Where will your next generation of thought leaders come from?

Jul 27, 2017

Take a quick look through your last dozen or so thought-leadership publications. Who were the lead authors? And how old are they?

I’ll bet they skew older – as in 45-plus. Some of your firm’s most prolific, most quoted authors may be older still – perhaps in sight of retirement or emeritus status. That’s certainly so in the management consulting sector.

Which poses some interesting questions: who’ll be authoring the bulk of your company’s thought leadership in 10 years’ time? Whose job is it to ensure that there’s a good pipeline of new thought leaders? And how do we make sure the next generation of thought leaders is better at it than today’s practitioners are?

These questions matter if thought leadership content is important to your marketing and business development initiatives. So let’s tackle each in turn:

Q: Who’ll be authoring your content a decade from now?

A: In our experience, most firms’ marketers will answer: “Haven’t a clue.” It’s a question that, for most marketing professionals charged with publishing strategic content, is so far from the demands of their everyday jobs as to be meaningless.

It shouldn’t be.

 Our recommendation: get the question onto the agenda of the next marketing planning meeting, and make sure it gets serious consideration, with prep ahead of the meeting and discrete actions and responsibilities coming out of it. Make sure someone owns the topic and reports back with proposed next steps. The immediate goal should be a short list of thought-leadership rookies across the company – opinionated yet collaboration-minded professionals who love formulating original ideas and are keen to have those ideas see the light of day.

Q: Whose job is it to ensure a good pipeline of future thought leaders?

 A: Few of the many marketers we know consider it their jobs to ensure a strong bench of thought leaders; for the most part, the presence of thought leaders is just something that “happens” organically – the product of an ideas culture laid down by a founder, for example. (Think Bruce Henderson, founder of The Boston Consulting Group.)

Similarly, this usually isn’t something that makes it onto HR’s radar. If anyone reflects on it at all, it will be the operations managers in the business units or practice areas. They’re the ones who are vested in caring how their professional staff use their time.

Our recommendation: marketers whose job it is to care about a publishing pipeline should care just as much about an author pipeline. Our suggestion for them: they should forge closer links with both HR and with Operations to make thought leadership a stated skill-building issue. To our earlier point: consider creating a cross-functional working group tasked with identifying up-and-coming thought leaders from all parts of the business.

Q: How to make sure tomorrow’s thought leaders are better at it?

 A: If you said “let them learn by doing,” you’re acknowledging what happens already. Junior authors learn from senior authors – their bad practices as well as good. They may view “writing” as a commodity – everybody can write, right? – without distinguishing it from the “story doctoring” essential to premium thought leadership.

There’s precious little formal training going on. A few years ago, our colleagues at Source Global Research ran a poll on this topic and found the results distinctly discouraging. Respondents at many of the firms surveyed said they had no clear criteria to assess what “good” looks like; others conceded they had no written or online training in thought-leadership best practice.

You can guess what we’re going to recommend. Begin the exercise of figuring out what defines best practice. (Source Global Research have four clear criteria to help here.) Then communicate those definitions to authors and fellow marketers. Hold workshops to get all marketing teams nodding in agreement. Hold more workshops to start training the new authors identified by your working group. Figure out the metrics to gauge progress. Get senior management to champion best practice. Hold authors to task against it. Etc. Etc.

If you’ve read this and you’re doing a “maybe later” with it, then at least try this quick exercise first. Take your top 10 thought-leadership publications of the last 12 months – the ones that got the highest readership or most shares and that likely generated plenty of qualified sales leads – and remove their authors from your next year’s content pipeline.

Who’s left to give voice to your firm’s best ideas?