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5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader

By June 16, 2022No Comments



As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie Livingston.

Julie Livingston is president, WantLeverage Communications, a New York City-based public relations and integrated marketing consultancy. She specializes in elevating “under the radar” companies and C-Suite leaders, raising their public profile, promoting their thought leadership and competitive advantages. One of her greatest joys is seeing client’s names gracing the headlines of major media outlets.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

As a teenager with a penchant for creative writing and fashion, I dreamt of being a fashion editor. A college internship at Seventeen magazine led to my first job as a fashion and beauty editor at YM, a teen lifestyle publication (now defunct). I worked with a lot of teen celebrities, who at the time included Whitney Houston, Brooke Shields, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy and others. I was fascinated by the way publicists — through intriguing storytelling and persuasive language — would send me pitches to get their client’s products, services and ideas featured on the pages of YM.

My first PR job was for the World Gold Council, a trade group for the gold mining industry. My role involved promoting gold jewelry as a self purchase item for women. Believe it or not, I had a giant vault filled with jewelry to lend to fashion editors in my office! In that role, I made numerous television appearances and was a regular presence on QVC. My interest in PR expanded to include marketing, and after writing a cold letter to a senior vice president at Liz Claiborne — at the time, the largest apparel maker in the world — to express my interest in career opportunities, I was hired to help to launch a new fashion jewelry division in 500 department stores nationwide. It was there that I learned about retail marketing, merchandising, public speaking and sales training, as I was literally in the stores setting up the counterspace and teaching sales associates how to sell our products.

Later, at Scholastic, the global children’s publishing and entertainment company, I oversaw communications for national literacy initiatives with partner organizations such as Save The Children, Volunteers of America and Reading is Fundamental. One of my favorite memories was working with basketball icon Shaquille O’Neal on the Biggest Children’s Book in the World. My sons reaped the benefits of that position as one of them got to review a Harry Potter book on national television.

At the Toy Association, I oversaw marketing and communications for the annual NY Toy Fair, a humongous trade event that fills the entire Jacob K.Javits Convention Center. In that multi faceted role, I managed marketing and communications around safety, legislative and manufacturing issues and also served as national media spokesperson. Since a young age, I was highly creative and had an entrepreneurial bent and a robust contact network.

In 2014, I took the plunge and started my own business — WantLeverage Communications. It’s immensely fulfilling and satisfying to watch our client base grow. Through our work, my team and I provide strategic communications counsel to organizations across industry sectors from management consulting and healthcare to cyber security and technology. We’re champions for leaders and organizations looking to increase their thought leadership and public visibility.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

As a veteran public relations and marketing professional, I’ve literally worked with hundreds of business leaders over the course of my career. I’m innately familiar with what makes a successful thought leader — and what detracts from an individual’s thought leadership potential — and how to build that individual’s credibility, visibility and prominence over time. I’ve closely observed and analyzed my clients — and others- perform in thought leadership roles, and how audiences respond -or not. In order to their their effectiveness, I’ll ask questions such as,

  • Was the topic timely and of interest to target stakeholders?
  • Was the key point expressed well?
  • Was the language they used crisp and precise?
  • Did they include personal or business stories to illuminate the topic?
  • Did they engage the audience with “call to action” messaging?
  • Did they include a link to their website, social media so people can be in touch?

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Being an active participant in the public relations and marketing industry has provided me with incredible experiences throughout my career. For more than two decades I’ve been active and served on the board of NY Women in Communications, and worked on the annual Matrix awards which recognizes outstanding women in communications and entertainment, a literal who’s who of industry thought leaders. I co produced one Matrix awards ceremony, where the veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas was being presented with her award from none other than the legendary newscaster, Walter Cronkite. If that wasn’t enough, I was working with President Bill Clinton’s team as he had planned to attend and surprise Thomas. It was thrilling to work with such luminaries on their speeches which needed to be fresh and compelling, and assist in creating such an incredible public moment for them all. When President Clinton arrived unannounced on stage, the audience began to shout and scream with excitement. Ms. Thomas later told me that she thought her skirt fell down- she had no idea why the audience had erupted in such a way!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was a young fashion editor thinking about transitioning into public relations, I scheduled a networking lunch with a senior cosmetics industry executive. He worked on one of the brands that advertised in our magazine. He suggested we meet at an upscale French restaurant in New York City. I was intimidated and nervous as I didn’t have much experience in such one on one meetings and wasn’t sure what to expect.I lacked specific public relations experience although I was the regular recipient of PR pitches. We sat down and instead of ordering asparagus vinaigrette, I ordered an artichoke. When it arrived, I was mortified. Artichokes are messy to eat; not the kind of dish you want to have at a first time business meeting. I ate one leaf and pushed the plate to the side. Unfortunately, when the waiter came to our table, he said with his heavy French accent,
Madam, you’re missing the most delicious part of the artichoke!” My whole face got red, and at that point, I had no choice but to eat it, leaf by leaf!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is? How is a thought leader different from a typical leader? How is a thought leader different from an influencer?

A thought leader is different from a typical leader. Although a leader may have broad responsibilities in leading a team or workforce, be the one to determine policies and make executive decisions, that individual may not be characterized as a thought leader. Someone who is “ahead of the curve,” has foresight, deep expertise on a particular topic and can articulate current issues and developments in a particular way that is captivating and memorable is a thought leader. Thought leaders and social influencers can be one and the same. Genuine thought leaders are influencers somewhere, but not necessarily on social media or a digital media platform. Not only do they have expertise in a subject, but they actively share that knowledge with others, and influence thinking on that subject on a broad scale. By virtue of their intellect, thought leaders offer unique insights. Influencers wield a certain type of social currency online because they can persuade and influence their followers to take a particular course of action. Because social media has become such an important and public platform, influencers can yield a certain amount of power.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

There are myriad benefits to becoming a thought leader, which is a long term investment in one’s brand . Here are 6 benefits:

  1. It elevates your industry status as a role model, and positions your company as the “go to” brand in a competitive market.
  2. It opens up opportunities for you to share your opinions and perspectives on important issues and have influence over industry policies and practices.
  3. It adds value and credibility to your brand; people will be more inclined to buy your services and products as a result.
  4. In one of the most competitive markets for talent, thought leadership will make your company stand out and attract job candidates.
  5. When your thought leadership and brand are omnipresent, you’re more likely to be thought of for strategic partnerships, media interviews and other marketing opportunities.
  6. It will drive website and social media traffic.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

Thought leadership is a powerful and often underutilized marketing tool that can open the door to any number of new and potentially lucrative business opportunities. Here are a few real world examples:

The thought leadership content I developed and produced for a C Suite client on LinkedIn was read by a colleague with whom she had done business years before. It reignited a dormant relationship and led to a significant new business relationship and contract for a new service line.

A client’s bylined article published in Forbes put him on the radar of a major industry conference producer. Soon after, he was booked for an important speaking engagement. This provided my client with tremendous visibility and introductions to a new business partner.

By leveraging the thought leadership content and credibility established for a client, I secured a strategic partnership for a co-branded research study. Results of the research study were packaged and sold with the profits split between both organizations. This led to additional co-branded research studies over time.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry? Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

I recommend 5 strategies that individuals should implement to elevate themselves as a thought leader in their field:

  1. Identify one topic that you’re passionate about, such as company culture, and incorporate that topic into every communications touchpoint — stakeholder meetings, blog posts, videos, byline articles, podcast appearances, LinkedIn and social media content. Over time, you’ll be recognized for your expertise. One of my clients has become known as a culture expert because of her ongoing social media posts; she’s now a regular speaker at Human Resources conferences and on related podcasts.
  2. Pitch a byline article on a newsworthy topic, something that’s starting to bubble up in your industry, to a publication that your key stakeholders read. Provide your perspectives on that topic and when published, share the article on social media and with key stakeholders. Don’t forget to tag the reporter and the publication — which is like a virtual “thank you.” A client who is on a Forbes Finance Council writes regularly on industry topics; he’s made important new business connections as a result of being associated with such a prestigious publication.
  3. Leverage LinkedIn as a primary platform to amplify your thought leadership. Develop a content strategy and post content of value to your followers 2–3 times per week, preferably on consecutive days. Include a call to action question at the close of your posts to encourage participation and engagement. I recently signed on a client because she said, “she saw tremendous value in my LinkedIn content” and knew it would be an asset to her employer, a Fortune 100 company.
  4. Most people use digital search tools to curate their news. By identifying and using popularly searched hashtags- those with more than 10,000 followers- on topics you post about, you’ll make it easier for them to find you. As an example, search for “#culture” on LinkedIn or any other topic on the specific social channel. It will reveal the number of followers.
  5. Stage a discussion panel — this can be done on Zoom with 1–2 colleagues — on a hot topic. Post the video on your social media- including your YouTube channel- and website. It’s best to zero in on a niche topic within a bigger subject area that people are curious about. One of my clients got approved for LinkedIn Live and now broadcasts an interview show weekly. Clients have noticed the uptick in her social presence and expressed how impressed they were by her thought leadership. This adds credibility and value to their ongoing relationship.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach?

One of the best thought leaders I’ve seen is Adam Grant, the organizational psychologist, Wharton school professor and best selling author. He’s brilliant at dissecting the interpersonal dynamic and naming what’s going on in corporate America. I find that I’m drawn to read his LinkedIn posts and follow his Twitter feed. He’s incredibly clued in to his audience and consistently demonstrates his innate ability to read between the lines of what people say and do. After reading something of Grant’s, I often find myself thinking, “Wow, that was revelatory!” or “I never thought about subject XYZ in that way” or “I’m glad I read that.”

The most successful thought leaders I’ve worked with have a natural charisma and passion that comes through in their facial expression — especially eye contact- body language and the way they respect and treat others. They are authentic and genuine, often warm and always engaging. Such individuals are extremely confident and consistent in their communication and can add humor when appropriate. They literally “own”the topics they regularly talk about by maintaining a regular presence and always add something new and thoughtful including buzzwords or phrases they have coined. Thought leaders are so clued into who they are that they can easily “think on their feet,” can pivot easily to make their key points heard even in a cluttered environment.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

I believe that the term “thought leader” is perfectly phrased. That said, it should be used with discretion to only describe those individuals who truly have the chops, experience and noteworthy content to fill the role properly. Although it sounds odd and self-serving to call oneself a thought leader, it describes a kind of credibility, singularity and status that is developed and earned over time.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

With a never ending “to do” list, it’s easy for leaders to get caught up and deplete themselves of energy by taking on too much. I advise leaders to be strategic in establishing a culture of transparency, respect and collaboration,

and in building a competent and trustworthy team to whom they can delegate certain tasks.

Following and observing the work of other thought leaders, in and outside of one’s field can be a revelatory exercise.

You’ll see how, when and where they communicate and what makes them stand out.

Thought leaders are generally extremely dynamic, but it’s also important for them to know their limits and be able to schedule time to step away from work to decompress, exercise or do something fun. Such activities actually allow space for new ideas and fresh communication to germinate.

I strongly recommend a combination of journaling and meditation, which has helped me to set priorities that feed my heart and my head, retain my focus and composure, especially under pressure. These are good practices for thought leaders before they write or speak publicly.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Throughout my career, I’ve mentored many young women who are interested in communications careers. If I could inspire a movement, it would be focused on helping girls and young women to build self confidence, knowledge and the wherewithal to establish economic independence starting in elementary school through college. I’d enlist senior level executives and mid career professionals as mentors. Such seasoned individuals have the wisdom, self confidence and experience to guide the next generation.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My mother was fond of saying “There’s always another way” when I was facing a challenge or difficult situation. Hearing it gave me hope no matter how dire a situation appeared to be. The saying still resonates with me although it carries a slightly different meaning. I use it often to push myself and my team to uncover creative possibilities for our clients. In this regard, it means that “there’s always another way or another angle and another platform from which to tell a client’s story.”

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have lunch or breakfast? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

If I could have lunch or breakfast with anyone, it would be with Brené Brown, the research professor, lecturer, bestselling author, and podcast host. I’d love to break bread with her and learn more about her thought process and approach to leadership, courage, empathy and being a good human.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I share my thought leadership consistently on LinkedIn which is the best place for readers to follow my work online. I’m always looking for others to comment and share their own insights and experiences on the public relations and marketing topics that I post about.

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

Julie Livingston

Author Julie Livingston

Julie Livingston is president/founder of WantLeverage Communications

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