CEO as Chief Thought Leader

Gareth Lofthouse

5 ways to get the boss behind your thought leadership campaigns – and why it works wonders for your brand

People expect the CEO to have a view on the issues that matter – to customers, stakeholders and their broader industry. Executives who do this well tend to reap the rewards, capturing the limelight for their brands with increased airtime in the media and a greater share of mind.

But it isn’t easy. When you’re running a large and complex organisation, it’s hard to stay on top of emerging trends and carve out distinct and interesting points of view.

This is where a more strategic approach to thought leadership can be invaluable. The right thought leadership strategy acts as a platform on which to build the profiles of your CEO and the wider executive team. You can’t manufacture inspiring public figures if the raw material isn’t there – but you can arm the leadership team with the insights, perspectives and data they need to stand out and frame the debate in a more powerful and impactful way.

For me, this is one of the key differences between true thought leaders and the companies that just churn out white papers that nobody reads. The smart brands excel by knitting their thought leadership into the company’s discourse with clients, stakeholders and the public.

5 steps to the top

The heads of the world’s largest organisations are increasingly embracing the role of ‘Chief Thought Leader’. Witness the number of CEOs who use thought leadership to add a new perspective to their public announcements and keynote speeches, notably during the World Economic Forum’s annual CEO brainstorming session at Davos.

It’s a growing trend, and it can raise the profiles of both the content and the brand. So here are a few ways to get the top team involved in thought leadership strategy.

1. Build the case for thought leadership at the top of the business

    Some companies are lucky enough to have a CEO who gets it. Unfortunately, a lot of senior executives view thought leadership as a secondary marketing activity – useful, but not strategically important.

    That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what thought leadership can do for the brand. This is why you need to build a compelling business case that shows the leadership team how their support can enhance reputation, build relationships and drive long-term revenue growth.

2. Get a board-level executive to sponsor your flagship programme

    You don’t have to involve your entire leadership team in the minutiae of thought leadership planning, but when it comes to your flagship campaigns they should have a stake and an interest in taking the story out to the market. For example, KPMG’s chairman John Veihmeyer personally signed off on this year’s flagship CEO study, and his backing gives the project more prominence both internally and externally. The results have been impressive, with the study garnering coverage from top media outlets around the world.

3. Match the programme to the executive’s interests

    The CEO can’t put their name to every programme, so look to align them to only the most strategic flagship piece in your annual portfolio. It’s important to pick the right issues and angles, connecting these with areas of commercial opportunity, but at the same time it’s crucial to build a distinct and personal point of view. Which leads us to point 4…

4. Personalise the message

    Speeches and presentations always have more impact if you can give examples and anecdotes. Thought leadership is no different, and if the CEO has plenty of relevant experience, don’t hesitate to use it. Careful briefing of the leadership team in advance of the project launch can help them to tell the story in a way that feels authentic and compelling.

5. Demonstrate the value

    Build a feedback loop where C-suite investments in thought leadership are shown to deliver tangible results. It’s important to set realistic expectations here, however. Thought leadership is about building a clear and enduring position on a set of issues: momentum (as well as ROI) tends to increase for brands that stick with it. But with a board-member as the face for your campaign, the research is likely to get more traction and visibility in the market, and it is vital to report back regularly on the benefits.

These steps, applied to your strategic thought leadership programme, can help create an excellent platform for the CEO and other board executives to enhance the reputations of themselves and your brand.

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About the author: Gareth Lofthouse

Gareth manages FT Longitude’s growing commercial team as they continue to advise some of the biggest B2B companies in the world on their thought leadership strategy. He works with clients to design thought leadership that delivers maximum commercial impact, both in terms of building client relationships and improving brand visibility.

Before joining FT Longitude, he spent nine years as editorial director for EMEA at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Gareth was instrumental in building the EIU’s thought leadership and survey business, and he has overseen hundreds of custom projects for the Economist’s clients across a range of industries and subject areas. Before that, Gareth led an editorial and creative team for a PR and marketing agency. He has also held several senior editorial positions in business and technology publishing.

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