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You Should Be a Thought Leader

Elevating startup success through thought leadership: why CEOs should share expertise and narrate their entrepreneurial journey

Otto Pohl

Jun 20, 2023

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If you’re a startup founder or CEO, you probably won’t decide to become a thought leader. But you should. Here’s why:

  • It will help your startup succeed. Thought leadership is powerful startup storytelling. You’re already building a company to solve a problem. The wider you share the issues and the opportunities around that problem, the more you enlist the very stakeholders who will create your success.

  • It is the best ‘career insurance’ around. Things happen. Good things (and fewer bad things) happen to people with a public profile and a great network.

  • It’s never not worked. Put in the time and the outcome is almost guaranteed.

Don’t take my word for it. In fact, those aren’t my words. I recently spoke with Denise Brosseau, founder of the Thought Leadership Lab and LinkedIn Learning thought leadership instructor. She also taught this stuff at the Stanford GSB—she’s the real deal.

Here’s my conversation with her, edited for length:

What’s a thought leader?

Thought leaders are the go-to people in their area of expertise, they become the trusted source who shows others the way forward. There are three roles you can take to get started as a thought leader.

The first is Amplifier. In this role you are sharing and amplifying the best articles, posts, events, and ideas in your industry. You’re a curator. It’s your chance to share the best of the best, which positions you as someone who is plugged in and in the know. You can subtly shape the conversation by adding your perspective about the ideas and the content you share. Some people object that “it takes so much time!” but if you’re doing your job well, a lot of this should already be coming across your desk.

The second is Convener. Think through who you need to be talking to and who needs to be talking to each other. Create a gathering or even a trade association if there isn’t one yet. If there is, get on a committee that selects speakers. Now you’re deciding who is going to get to share their message and gaining immediate credibility with existing industry influencers. I think of how Marc Benioff had to make SaaS a way of life. When he founded Salesforce, his business model and concept wasn’t widely accepted yet. One way he did that was by creating Dreamforce, which is now the world’s largest software conference.

The third option is Creator. This could be videos, articles, or a podcast. Pick your medium and create regular content. This option gives you the most power long-term. The amplifier is sharing the creations of others, and the convener’s role may be temporary. As a creator, your content lives on and has the chance to be widely influential. And don’t forget, you don’t need to immediately connect with 10,000 people nor do you need to be on every platform. Choose one or two and focus there. You’ll gain a following over time.

Why should an entrepreneur become a thought leader?

Entrepreneurs are wonderful potential thought leaders. Everything about a startup is about differentiation. To win at attracting investors, clients, customers, and employees, you need to stand out in some way. Thought leadership can be very effective at that.

It’s also a great way to differentiate your startup by showcasing your commitment to a problem bigger than yourself, and your company. It lets you highlight your point of view and create an umbrella story into which your startup neatly fits.

I’ve watched a lot of entrepreneurs lose their jobs in downturns. One who didn’t was a woman CEO in the robotics industry who had heard that her board was considering getting rid of her pre-IPO. She decided to dial up her thought leadership and public PR. She got a profile piece in which she was showcased with other women in robotics in a major publication. As a result, she became too high-profile to push aside or fire and she remained at the helm through the IPO and beyond.

How can I get started?

I recommend starting with my LinkedIn courses on thought leadership for individuals and organizations. They are very inexpensive and each are less than 90 minutes long. I also wrote a book about the subject which is a great how-to guide to get you started.

One way to start is to share your startup journey. People love to understand what it’s really like to get a successful company off the ground. I recently watched the CEO of an autonomous car software company document every single day of the progress they were making. He’d take a short video one day of their car doing circles in the parking lot. Later it was able to leave the parking lot. There would be days with setbacks and others with huge leaps of progress. It was a fascinating journey and his platform kept growing. Taking us on your journey can be the best kind of thought leadership; don’t wait until you’ve got it all figured out. My mantra is ‘guide from the side, not sage from the stage.’ Give us the behind-the-scenes tour. It’s compelling and it brings interested parties – customers, investors, partners, employees, to your door. And isn’t that what the role of the CEO should be?

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Otto Pohl is a communications consultant who helps startups tell their story better. He works with deep tech, health tech, and climate tech leaders looking to create profound impact with customers, partners, and investors. He has taught entrepreneurial storytelling at USC Annenberg and at accelerators across the country.

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