Why Thought Leaders Should Never be Writers

Jul 6, 2016

Imagine this: a senior partner has a great idea for an article. She jots down a few thoughts during a break in her client meeting. She writes up that idea on the plane ride back from the client. Done! Published. Posted. Right?

Not right.

Thought leadership can happen as a solo endeavor, but the risks of going it alone are significant.

The ideas expressed may sound like what others in the industry are already saying. A long-cherished fact may actually be fiction. An attempt at insight may read like a thinly veiled plug for the company’s products and services. The style may suffice for an academic treatise but not for a strategic marketing asset that ought to be cutting through the content clutter to grab readers’ attention.

What’s needed? Recognition by senior leaders that thought leadership works best when it is developed hand-in-hand with professional marketers and expert business writers.

It takes a trio to do it right – with maximum impact and minimal risk.

So what makes so many thought leaders think they can do thought leadership all by themselves? It’s not uncommon for business executives, senior partners, research directors, and marketing chiefs to think writing is easy. The hard stuff is the thinking, right?

They’re usually not being presumptuous: after all, these are smart, savvy people who have to communicate powerfully for a living – with their peers, and with their customers and prospects. And the truth is, many of them can actually write really well.

But that doesn’t mean they should do all the writing. Their ideas – as good as they are – need to be pressure tested before anyone’s fingers hit the keyboard. Pressure testing means ensuring that the senior partners can identify their target audience, say what they want to tell them, and explain, in a few short sentences, why their approach to the topic is different from (and ideally better than) what everyone else in the market is saying. If the idea isn’t pressure tested, the odds are that the resulting article will end up as “me too” material that does nothing for the company’s brand. On top of that, it may not be timely or provocative.

Another not-so-trivial reason for senior executives to hand off the actual writing: every minute they invest in wrapping their great idea in lyrical prose is a minute that they could be in front of a client or prospect.

So let’s talk trio: Senior leader + marketer + writer.

Here’s who should be doing what, and why:

The senior leader (or subject matter expert) generates compelling ideas. It’s not the marketer’s job or the writer’s job to come up with the ideas (although they can and certainly should help with this.) It’s the senior leader who must be the thought leader; he or she must have the ideas that will open doors with clients and prospects. The senior leader must be:

  • Able to convey and defend the ideas to the marketer and writer
  • Available to review and amend outlines and drafts
  • Available to respond to edits, fact-checking, design, and other later stages of thought leadership development
  • Welcoming of the writer’s and marketers’ opinions of and experience of thought leadership development

The marketer drives the thought leadership bus. He or she plans and develops the thought leadership campaign and ensures that it meshes with the organization’s overall marketing objectives. The marketer’s role is to:

  • Manage the budget and timetable for delivery of thought leadership content
  • Ensure compliance with all corporate norms: brand identity, tone of voice, formats, references to clients, and so on
  • Ensure alignment with other viewpoints elsewhere in the company
  • Progress-chase the editorial project, securing other author resources when the lead authors just are not available
  • Manage all aspects of distribution, from posting to placing to mailing
  • Track responses and results and shares thought leadership outcomes

The writer probes the senior leaders’ core ideas, looking for a defensible “why now”, pushing for differentiation from competitors’ perspectives, requiring supporting examples and data, and so on. The writer’s job is to:

  • Deliver superior storytelling, story structure, and logic flow
  • Propose editorial approaches that hook and engage readers
  • Advise on length and format
  • Provide counsel on tone: prescriptive vs. descriptive, information vs. exhortation, etc.
  • Craft the outline and deliver every draft

The senior leader who chooses to take on all of these responsibilities (and those are by no means complete lists!) deserves approbation more than applause. To restate: yes, the core idea is his or hers, but all the attendant aspects of thought leadership development are the other players’ jobs.

Think about it like the three branches of a democratic government, relying on a system of checks and balances to air all of the consequences, meet all necessary deadlines, reach consensus with all the pertinent parties, and elevate the distinctiveness and rigor of the arguments.

It’s not just about effective division of duties. It’s also about quality and risk.