The LinkedIn guide to thought leadership for non-executive directors

This article was first published by Russell Yardley on LinkedIn

Over the past months I’ve been asked many times about building thought leadership on LinkedIn. There’s been substantial interest across the non-executive director community to understand how and why I’ve been publishing content on LinkedIn.

To answer these questions, in this article I’m going to provide a deep look into why I’m producing thought leadership content on LinkedIn. I’m also going to follow this up with a second article on my specific process – or how non-executive directors can build thought leadership on LinkedIn.

As well as my opinions, I’ve also asked two experts on the space to contribute insights. Those two experts are:

  • Clifford Rosenberg – MD LinkedIn Australia NZ and SEA
  • Steve Pell – Director, Thought Leadership Partners

What is thought leadership?

Thought leadership means positioning yourself as the go-to person on a particular subject. It’s about leveraging expertise into opportunities.

Steve Pell says, ‘If you’re a thought leader, you should be the person who your audience thinks of as the first person they want to help solve their problems,’ he says. ‘Thought leadership means achieving front of mind positioning in whatever space it is that you’re an expert’.

Having the expertise is one thing; thought leaders also must broadcast that expertise to a wide, relevant audience. Traditionally, this meant getting published and quoted, speaking at conferences, or being interviewed for TV or print media. Nowadays we have the technology to do it ourselves, do it quickly, and do it our way – through platforms like LinkedIn.

Why should directors build thought leadership on LinkedIn?

If someone was to invite you to speak on stage at the AICD Directors Conference, would you say yes? Just like speaking at a large conference, publishing regular thought leadership content on LinkedIn puts your ideas in front of an audience of thousands on a regular basis.

For me, the decision to publish frequently on LinkedIn is a no-brainer. I get to talk about the things I’m passionate about with an audience of thousands of interested people. It’s a win-win for everyone.

As Clifford Rosenberg says, ‘LinkedIn was founded to connect the world’s professionals. Today we have well over 7 million members in Australia. There’s no better place to publish content if you’re looking to reach,and engage with, senior executives and non-executive directors.’

LinkedIn provides instant feedback and analytics tools that allow you to gauge engagement. I know where my readership comes from and if it is rising or dropping. I know if an old post has had a sudden resurgence. I can tell if people are watching all the way through a video or dropping out in the first minute.

I see comments as the ultimate validation that the content I’m producing is resonating. It’s great that some of my articles have spurred over 100 people to comment, but more importantly, those comments are intelligent, thoughtful reflections on my content. That level of engagement is comparable to an article in mainstream media.

For more discussion on why directors should build thought leadership, see the video from 0:04 – 06:15.

LinkedIn delivers relevant and high quality of discussion

The greatest strength of LinkedIn is the quality of the ‘crowd’. When I post on LinkedIn, I’m sharing my ideas.

The magic happens in the comments section below my post. The engagement and input from my audience leads to idea creation and exciting new opportunities that can never come from one person alone.

I often find myself quoting James Surowiecki’s 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki says ‘under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them’. He supports this proposition with empirical evidence. Overall, where groups of people share independent information, they consistently make better decisions than any one person in the group could.

Surowiecki identifies four conditions that need to be present to have a “wise crowd”:

  1. Diversity of opinion
  2. Independence of members from one another
  3. Decentralisation
  4. A method for aggregating options

Measured against all of these criteria, LinkedIn delivers a high quality “wise crowd”. As Rosenberg said: ‘When you look at the LinkedIn global community, it fulfils all four conditions specified by Surowiecki. You’re getting input from professionals all over the world, all walks of life and all manner of industries. There is no single, central leader with the “right” or only perspective. The platform makes it easy to comment, share or like any content, status update, or blog post..’

Illustrating just how valuable these comments can be, I’ve had a number of directors tell me that they’ve included the comments summary from my article on “Technology questions for the board” into their monthly board reading pack.

For more discussion on the benefits of LinkedIn, see the video from 08:15 – 10:21.

To build thought leadership, you must understand your followers

‘To be a thought leader, you have to have followers,’ says Steve Pell. ‘So having a clear idea of who those people are is very important.’

Whilst I agree with Steve that you need to have followers to be a thought leader, I stress that you also need to be a follower. There is no single person with all the knowledge.

When engaging with followers on social media, if you’re clued-in, you’ll recognise when others want to take on leadership roles. Be humble enough to encourage and embrace “co-leaders” who have something else to add. Doing so will make you a better leader.

I could have written this article alone. But I’m happy to call upon the expertise of Steve and Clifford. Their perspectives make my article better, but it’s a two-way street. By calling on their expertise and quoting them here, it reinforces their reputations as thought leaders in their respective fields.

LinkedIn has over 500 influencers who publish long-form content on LinkedIn. As leaders in their industries, geographies, and seniority, they discuss topics of interest, such as leadership, management, entrepreneurship, disruption, and how to succeed. This is a handpicked community of thought leaders that you could follow.

Are you a leader or a follower? If you want to be a true thought leader, you have to be both.

Add value first (don’t be a Kardashian)

Thought leaders don’t simply look for what they can get out of sharing a post or a video or article, they constantly question how they can add value for their audience. Being an expert means having a purpose and a passion, which you want to share with others. The biggest mistake you can make is thinking it is all about you. It’s a reciprocal deal.

‘You can’t be a Kardashian,’ is how Pell puts it. ‘It can’t just be “look at me”. Ask yourself, how are you helping the market? How are you benefitting everyone you’re working with?’

The “leadership” in “thought leadership” means leading a discussion that is important for the community, but it has to be two-way. Your output should be useful to your audience and help them achieve their goals.

My goal is to increase the capability of directors to make use of emerging and novel technology and to participate in good governance of decisions in the hundreds of million-dollar range. I need to get others excited and engaged and come with me on that journey. So when I make a post about the blockchain or augmented reality, I’m not just showing off how much I know; I’m constantly thinking about how it might help others or provoke a useful debate that can help boards make better technology decisions.

Use the feedback from LinkedIn to build better content over time

Rosenberg is enthusiastic when pointing out the feedback mechanisms built into LinkedIn. ‘The great thing about LinkedIn is how easy it is for anyone to engage with your content. Your audience is also authentic and not anonymous as they are logged in with their professional identity. They can easily comment or share to their network, either on desktop or mobile. There’s no stressing about the technology – it’s going to work, every time you publish a post. We’ve built in an easy ability for readers to like, share and discuss your content.’

You soon learn to spot patterns, and now within a few hours of posting I know whether my latest post has resonated, incited or fallen flat. I use the feedback (or lack thereof) to change the way I assemble things, re-prioritise and continually improve.

Engaging with the people who have taken the time to comment, and prompting further discussion and debate in the comments, is vital. If I don’t have the data or skill to argue a particular point, I may call upon my network. If I know someone who has specific knowledge about something raised in a comment to my post, or if I think they may have a different view I might approach him or her and ask them to respond, sparking further debate. People appreciate being asked to participate and that I recognise them as an authority and value their opinion.

What should your area of expertise be?

Think you don’t have the requisite expertise to be a thought leader? If you’re knowledgeable enough to be a senior executive or sit on a board, you’re almost certainly an industry-leading expert in some space. The trick is to define a narrow scope for your thought leadership.

For example it’s hard to become the sole go-to source for M&A. You need to narrow it down. M&A opportunities in Asia is still a big pool. But if you know a lot about M&A opportunities coming out of Singapore for sub-$100m cap companies, there is definitely room to position yourself. Even though there may be one or two people who know more than you, if you’ve put yourself out there, you will generally be considered the authority. The narrower you can make the scope for expertise, the easier to position yourself as a thought leader in that area.

I’ll talk about this more about positioning and specific topics in my second article in this series.

For more discussion on areas of expertise, see the video from 06:15 – 08:15

How thought leadership delivers value to organisations you represent

So what value does being a thought leader bring to organisations I advise and work with?

Being a thought leader and sharing via LinkedIn widens my network and sphere of influence. When the board needs expert input, I’m more likely to have a connection I can introduce to the discussion. In the same way, when other organisations need expert input on technology governance, I’ll often get a call and be able to make introductions to organisations that I work with.

As Clifford Rosenberg says, ‘people are just starting to realise how much value there is in their broader network. What you can see on LinkedIn is the range and diversity of people who know someone you know. 

There are over 430 million LinkedIn members worldwide that could potentially be partners, prospects or employees

Also, because people trust my expertise in the technology governance space, by extension there is enhanced trust and credibility in the organisations I represent.

Becoming a thought leader isn’t something that just happens. It requires expertise, but more importantly, passion in your subject matter. It means admitting to, and learning from, failure as well as success. It takes effort and insight into your own behaviour.

LinkedIn makes it easier than ever before, but it still requires an ongoing commitment and a willingness to work at building your profile, engaging with your audience and striving to improve. Most of all you have to be prepared to commit for the medium to long term. If you need quick results, in a week or two, this isn’t the right strategy for you.

For more discussion on how thought leadership delivers value to organisations, see the video from 10:20 – 11:50.