This month is about how best, as a senior-level corporate executive, to find your corporate thought leaders. How different types of organizations can most effectively work with them. What to look for in their CV or in their work that indicates their presence in your talent pool, internal or external. And how to talk with those in your team (and those on others' teams) about what you see in them. Because if you can find them and develop them, you will give your organization a significant competitive advantage. And arguably, you will be helping all of us. Because “rapid change/unsettled conditions” is in the corporate (and the world's) weather report for the foreseeable future. These people are ideally suited to help deal with such conditions.
One More Time, What is a Thought Leader?
As a reminder, I define thought leaders as those who:
- are capable of seeing solutions where others see problems
- who think differently, typically non-linearly
- who don’t fit established norms, and perhaps most importantly,
- who pull together disparate ideas into solutions others can’t conceive, maybe even can’t believe, because what the thought leader sees as obvious is so far ahead of the curve
Their ideas might seem crazy … until you let them take you through their thought process, or until months or years down the road when you see the concrete leaps in technology that they saw coming conceptually. Or their idea may seem so simple as to be obvious … until you recognize the great challenge it is to make the complex simple.
For instance, now that we have smart phones, the concept is remarkably simple, right? Having all your data accessible to you wherever you go, in the same handset as your cell phone. Hard to remember that 18 years ago smart phones did not exist; 30 years before that cell phones didn’t exist, certainly not for the general public. It took a thought leader to come up with the idea, and many more to actually implement it. And an organization committed to taking the risk and making the space for it to happen.
So with this in mind, how can different types of organizations best engage with their thought leaders, when what they are best-suited for is to bring change? Because change is almost always disruptive. Which for organizations – built around the need to maintain the status quo, predictability, and manageability across huge numbers of people and complex systems – can be problematic.
Thought Leaders in Traditional Organizations
What comes to mind when you hear the word 'traditional'? Reliable? Dependable? Stable? Absolutely. Conformity, the cornerstone of such organizations, enables them to scale and deliver repeatable, consistent, price-competitive results. In these sorts of organizations, it can feel uncomfortable – even detrimental – to engage with the kind of change that thought leaders bring.
Today, however, even traditional organizations need to move fast at some level, so having a thought leader(s) who can help these organizations find their way into change can be invaluable, at the right time and in the right way. The challenge is how to wrap their typically disparate approach into an organization in which the majority of the people see things differently.
Thought Leaders in Agile, Forward-Thinking Organizations
Organizations that value agility, long-term growth and results will more easily embrace a talent management division that fosters the often messy uniqueness that comes with having thought leaders on your hands. You may recognize them already, and this article just helps you focus on them a bit more clearly.
Do reflect carefully on this, however, because while you may think your organization really embraces change, does it? Not just for today, to beat out your immediate competitors, but longer-term? Are you willing to do the hard work it takes to make space for these people? Willing, for instance, to get bosses out of their way so they are not road-blocked by competitiveness or small egos? Because make no mistake, these folks will challenge the people around them and stir things up. Is your organization really ready to do the challenging work of self-reflection and embracing of change that thought leaders can help you do? If so, be ready for an exciting ride! If not, then an honest self-assessment here will save time, money, and hard feelings.
How to Find Your Corporate Thought Leaders
So assuming you see the need in your organization for thought leadership, how do you actually find them? What should you look for in their CV or in their work?
Here are some of the characteristics I've seen:
- Thought leaders generally are widely-read, and/or interested, even schooled in apparently disparate fields of exploration and learning.
- Their CV may display a lot of change, if they have moved around to find organizations and bosses who are receptive to their ideas.
- If they are not leading something of their own already, they are itching to.
- They may not express their thoughts and ideas readily, waiting to hear what you have to say and see who you are before exposing their hand.
- They won’t be interested in silos, but will welcome – seek out, even – new ideas and inputs into the products and/or processes for which they are responsible.
- They can help people not involved in their industry or area of expertise “get it” when they talk about their specialty, making complex ideas and concepts easy enough for even your mother to understand.
- They are passionate.
How to Talk with Your Thought Leaders
So how do you talk with someone you think is a thought leader about what you see in them, particularly if you have not had an especially good connection with them previously, or they are not part of your team?
- Share with them how they impact you. If they confuse you, acknowledge it. They may confuse themselves! Naming is the first step to accepting; it allows you to open up a dialogue.
- Listen without judgment. Get curious. Encourage them to share what it’s like for them (you may hear stories going back to childhood). Help them (and you) see patterns of thought in how they look at the world. But be sure to ask open-ended questions (who, what, when, where, how), rather than yes/no questions.
- Encourage them to find like-minded people, whether in their team, in the larger organization, or outside the organization. If they are on your team, individual or group coaching, networking opportunities, and/or memberships in professional organizations or groups will stimulate their thinking and help them bring their best. If they are on someone else's team, connect them with thought leaders on yours, and create opportunities to develop the connection.
- Assessments help. The Innovation Strengths Preference Indicator (ISPI™) has helped a number of my clients to understand more about “bridgers” in their organizations, who can translate the apparently "wild and crazy ideas” of thought leaders for the rest of the organization. Also useful have been a customized 360-degree feedback process, Hogan and Korn Ferry assessments.
- Do not to use confidences against them; you’ll lose them in a heartbeat.
- Brainstorm with them, perhaps also with HR, OD, coaches, or talent management people ways to find solid ground in your organization. And if that is simply not possible, acknowledge that. Such honesty will pay dividends down the road, guaranteed…
Next time I’ll explore how thought leaders can be screw-ups or saviors. Which are yours? I'll also share some suggestions for how best to position your thought leaders vis à vis your organization.
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If this blog has resonated with you, please let me know. And of course, speak with me if I can help with thought leaders in your organization.
And please share your thoughts and experiences with others by commenting below.