Leaders play a significant role in building trust between an organization and its stakeholders. And trust has never mattered more. Societal leadership is now a core function of business, according to the 2021 and 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer reports. Meanwhile, trust in the media and government continues to wane.
As people’s confidence in the government’s ability to solve challenges decreases, they’re looking to businesses to step up. They also want to hear from companies about their values and how they influence which issues they take a stand on. Edelman found that people increasingly choose which brands to buy from, work for, and invest in based on the organization’s beliefs and values.
Consumers, employees and investors want to engage with businesses that align with their personal values. A clear and articulate strategic thought leadership platform:
- Elevates internal experts
- Clarifies and organization’s values and beliefs
- Demonstrates the organization’s position on relevant issues (e.g., climate change) or industry-related topics (e.g., innovations in cancer treatment)
Thought leadership programs humanize leaders by making them more accessible and relatable and sparking authentic connections. These leaders can become credible influencers whose voices people grow to know, value and trust.
Build an authentic strategic thought leadership program
Thought leadership programs clarify what a brand stands for. They also help employees see how the business and its leaders live its values. Leaders can use a thought leadership program to reinforce how the organization uses its resources to support a variety of goals. These goals could include:
- Raising awareness for the organization
- Addressing important issues
- Generating support for particular causes
- Creating common ground among stakeholders
The following three steps can help organizations develop a strategic thought leadership program.
1. Develop the platform
The first step is to thoughtfully select the issues the organization will prioritize in its thought leadership program. We recommend considering the following factors when developing a platform:
- What are the most significant global issues today?
- What macro trends and issues are impacting the organization’s industry?
- What do the organization’s stakeholders care about most?
- What is the organization’s purpose or mission? What are its values, and where do they naturally intersect with global issues, industry trends and stakeholder expectations?
- Where has the organization historically focused its cause and impact investments? (For example, which charities does it donate to? Is there an organizational foundation?)
Let’s consider Home Depot as an example. The home improvement retailer could evaluate the factors outlined above like this:
- Global issues: Homelessness, affordable housing, discrimination in housing
- Industry macro trends: Increased cost of lumber
- What stakeholders care about: Everyone deserves access to a safe and affordable home; a home is an indicator of economic stability
- Relevant Home Depot values: Respect for all people, Doing the right thing, Giving back
- Other causes Home Depot supports: Improving the homes of U.S. veterans, supporting communities impacted by natural disasters
- Thought leadership platform: Home Depot, noting the natural intersection between the global issue of affordable housing and industry trends and its organizational values, could develop a platform that focuses on the importance of affordable housing. Executives could give their time and expertise, and the company could donate in-kind contributions to alleviate the barriers people face in acquiring affordable housing. Home Depot could also advocate for legislation that improves access to affordable housing.
Important consideration: Organizations considering building a thought leadership platform around a controversial issue should first ensure that the organization has no financial, political or operational contradictions.
2. Identify and activate authentic thought leaders
Selecting which voices to elevate through thought leadership programs is as important as identifying the right platform. An executive’s platform should be true to who they are and what they believe in personally. It should also relate to their role within the company.
Let’s consider Home Depot again. A finance or supply chain executive with a strong history of serving underserved communities could authentically represent an affordable housing platform for Home Depot. It would also make sense strategically, given their functional roles within the company.
Thought leaders don’t need to be members of the C-suite, and not every member of the C-suite needs to be a thought leader. For example, a medical institution may have a highly skilled, specialized physician with the expertise and personality needed for a particular platform (e.g., funding research for a medical condition). On the other hand, there may be a C-suite executive who wouldn’t be as effective or charismatic as a public figure or speaker. Communication training is beneficial and recommended for all thought leaders.
Note: Organizations will sometimes identify a thought leader first and then work backward to determine the right platform for that leader. This approach makes sense when it’s critical to elevate the visibility of a particular leader.
3. Develop a cross-channel strategy
Strategic thought leadership programs should leverage channels across the content ecosystem to engage stakeholders. Content formats and channels could include social media networks like LinkedIn, events, media and publications, podcasts, webinars, white papers and more. Repurposing thought leadership content from its original format extends the life of the content, provides third-party credibility, maximizes its impact and reaches new audiences.
For example, if a thought leader speaks at a conference, an organization could repurpose that content for employees through a town hall meeting, video or internal social media campaign. Thought leadership programs should always extend to internal audiences and give employees an opportunity to support the platform.
LinkedIn continues to rise in popularity as an effective channel for executive visibility. According to LinkedIn, there’s been a 20% increase in the use of LinkedIn by C-suite executives since 2018. Organizations should consider the critical role LinkedIn plays in their thought leadership programs.
The business case for strategic thought leadership
Today’s customers and employees crave authentic connections with values-driven organizations. Accessible, relatable and cause-driven leaders can inspire those connections through thought leadership programs.
The business benefits of strategic thought leadership include:
- Greater awareness of the organization, its leaders, and the causes and topics it supports
- Deeper trust between the organization and its stakeholders, which is especially important in times of crisis
- Easier recruitment and retention because people want to work for strong leaders and values-driven organizations
Are you looking to build a thought leadership program for your organization? Let’s discuss how Beehive Strategic Communication can help you blend content, channel and design to increase executive visibility and tell a differentiated brand story.