How to build public thought leadership as an impact professional

Published by Net Impact Amsterdam on

We recently caught up with Joseph D. Simpson, course leader for our new upcoming ‘Thought Leadership for Impact Makers’ workshop, and Founder of Impact Brand Building and The Impact Economy.

We learned about his perspectives into why building public thought leadership is so critical to helping impact professionals achieve their long-term objectives. Read on.

Sustainability professionals are more likely to be academics or engineers than internet personalities. We’re laser focused on getting the job done, and often don’t invest the time to spread the findings of our work.

This is partially due to doubts around quality, fear of retribution by our peers and not wanting to offend anyone. But when so much is at stake — like climate change — we need the visionaries and leaders from the impact community to take their platform and establish strong “personal brands”.

Why personal branding is so important for the impact community

Personal branding, at its core, is about building trust. With trust comes credibility, and with credibility comes growth.

A robust personal brand will not only help you grow, but it will also allow you to establish credibility with key stakeholders within your organization and industry, grow your network and demonstrate your ability to lead from a place of purpose. And whether you’ve invested time or effort into it, you have a personal brand.

Google your name and see what comes up. Have you ever contributed to a magazine or blog? What about on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram? Do they represent you as a professional?

The basis of personal branding in a digital-first world is your digital footprint and if you refuse to embrace this concept, you’re in danger of being consumed by it. To put it plainly, because of the internet, whether you like it or not, you have a public personal brand.

However, it’s possible to shape this online persona. By creating content that you strategically place across digital mediums, you can play an active role in determining what a person looking you up (or accidentally running into you) encounters.

Defining your personal leadership

Leadership is one of the attributes which we expect from decision-makers and management, founders and CEOs. Leading a team to success or embarking on a change programme requires the weight of key stakeholders to be behind those in charge.

And whilst we may be screaming from the rooftops as consumers and voting with our feet as (potential) employees, a lot of the time, change still comes from the top. It’s not enough for us, as change agents, to simply let our work speak for itself.

Because whether you like it or not, to implement the changes we want to see, we need to rise into leadership positions (formal or informal) or know how to effectively persuade management.

So what defines the foundations of a leader?
  1. Driven by a personal mission and a problem that he or she is motivated to solve
  2. A clear vision of Planet A (where we are now), Planet B (the end destination) and how to navigate the course of change from one to the next
  3. A defined position or style which separates them from the pack

However, it’s not enough to simply define each of these concepts and then lock them away in a draw somewhere for the next time you have an interview. You have to have the ability to articulate them. You have to live them. That’s where thought leadership comes in.

Thought Leadership is a new buzzword for an old concept: Building a personal brand with modern content distribution methods.

It can be defined as delivering free content which individuals produce on a topic they know a lot about and feel others can benefit from having their perspective on. Thought leadership in this context, does not include salesy or promotional content, but rather content which adds value to the reader’s work or life situation.

Establishing your thought leadership niche

Crafting your niche is one of the things that we have traditionally struggled with in the impact ecosystem. As impact entrepreneurs, it’s easy to think everyone will want what we’re building because it will make the world a better place. Or as impact “intrepreneurs”, that everyone will be excited to participate in our proposed sustainability improvements.

In reality, it’s simply not the case. So how do you make your idea cut through the noise? How do you differentiate yourself from your competition?

… By telling the right story to the right audience.

The right story

Stories humanize your ideas and give both colour and context to you as a professional. And no matter whether you’re telling your own story to a potential employer, a room full of clients or to your family over a Christmas dinner, it will help you explain your vision for the future and why they should care. Storytelling can be seen across history, from the Ancient Greeks to Hollywood and it’s works because humans are hardwired to digest them. In fact, some psychologists suggest that we can internalize stories 22x more effectively than facts on their own.

The right audience

To successfully communicate, you’ve got to know who you’re talking to. Why? Just like trying to convince a carnivorous uncle at a family BBQ to try your veggie burger “for the planet” is pointless, trying to convince a general audience to “go green” is as futile. By identifying those who already want impact, you don’t have to convince them to change their stance, but rather, you can use your content to help them achieve their own goals.

By structuring your storytelling through the use of a strategic narrative and defining your niche, it’s possible to hone in your efforts and communicate directly with those where you’ll create the most value.

Creating a communication strategy

Once the building blocks are in place, you can articulate what you stand for, who your target audience is, and what story to tell them, you can set in motion your strategy to become an expert in your niche.

To develop a strategy, ask yourself what challenges your audience may have in achieving their green goals and what knowledge would help them get there sooner. There are three main routes to establishing yourself as an expert in your niche.

1. Inbound. What does your social channels, website, etc, say about you and what can you do to make it stronger? For a personal brand, your inbound channels are your LinkedIn (and the articles which are featured on your profile), your Instagram/Facebook, your personal website if you have one, your associations, portfolio or anything else that will come up in a Google search that’s within your control.

  • Action 1: Up to date LinkedIn Profile with future-facing format
  • Action 2: Write strategic narrative (change in the world/context, show conflict, introduce the resolution, tools to get there and validation that it’s possible) article and feature on LinkedIn profile
  • Action 3: Write industry perspective article and feature on LinkedIn profile

2. Outbound. How can you leverage your owned channels to amplify your authority? This is anything that you choose to put into the world. For example, anything you post on LinkedIn, Instagram or Twitter, any blog posts you write for your company, an email newsletter that you create, anything which you present into the world.

  • Action 1: Create a list of 5-10 topics which affect the future of your industry (if it’s procurement, then they could be AI, IoT, Sustainability, International Supply Chains & Regional Instability).
  • Action 2: Define the problem each will cause for your target audience and then give potential solutions for each.
  • Action 3: Turn each into an article (in the format of a strategic narrative) and repurpose each into 5 social posts for your LinkedIn.

3. Earned. What currently exists that you contribute to with your unique view on a situation? Your earned authority combines any media you may attract, any editorial pieces which you submit to publications, speaking on stage, being quoted by journalists, etc. This not only builds your perceived experience but it boosts credibility amongst peers. Imagine a job interview where one candidate has been featured in Forbes multiple times speaking about the future of the industry versus one who abstains from putting themselves out there.

  • Action 1: Create list of the publications in your specific niche (eg. Tech: TNW, NGO: Impakter, Impact Investing: Impact Alpha) as well as podcasts you’d like to speak on or smaller blogs which you feel would benefit from your perspective on the future.
  • Action 2: Research how to submit a guest post/reach each out to journalists in each and propose writing an article. Do the same for the industry-specific blogs and podcasts and ask to contribute.
  • Action 3: Once you have an article or two published across smaller publications, build your way up to contributing to the publication’s your key stakeholders read.