Dr. Liz Alexander on Thought Leadership

Thought Leadership is one of my favorite topics. You don’t become a thought leader in a day or a week or in a month. It takes years of investment but when you look at the platform it will provide for you to make a bigger contribution to the world, it makes it all worth it.

I met Dr. Liz Alexander who is an expert on helping people on their journey to becoming thought leaders earlier this year and was fascinated by her knowledge and approach to the topic. She was happy answer a few questions on the topic.

First, Dr. Liz Alexander Bio:

Dr. Liz Alexander establishes executives as thought leaders by exposing them to the seven-step process she developed from 25 years as a successful nonfiction author and book consultant. She has written nine commercially published books that have sold over 500,000 copies worldwide, and several self-published ebooks. Dr. Liz also teaches courses in strategic communication at The University of Texas at Austin. A “globalized hybrid,” she was born in Scotland, raised in England, has worked all over the world, and is now a US citizen.

You can read more about Dr.Liz at her website www.drlizalexander.com

Here is the Q&A:

RS: Why should someone care to be a thought leader today?

LA: In a word: “differentiation.” Henry Ford took no prisoners when he said: “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few people engage in it.” Unfortunately mainstream education isn’t geared to teaching people to do the hard work that goes into thinking much at all, let alone innovatively. So that’s how thought leaders differentiate themselves – by doing the deep thinking that most folks aren’t prepared to do.

RS: Why is it hard to become a thought leader?

LA: For two reasons. The first is that “thought leader” isn’t something you go around saying about yourself, it’s a term conferred on you by others. Like any other form of leadership, it comes as a consequence of others following you. There are plenty of people sharing their ideas and thoughts on the Internet, for example, but that doesn’t mean anyone is listening. So you need to be discoverable as well as innovative and inspiring – otherwise how can you expect to be influential?

Discoverability is presumably why Ken Lizotte made writing and publishing books the first of the “Five Pillars of Thoughtleading” in his book The Expert’s Edge: Become the Go-To Authority People Turn to Every Time (McGraw-Hill, 2008). A quality book lends sufficient credibility to the author in ways that – as long as these relationships are nurtured over time — prompt key influencers to help promote it. The book is still the premier method of conveying thought leadership, without a doubt.

The second reason why it’s challenging to become a thought leader goes back to what I said originally. It’s so much easier and quicker – in terms of having something to say that others want or need to hear – to be derivative, to take someone else’s thoughts and market them; to be a re-packager rather than an innovator. Real thought leaders have reflected on their contribution for a long time, and the fact that most of them love to write contributes to that.

RS: What do you mean by that?

LA: There’s a symbiotic relationship between writing and thinking that most creatives are aware of. In his poem O Solitude!, the 19th century poet John Keats says, “…words are images of thoughts refined,” which author Stephen King echoed when he wrote that, “Writing is refined thinking.” The discipline of crafting a remarkable book (not something you cobble together in a month or two) helps develop thought leadership as much as showcasing it.

It’s astounding to me how many people have the idea to write a book without knowing as much about their topic as they think they do. At the beginning of the project they may have given little or no thought as to their target audience, which is fine because I can help them with that, but it quickly becomes clear that their understanding about their subject matter expertise isn’t that deep. Which typically means they end up writing a book that’s indistinguishable from any other in their field. Thought leaders, however, are influential in terms of getting others to say, “I’d never have thought of that.”

RS: So what’s the solution? To go away and think more before someone who aspires to be a thought leader even begins to write a book?

LA: Not at all. That’s the beauty of undertaking a disciplined writing process, one where you’re provoked to think more about your approach by re-drafting and refining your manuscript. The results of which are tremendously powerful for anyone who aspires to thought leadership or even simply wants to improve their business.

For example, one author told me that while he’d always had an intuitive feel for the work he did in sales management based on decades of experience, he’s now better able to communicate his innovative perspective to others after writing his book, because of all the thinking and rewriting involved in that process.

RS: Why are we hearing so much about the importance of thought leadership at the moment?

LA: Look at the context in which business is operating these days. The old, familiar ways of doing things are either not working or are not enough to sustain prior success. The 2010 Critical Skills Survey conducted by the American Management Association (AMA) reported on the most important skills organizations need today: Critical thinking/problem solving; Communication; Collaboration; and Creativity/innovation. The pace of change was cited as the catalyst. To which everyone’s eyes are probably glazing over as they think, “Duh! Tell me something new.”

So let me answer you another way.

I don’t consider it coincidental that the term “thought leader” was coined in the same decade (1990s) that the Internet really took off. The more information we have access to, the more we discover how few genuinely innovative thinkers there are out there. By which I mean people whose influence is based not on saying the same things differently, or curating others’ thoughts, or being sleight-of-hand marketers. True thought leaders shake up an existing conversation, taking it in a completely new direction. Like Michael Porter’s contribution to competitive strategy or Malcolm Gladwell’s “tipping point” exposition on the often rapid speed of change.

As I said at the beginning of this conversation, thought leaders have differentiation built in. They’re always remarkable, indispensable – and hence desirable. Who wouldn’t want that?

RS: Lastly Liz, please explain the specifics of how you work with someone?

LA: My greatest value in the thought leadership/book development process occurs when a client has the germ of an idea and nothing more. I collaborate with them to strengthen the initial concept, teach them how to scope, structure, and organize their material, critique their writing — all the time provoking them to think more deeply and creatively about their subject matter expertise, as well as how best to communicate with their target audience. As part of the overall package, we also embed marketing into the process early on so the author develops relationships with key influencers who can help promote their book when it’s published…and I clarify the client’s publishing options so they can make an informed decision in relation to their strategic business objectives.

I used to be a business journalist many moons ago and thrive on variety, so there’s nothing more thrilling to me than to have several very different books in the works at one time, each with the potential to really shake up their industry and add huge value to readers — not to mention the transformation the author goes through. This work brings me great joy!