Four Steps to Becoming a Corporate Thought Leader

Ben Boyd is in the business of helping companies become thought leaders. The global chair of the corporate practice at PR firm Edelman, Boyd advises leading corporations on how to break through the clutter of today’s media environment. His advice? Thought leadership starts with understanding who you are and asking the right questions. “You can’t aspire to be something you’re not,” says Boyd. “In today’s world, who you are is how you are” – meaning that your actions become your public identity.  Here are his four tips to help your company become a thought leader.

  1. Build the Right Team. The first step in becoming a corporate thought leader is hiring employees and advisers that aren’t afraid to question assumptions and ask why your company is doing something a certain way. “The power of the question has been undervalued for too long,” says Boyd. “In professional services, we often think we have to have the answer because clients come to us and ask, ‘How do I achieve this?’ But it’s important to ask smart questions in advance of giving a point of a view and not be embarrassed that’s a necessary part of the process.”
  2. Understand Who You Are. The next step is to take a hard, unvarnished look at your company. “If the aspirational platform is not aligned with your behavior, that will be found out,” cautions Boyd. “There’s nothing you’re going to say in an internal employee memo that’s not going to be revealed and laid bare for the world to see eventually.”
  3. Connect to a Business Imperative. Thought leadership is great – but if you’re going to spend the time to build expertise and recognition, it ought to connect to your actual business. Boyd cites the example of Coca-Cola, which has become a thought leader regarding clean water, which is both a worthy cause and key to Coke’s supply chain.
  4. Make a Commitment. “One-and-dones are a thing of the past,” says Boyd, referring to one-time media hits around a particular subject. If your company wants to build a reputation as a thought leader, customers will demand consistency. “You have to sustain the engagement. If you have one conversation and let it die, not only is that a waste of time and energy, today it’s going to have a negative credibility impact on you.” From conducting research on a topic to hosting events and salons to interacting with customers online, there are a variety of ways to keep the conversation going.

Developing a reputation as a thought leader takes time and effort – but it begins with honesty and transparency, says Boyd: “What questions are you asking yourself on a daily basis that are keeping you true? That doesn’t mean the answers can’t change, but when they do, there should be a shared understanding around that change.”

This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on June 6, 2012.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.