You Don't Need to Be Elon Musk or Sheryl Sandberg to Be a Thought Leader
When asked to name a few business thought leaders, you might think of people like Elon Musk at Tesla, Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook or Larry Page at Google.
This is partly because these individuals are incredibly smart and creative. However, it is also because they work in sexy industries that lend themselves to dramatic, innovative leaps that make thought leadership possible.
This is exactly why Eric Ryan, one of the co-founders of Method, is a great example of a thought leader. Ryan and the Method team took an uninspiring product category -- soap -- and built a movement around stylish, eco-friendly products that make cleaning safe and fun. Method has built an imaginative, irreverent culture that allows its employees to express themselves through their work -- and the company has consistently generated great financial returns.
For fellow entrepreneurs looking to become a thought leader, Ryan has four tips:
Use your purpose to amplify your platform.
Ryan’s most important piece of advice is to connect people to your larger purpose. “Don’t sell a product,” he says. “Start a movement.” Whatever you do, if people don’t understand why you get out of bed in the morning, you won’t be able to build a large enough platform to create enduring thought leadership.
At Method, for example, Ryan focused on building a movement of “people against dirty.” Selling soap is the practical means of addressing larger social and environmental problems. Ryan says “we want to show that business can be an agent of social change.”
This strategy has paid dividends for Method. “Don’t underestimate the passion, love, and enthusiasm a higher purpose can create,” Ryan says.
Become a Certified B corporation.
Instead of trying to build a movement from scratch, consider joining an existing one.
For example, more than 1,200 businesses have become Certified B Corporations. B Corporations are a global movement of entrepreneurs who are dedicated to using the power of business as a force for good.
Ryan says “being a part of the B Corp community energizes our entire organization and motivates us every day to make the world a better place.” In addition to motivating and engaging his employees, Ryan says that B Corp certification has helped Method build credibility and trust, set the company apart in a crowded market and associated Method with some of the most socially and environmentally responsible companies on the planet.
Do public speaking.
Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book The Tipping Point famously popularized the notion that the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on a small number of people whose opinions carry a lot of weight.
“When public speaking” Ryan said, “you are not necessarily trying to speak to the largest audience possible. You are trying to reach a few influencers in the crowd who will start talking about your product or service to their large networks.” Author Seth Godin calls these influencers the “sneezers.”
Often, these influencers will write about your product or service and then other influencers and the mass media will start to follow your activity. “We have had a lot of success in cultivating media attention and brand value with this strategy,” says Ryan.
Give your ideas away for free.
Finally, it may seem counterintuitive (and scary at first), but giving your ideas away for free can dramatically enhance your thought leadership.
Ryan told a story about how Method’s CEO reacted when he saw the final version of The Method Method (a commercially published book that Ryan had co-authored about the company in 2011). The CEO told Ryan that he was worried that the book was going to give away all of Method’s secrets to the competition.
Ryan said that he understood the CEO’s concerns but that it is Method’s execution of the ideas -- rather than the ideas themselves -- that would always differentiate them from their competitors.
“It’s like any skilled position,” he says. “It’s about execution of your ideas.”
Ryan Honeyman is a sustainability consultant and founder of Honeyman Sustainability Consulting. He is also the author of The B Corp Handbook: How to Use Business as a Force for Good.