones. A recent Harvard Business Review analysis found a 27% increase in C-suite job listings looking for social skills, and a 38% decrease in those which sought hard skills, between 2000 and 2017. “People skills have grown in importance as CEOs are increasingly expected to respond to not just shareholders and board members, but employees, customers, the public at large, regulators, activists and more,” Axios reported. The rise of the robots and artificial intelligence will only drive this more as rote tasks become automated, freeing executives and other leaders to focus on jobs requiring human abilities such as empathy, creativity and—yes—communication.  

No wonder thought leadership has proliferated and no wonder executives see it as a multi-million-dollar value driver. But that’s the rub with thought leadership: When everyone is doing it (and everyone is doing it), how can individuals distinguish themselves? Two-thirds of those we surveyed agreed that “the market feels oversaturated with uninteresting thought leadership today” and a similar number (61%) worry that their efforts won’t break through a saturated market. And 78% said that most organizations check the thought leadership box but don’t push the envelope—everyone feels obliged to play, but few understand how to do it well.None of which is deterring executives. Indeed, annual spending on thought leadership has increased an average of nearly 40% since 2019, according to our survey, going from more than $140,000 to more than $194,000. And business leaders see it continuing to go up—by nearly one third by 2025 (up to more than $255,000).

That’s a good start but still won’t solve the basic problem of punching through in a world of never-ending thought leadership. How to solve that conundrum? Here are three pieces of advice:

Why you?

The tenet to write what you know remains correct—tackle a topic for which you have unique authority, experience and/or perspective.

Why now?

Give readers a reason to spend their time with you. What’s your value-add or hook grabbing their attention? It could be a fresh (preferably counterintuitive) angle on the news or a new perspective. 

Know your argument—and support it

An op-ed should make a case, not simply compile a bunch of data for the reader to ponder. Have a clear argument and then marshal facts to support it. Fully three-quarters of executives said that creating thought leadership that “stands up to media scrutiny” is “challenging.” It really shouldn’t be.

The bottom line: Thought leadership is easy enough that everyone can try it but hard enough that that few do it well. Start by doing it right and the rest will take care of itself.