Your CEO wants to be a thought leader? Look before you leap.

So, your hospital CEO wants to be a thought leader? Doesn’t everyone? It’s a request that seems to be increasingly common and, while it is possible to build thought leadership over time, this isn’t always a strategic use of an organization’s limited resources.

When does it make sense for an organization to look at a thought leadership strategy for its executives? And when is it time to refocus your efforts?

Can they commit?

No, really. Is your executive willing to put in the work?  An agency, an internal communications team, or a combination of both can do a lot, but can only take it so far.  The executive needs to own their platform. Cultivating thought leadership takes time – and can be especially time-intensive upfront as the executive’s thought leadership platform is created.  It involves auditing what others in the industry already own so that you can add a unique voice to the conversation. Heavy use of buzzwords and repeating what everyone else is already saying?  Don’t go there.  Instead, insist on access to the executive to have a conversation with them about casting a vision – which should challenge the status quo and provide perspective on where they believe the world is heading.  Real thought leadership happens when others begin to buy into that vision.

But, really, can they commit?

Thought leadership requires a concerted, ongoing effort.  It is not built over days and months. When starting from scratch, and especially if the organization or executive are not already well-known, it can take a year or longer.  This is, in part, because true thought leadership requires distilling a vision throughout the organization – to employees, to industry, and, in many cases to community leaders and consumers, at large.  Tactical aspects of a thought leadership strategy may include speaking opportunities, which book months in advance.  Heck, it’s August, and we’re already looking into 2019 for many speaking engagements.

Thought leadership requires a concerted, ongoing effort. It is not built over days and months.Click To Tweet

No, but seriously, can they commit to their platform?

A thought leadership platform can – and should – evolve, but it shouldn’t shift abruptly or simply reflect the flavor of the week. That is why it is so important to nail a strong platform at the outset that reflects the executive’s vision and advances the organization’s strategic business goals.  If your executive lacks the focus to commit to consistent messaging, your efforts in building thought leadership will be wasted.

What are other red flags?

It’s OK (make that smart) to be discerning about the use of an executive’s time. However, when building thought leadership from scratch, it’s not all New York Times op-eds and keynotes at top tier events. We often say that you must be a hero at home first – “home” might be within your community, in your state or region, or within your industry. The point is, the executive needs to be considered a leader in their community or industry because that helps set the stage for interest from media and conference planners who are seeking experts on a specific topic or in a specific industry.  If your executive is unwilling to accept foundational opportunities, which may include a local or regional event that is still strategic, that can be a red flag about their commitment and understanding of the process.  But it’s still salvageable – that’s where we, as health care communications professionals, come in. At the very start of a thought leadership development program, it is important for us to help the executive understand the process, the criteria (the more scientific the approach, the better) being used to evaluate opportunities, and how this will help position them for bigger opportunities in the future.

Is your executive willing to commit to establishing thought leadership? If the answer is yes, prepare your team and your organization to also commit, because the best examples of thought leadership permeate throughout organizations (think Jeff Bezos and Amazon, think Larry Merlo and CVS Health) and require sustained commitment.  Sounds like a lot of work?  It is.  But, few things advance your organization’s reputation in the way that thought leadership can – it provides a halo effect for your brand, it opens doors to new partnerships and opportunities, and it changes the way that your executives interact with key stakeholders, from the media to elected officials to other industry influencers.

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