How Do You Define A Thought Leader?


Twitter is a funny place. I was cruising around it about a month ago when I came across a series of tweets by someone in our industry whom I'm declining to name.

The tweeter was one of several responding to another tweet about why he limits responses to "Can I pick your brain" requests. This particular tweeter listed all the conditions they would also put on that kind of request.

My immediate thought? "That's not how this works!"

Moments before writing this post, a good friend called me for advice on their email program. I shared my perspective, and when we were done, they thanked me, and we each moved on to the next items on our to-do lists.

Now, I'm not going to send my friend a bill for my time or look for a way they can return the favor. I helped out, not just because I've been able to put email programs together but also because that's how I learned about email – from our community, from people presenting their thoughts and points.

That's how we've all grown in our industry. That's what makes you a thought leader – a title that applies to many of us in Only Influencers. One of the responsibilities that goes along with that recognition is giving back, to share what you know with your community. And I am not talking merely about the webinar, conference presentation or article.

You can call yourself an evangelist. That can even be the title your company gives you. But your community appoints you a thought leader for your ability and willingness to share and give back.


3 habits of highly effective thought leaders

To put conditions on someone reaching out and asking for help goes against the way we built the email industry. So, let's look at the ways you need to be in the right mindset to call yourself a thought leader.

1. Volunteer

Organizations like Only Influencers (OI), or the Email Sender and Provider Coalition, Email Experience Council (EEC), M3AAWG (the Messaging, Malware and Mobile Anti-Abuse Working Group), Women of Email and other organizations out there are designed to bring people together and lift all boats. That's what makes our industry unique. We work together to make everyone smarter.

These groups are critical to our industry's success. If you're a true thought leader, you are an active member of at least two of these groups.

I've led the EEC, am a current member, committee chair and Member Advisory Committee member. I’ve run committees on OI and formerly served on the ESPC board. These all take time – time I could use instead for billable hours for my client work. But I've taken on the responsibility to participate fully in these organizations and put in the time needed to do the work I promised to do when I signed up.

If I blow that off, if lots of others blow it off, what are we telling people coming into our industry? "Hey, you gotta wing it like everybody else. Good luck!"

A true thought leader takes a leadership position and contributes what they've learned and gives back to the community.

2. Join Only Influencers

Bill McCloskey launched Only Insiders in 2010 as a "place where not only did true Influencers feel comfortable, but those who aspired to be Influencers could be inspired." Sharing information freely was the stock in trade of this group, which evolved from earlier insider groups.

I still have the first email I sent to this new list, and the first discussion. Sometimes, when I need inspiration or motivation, I go back and read the old debates, the idea-passing, the statistics and strategies.

Bill and OI embodied (and still do) what this industry was built on: people from different companies, even competitors, getting together and figuring things out, finding ways to persuade our clients and companies to test new things and then sharing what we learned.

Yes, we all have our secret sauces, our proprietary information, but that doesn't stop us from sharing what works and what doesn't. We keep this spirit alive on OI where vendors, strategists and client-side workers come together, exchange information, ask for help and pose the questions we're too embarrassed or intimidated to ask anywhere else. Bonus: We get free advice from the top people in our industry.

I've asked for help on OI, and I've shared it. I've started debates and contributed to debates started by other members. That's my responsibility as a thought leader and my obligation as a member of this organization.

3. Take the phone call (answer the email, reply to the Tweet or the LinkedIn question).

I can't tell you how often I've been pinged after webinars, keynotes and panel discussions by people asking, "Can I get your take on X, Y or Z?"

I love questions like these. I will freely give my time to people who have sincere questions. Again, it's the responsibility that comes along with being a person whose opinion is sought by others, whether it's one person with a question or a conference planner looking for a keynote speaker.

I'm not saying that you have to put yourself at the mercy of every person who wants free advice or wants you to do the hard work of strategic planning. You have to limit yourself. But I've never reached the point, in 22 years in this space, where I didn't have the time to come up with some sort of answer.

I've talked to startups that had nothing to do with email except send notifications. I've talked to large global organizations about data privacy, customer sentiment, industry acceptance of technology or modernizing processes.

Some of those groups were able to turn my advice into profits. I'm not offended. If my 30 minutes makes you more profitable, fantastic. You can't monetize everything.

But someone saying in tweets that dealing with these questions comes with preconditions? You know how stressful it is to ask someone, especially a well-regarded stranger, for advice? And now you want to put preconditions on it? Give me a break!

If I had asked Loren McDonald all those years ago, "Could I pick your brain about an email issue?" and he asked me questions to conditionalize his access, I would have been intimidated and embarrassed, and would have left my questions unasked. Is that how we help our industry grow and mature?

Thought leadership is more than content

We all create content as part of being thought leaders. We host and participate in webinars. We write articles and blog posts. We're all waiting for the day we can gather again at conferences and speak on main stages, on panel discussions and at happy hours.

That's not all it takes to be a thought leader.

How self-serving is your content? Do you participate in webinars to promote your company or share your experience? Do you slant your blog posts to favor your technology and shade a competitor's? That doesn't make you a thought leader because your peers will figure it out right away.

I'm just finishing my last year of leading the Awards Committee for the EEC, where our two major awards are for the Stefan Pollard Email Marketer of the Year and the Thought Leader of the Year. The thought leader award has a long list of criteria for measuring candidates, but one of the most important is the person's underlying character.

Is he or she the kind of person who would take the call and offer advice? Nowhere does that criteria include setting conditions for that conversation.

Wrapping up

This post sounds like a rant. Well, it is. It's a rant to squash the idea that thought leaders should put conditions on access to them. You're really not that important in the grand scheme of things. I'm not that important, and I don't know anybody in our industry who is.

My rise over the last 22 years is the result of many things, but one major contributing factor was my ability to pick the brains of people who were smarter than me. I learned from them, figured out what worked, and shared my findings with people who came after me and needed advice and direction.

My challenge to you: Are you an inspiration to someone else? Or do you treat requests for your time and advice a task on a to-do list?

Now, I am not going to draw up a detailed marketing plan for someone free. I'll charge for that, and my bill will reflect my success, experience and knowledge. There's a wide gulf between offering advice and providing value-drive, outcome-oriented consulting.

Thought leaders point you in the right direction. But you have to drive the car to get there.