Part 1 of a 3-part series of articles exploring how your firm can develop and support thought leaders.
If you are like many firms who have developed service or niche specializations, you are probably struggling to make the transition into thought leadership. You may believe that if your firm has a niche, you are already a thought leader. The fact is, however, you have only taken valuable first steps in creating thought leadership. First, you are likely serving clients in a specific industry or offering a unique, differentiating service. Next, you have probably identified the value of networking with companies and other service providers that specialize in an industry (e.g. attorneys, bankers). Additionally, you may have even created marketing materials that brand your firm with this specialization.
So, what is the difference between niche specialization and thought leadership and how can you make the transition? Thought leadership starts with strong niche specialization and adds the following:
Learn about industry trends.
By serving clients and networking in a particular industry, you naturally absorb some information about issues specific to that industry. A thought leader will take a proactive approach to learning the trends and pain points that are affecting their clients and prospects. We recommend subscribing to blogs and trade publications written by industry associations or other service providers in the industry. You can also join relevant LinkedIn Groups and follow their discussions. Many of you are already attending industry conferences; now, in addition to networking, plan to attend some of the educational sessions. To help you identify the articles and educational opportunities that will be most helpful for developing into a thought leader, look for those that include words in the title such as “trends”, “issues”, “common”, “hot” and “future”.
Create opinions based on experience and education in the industry.
As you begin to take a proactive approach to identifying trends in your niche, you will begin to form your own opinions on subject matter. Your opinion will be a synthesis of what you’ve read, what you’ve heard and what you’ve experienced. Evidence of your opinion will show in the types of conversations you have with clients. Instead of just delivering financial statements or tax returns, you’ll have dialogues about the state of their business and what they can expect over the next year. Additionally, your service delivery will transition from compliance type services to more consultative services, where opinion and experience is what sets you apart from other accounting firms.
Publish and share your opinion.
What really sets thought leaders apart from other specialists is putting a stake in the ground and stating your learned practices or opinions on the subject matter. By definition, a thought leader needs to be “…recognized as an authority in a specialized field…” (Wikipedia). The best way to be recognized is to publish your thoughts through tools like blogs, trade articles, LinkedIn Group discussions and white papers. For those new to writing and publishing content, we’ll offer some tips in the upcoming article in our Thought Leadership series, “Developing Thought Leadership Content: Best Practices and Overcoming Common Obstacles”.
After investing time in the steps outlined above, you will recognize the signs that signal your successful transition from niche specialization to thought leadership: you can quickly identify good prospective clients; you are developing consultative services related to your specialization; and prospects are seeking you for your services and opinions.