In a previous post, I’ve argued that — if designers want to influence and translate strategy in ways that drive their user experience vision forward — one needs skills to become both business-savvy analysts and synthesisers. I suggested beginning with four: thought leadership, facilitating decision making, project management, stakeholder analysis and management. In this post, I will argue why Thought Leadership is critical for designers to become good strategists who are better prepared to influence business decisions.
- Why become a Thought Leader?
- What is a Thought Leadership?
- Thought Leadership and Who You Are
- Thought Leadership and What You Know
- Journey to Thought Leadership
- Design Strategist Multiplication Program
- Recommended Reading
- The True Measure of Leadership is Influence – Nothing more, Nothing less.
- Thought leadership is all about understanding the big trends that are affecting your customers, and being known for it through having demonstrated this expertise by creating attention-grabbing insights.
- Achieving the status of thought leader — while it will not happen overnight — will help you gain a seat at the table and the credibility you need to build a more successful company or catapult your career to the next level.
- True leadership cannot be awarded, appointed, or assigned. It comes only from influence, and that cannot be mandated. It must be earned.
- Effective leadership often relies on the ability to persuade others to change their systems, adopt new methods of working, or adjust to new trends in markets, technologies or business models. Learning to adapt your persuasive technique to your audience can be crucial.
- Far from being universal, the art of persuasion is one that is profoundly culture-based.
- Influence is tightly coupled with trust.
- There is no greater source of distrust than advisors who appear to be more interested in themselves than in trying to be of service to the client. We must work hard to show that our self-orientation is under control.
- The most effective leaders make their work a deeply personal endeavour. They act from passion and according to their values, and they bring about change by building open, meaning relationship with people in their organization, who grow to trust them deeply.
- Some leaders seem to drain intelligence and capability out of the people around them (dimishers). Other leaders use their intelligence as a tool rather than a weapon. They apply their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capability of people around them (multipliers).
- Ask yourself, How might my best intentions be shutting down good ideas and smart people? Be aware of your accidental diminishing behaviours.
- Consider Denise Brousseau’s seven-step process in your journey to become a thought leader: (1) Find your driving passion; (2) Build Your Ripples of Influence (3) Activate Your Advocates (4) Put Your “I” on the Line (6) Codify Your Lessons Learned (6) Put Yourself on S.H.O.U.T. (7) Incite (R)Evolution.
Why become a Thought Leader?
In a previous post, I’ve argued it is crucial that designers engage with their business stakeholders to understand what objectives and unique positions they want their products to assume in the industry, and the choices that are making in order to achieve such objectives and positions.
As a result, designers will be better prepared to influence the business decisions that help create such advantage and superior value to the competition.
Achieving the status of thought leader — while it will not happen overnight — it is absolute worth the effort. You will gain a seat at the table and the credibility you need to build a more successful company or catapult your career to the next level (Brosseau, D., Ready to Be a Thought Leader?, 2014).
Obviously, designers aspiring to become a strategists should realize that such presence — apart from natural talent — may only come with experience and exposure.
That should not stop design managers and leaders to try to nurture and coach strategists with Leadership potential.
What is a Thought Leadership?
The ideas that you need to demonstrate your expertise with important insights, not simply by asserting it in brochures and webpages, has become labelled thought leadership over that past decade or so (Prizeman, T., The Thought Leadership Manual, 2015).
Thought leadership is influencing a narrative by understanding what needs to be done. A Thought Leader can be recognized as an authority in a specific field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded, that can be an expert, a historical figure, or a ‘wise person’ with worldly impact (Wikipedia, 2021).
Thought Leadership is (Prizeman, T., The Thought Leadership Manual, 2015):
- Original ideas
- With important implications
- Backed by evidence
- Clearly expressed
- Publicly discussed
- That strongly influence the opinions of others
Thought Leadership and Who You Are
Wha do leaders look like? Do they always look powerful, impressive, charismatic? And how do you measure the effectiveness of a leaders? Can you put two people side by side and instantly tell which is the better leader (Maxwell, J. C., The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership, 2007)?
Thought Leadership and What Leadership is Not
True leadership cannot be awarded, appointed, or assigned. It comes only from influence, and that cannot be mandated. It must be earned. The only thing that title can buy is a little time – either to increase your level of influence with other or to undermine it (Maxwell, J. C., The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership, 2007).
With that in mind, Maxwell tries to dispel Five Myths of Leadership:
- The Management Myth: Leading and Management are the Same. Leadership is about influencing people, while management focuses on maintaining systems and processes.
- The Entrepreneur Myth: People assume all entrepreneurs are Leaders. Entrepreneurs are skilled at seeing opportunities and going after them. They see needs and understand how to meet them in a way that produces profit. But not all of them a good with people. If they can’t influence people, they can’t lead.
- The Knowledge Myth: If “knowledge is power” than those who possess it must be leaders . Neither IQ or education necessarily equate to leadership.
- The Pioneer Myth: Whoever is in front of the crowd is a leader . To be a leader, a person has not only to be out front, but also have people intentionally coming behind her or him, following her or his lead, acting on her or his vision.
- The Position Myth: Leadership is based on position. It’s not the position that makes the leader; it’s the leader that makes the position.
Thought Leadership and What Leadership is
Why do some people emerge as leaders while other can’t influence no matter how hard they try? There are several factors come into play (Maxwell, J. C., The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership, 2007):
- Character (Who They Are): true leadership always begins with the inner person.
- Relationships (Who They Know): You’re a leader only if you have followers, and that always required that development of relationships — the deeper the relationships, the stronger the potential for leadership.
- Knowledge (What They Know): Information is vital to a leaders. You need a grasp of facts, an understanding of dynamic factors and time, and a vision for the future. Knowledge alone won’t make someone a leaders, but without knowledge, no one can become one.
- Intuition (What They Feel): Leadership requires more than just a command of data. It demands the ability to deal with numerous intangibles. If fact, that is often one of the main different between managers and leaders. Leaders seek to recognise and influence intangibles such as energy, morale, timing, and momentum.
- Experience (Where They’ve Been): The greater the challenges you’ve faced as a leaders in the past, the more likely followers are to give you a chance in the present. Experience doesn’t guarantee credibility, but it encourages people to give you a chance to prove that you’re capable.
- Past Success (What They’ve Done): Nothing speaks to followers like a good track record.
- Ability (What They Can Do): The bottom line for followers is what a leader is capable of. They want to know whether that person can lead the team to victory. Ultimately., that’s the reason people will listen to you and acknowledge you as their leader. As soon as they no longer believe you can deliver, they will stop listening and following.
Influencing Decisions and Culture
Effective leadership often relies on the ability to persuade other to change their systems, adopt new methods of working, or adjust to new trends in markets, technologies or business models. Sou if you are a manager of (or you are trying to influence) a team whose members come from a culture that is different from your own, learning to adapt your persuasive technique to your audience can be crucial (Meyer, E., The culture map, 2014)
Some cultures tend toward deductive arguments, focusing on theories and complex concepts before presenting a fact, statement, or opinion. Others tend toward inductive arguments, starting with focusing first on practical application before moving to theory (Meyer, E., The culture map, 2014).
This trait shows up in everything from how people give presentations or lead meetings to how they write emails.
Influencing Decisions and Trust
Real leadership is about very simple and practical things (Berkun, S., Making things happen, 2008):
- Do what you say and say what you mean
- Admit when you are wrong
- Enlist the opinions and ideas of others in decisions that impact them
If you do these things more often than not, you will earn the trust of the people you work with. When a time comes where you must ask them to do something unpleasant or that they don’t agree with, their trust in will you make your leadership possible.
Why Trust is Important?
When it comes to teams, trust is about vulnerability. Team members who trust one another learn to be comfortable being open — even exposed — to one another around their failures, weaknesses and even fears. Now, if this is beginning to sound like some get-naked, touchy-feely theory, rest assured is not that is nothing of the sort.
Vulnerability-based trust is predicated on the simple — and practical — idea that people who aren’t afraid to admit the truth about themselves are not going to engage in the kind of political behavior that wastes everyone’s time and energy, and more importantly, makes accomplishments of results an unlikely scenario (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, enhanced edition: A leadership fable, 2013)
If building trust is important, then how does one build trust?
As I mentioned in a previous post, one framework I have found very useful to systematically grow your influence by building trust (in combination with the Servant Leadership model) is the Trusted Advisor.
You might be an employee of a company, but I noticed that having a “consultant” mindset while dealing with Stakeholders helped me better define the role I want to have in the relationship, and helped me think about the way I could help them as “clients”.
This is yet another challenge for designers: putting clients’ interests in front of their own can be really hard for them because they’re always under huge pressure to deliver what their stakeholder believe is needed (e.g.: “create a beautiful interface for this product that I’ve designed without a designers’ input”).
The Trusted Advisor understands that there will be times when the client’s best interests would be better served by spending more time in the problem space at risk on impacting their self-imposed deadlines and constraints.
Cultivating Authentic Leadership
The most effective leaders make their work a deeply personal endeavour. They act from passion and according to their values, and they bring about change by building open, meaning relationship with people in their organization, who grow to trust them deeply. That trust comes from recognising a real person behind the mask of power, someone who wears their motives and their values and goals in the open fo all to see (Harvard Business Review, The Harvard business review manager’s handbook, 2017).
Authentic leaders develop their individual styles from trial and error. To explore and develop your own euthenics leadership (Harvard Business Review, The Harvard business review manager’s handbook, 2017):
- Learn from your life story. Your values and goals come from somewhere. Connecting your present self with past experiences will deepen your understanding of why you see the wold the way you do and why you care about the things that matter to you. Examine your history and lean to articulate your story and share it freely.
- Understand your extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Extrinsic motivation are the external outcomes you seek (recognition, statues, wealth, and so on ). Intrinsic motivation are rewards internal to the self (personal growth, or the satisfaction of helping other.) All leaders will acknowledge that extrinsic factors play a big role in their thinking, but it’s important to understand how your work interacts with your internal sense of meaning, too. Once you identify these motivations, you can look for opportunities to nurture them.
- Foster self-awareness. It can be painful to accept feedback from colleagues and be transparent about your own shortcoming in turn. You have to open yourself to the judgement of others — people you supervise, collaborate and compete with, and want to impress. If you don’t know how other people see you, any negative information — however minor — is devastating. There more clearly you understand the impression you make on other, the better you’ll be at processing criticism.
Authentic leadership pushes you to reflect on your identify and your purpose in life. Here are some questions to guide you through this exercise (George, B., Sims, P., McLean, A. N., & Mayer, D., “Discovering your authentic leadership” in Harvard Business Review, 2007):
- Which people and experiences in your early life had the greatest impact on you? What impact did they have?
- How do you cultivate self-awareness daily? What are the moments when you say to yourself, this is the real me?
- What are you most deeply help values? Where did they come from? Have your values changed significantly since your childhood? How do your values inform your actions?
- What motivates you, extrinsically and intrinsically? How do you balance these motivations in your life?
- What kind of support network do you have? How does your team ground you as a leader? How should you diversify your team to broaden your perspective?
- Is your life integrated? Are you able to be the same person in all aspects of your life — personal, work, family, and community? If not, what is holding you back?
- What does being authentic mean in your life? Are you more effective as a leader when you behave authentically? Have you ever paid the priced for your authenticity, and was it worth it?
Thought Leadership and What You Know
Thought leadership starts with focus and passion. You will be far more effective if you identify the one arena where you interests, expertise, credibility, and commitment align — your thought leadership intersection point. In order to find where that intersection is, here are a few questions for you to consider (Brosseau, D., Ready to Be a Thought Leader?, 2014):
- What are your credentials? Think objectively and image what other who know you well might say about you. Jot down every that comes to mind. Don’t limit yourself to work areas. Add any leadership roles you’ve held, even as a volunteer.
- What is your expertise or unique experience? If you asked ten people to complete this sentence, “she/he is the best person I know at…” what would they say? What are you most proud to have achieved? Have you been invited to speak or write about any topics recently?
- What are you committed to or passionate about? What do you stand for? What do you devote your time, even when no one is willing to pay you? What do you think needs to be fixed or improved in the world?
In a previous post, I mentioned that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve. It has become a personal rally cry for me to help teams create shared understanding.
Since I’ve arrived at this observation, it has become my personal mission to help designers step up to the plate and become skilled facilitators that respond, prod, encourage, guide, coach and teach as they guide individuals and groups to make decisions that are critical in the business world though effective processes.
The Problem with Genius
Some leaders seem to drain intelligence and capability out of the people around them. Their focus on their own intelligence and their resolve to be the smartest person in the room have a diminishing effect on everyone else. For them to look smart other people had to end up looking dumb. Other leaders use their intelligence as a tool rather than a weapon. They apply their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capability of people around them. These leaders seem to make everyone around them better and more capable. These leaders aren’t just intelligent themselves– they are intelligence multipliers (Wiseman, L., Multipliers, 2017).
In analyzing data from more than 150 leaders, Wiseman has identified five disciplines that distinguish Multipliers from Diminishers. These five disciplines are not based on innate talent; indeed, they are skills and practices that everyone can learn to use—even lifelong and recalcitrant Diminishers.
The secret to the Multiplier effect is knowing what your vulnerabilities are, spotting them in action and turning these situations into Multiplier moments. Liz Wiseman shares a few ways that really well-intentioned leaders end up having a diminishing impact on the people around them (Wiseman, L., Multipliers, 2017).
Although the Multiplier — Diminisher framework might appear binary, there is a continuum between Multipliers and Diminishers, with a small number of people at either polar extreme. Liz Wiseman’s research showed that most of us fall along this spectrum and have the ability to move toward the side of the Multiplier. With the right intent, the Multiplier approach to leadership can be developed (Wiseman, L., Multipliers, 2017)
Journey to Thought Leadership
Denise Brousseau has developed a seven-step process to help individuals successfully transition from a leader to thought leader (Brosseau, D., Ready to Be a Thought Leader?, 2014):
- Find your driving passion: You will be far more effective if you identify one arena where your interests, expertise, credibility, and commitment align — your “thought leadership intersection point.” Next you will craft a clear What If? future, a possible future that you are committed to bring about. When you identify and align to key trends gain momentum and be well on your way to make significant difference, not only in your company or community, but access your industry or niche.
- Build Your Ripples of Influence: to build your first ripples of change, you need to test your ideas and opinions (often not yet fully baked) with knowledgable stakeholders — colleagues, mentors, and friends — gather their input, and continually refine your thinking. By listening to what resonates, you will distill many different points of view into the kern of a transformative idea that will bring about the What If?
- Activate Your Advocates: to expand your influence beyond your existing team or organization will require that you attract supporters and well connected advocates — community leaders, industry spokespeople, analysts, journalists, research groups, or national partners — who can champion your product, program, initiative, or idea to a much broader set of audiences.
- Put Your “I” on the Line: to build sustainable momentum for a new idea requires someone to show the way, someone willing to step into the limelight and say “follow me”. You will need to overcome self-imposed limits to standing front and center and risking your reputation to espouse a new direction or vision of the future, often long before others agree with your point.
- Codify Your Lessons Learned: the essential different between leaders and thought leaders is often the latter’s ability to distill their know-how into a replicable model so that others can be inspired and empowered to expand on what those leaders have accomplished.
- Put Yourself on S.H.O.U.T.: to increase your credibility, strategic visibility, and reputation and gain recognition as a thought leaders, you will have to get the word out about your activities, efforts, and lessons learned. You are not a thought leader if no one knows anything about you or what you’ve accomplished. You need to be discoverable and connect with those who can build on your ideas.
- Incite (R)Evolution: You will need to keep monitoring our progress to ensure you gain traction for your ideas locally, regionally, and even internationally. As you accelerate and amplify your voice, you’ll increase your influence of followers that will carry forward your efforts, while preventing burn out as you bring the evolutionary and even revolutionary change.
Design Strategist Multiplication Program
As I mentioned in the beginning of a previous post, myself and my colleague Edmund Azigi are designing a Design Strategist Multiplier program per request of Scott Lietzke, our VP of Design at SAP SuccessFactors.
In order for this kind of profession development program to work — in my opinion — should be practice-based, accompanied with a series of seminars, corresponding required reading and reflective practice journaling to create the opportunities for people to grow.
This post was one of a series in which I’ve went through the skills of a strategist (namely: thought leadership, stakeholder analysis and management, facilitating decision making and project management) and challenging you with questions that will help you think of ways to how to pick up these skills yourself.
Berkun, S. (2008). Making things happen: Mastering project management. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.
Brosseau, D. (2014). Ready to be a thought leader?: How to increase your influence, impact, and success (1st ed.). Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.
George, B., Sims, P., McLean, A. N., & Mayer, D. (2007). Discovering your authentic leadership. Harvard Business Review, 85(2), 129–130, 132–138, 157.
Harvard Business Review. (2017). The Harvard business review manager’s handbook: The 17 skills leaders need to stand out. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Lencioni, P. M. (2013). The five dysfunctions of a team, enhanced edition: A leadership fable. London, England: Jossey-Bass.
Maxwell, J. C. (2007). The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership: Follow them and people will follow you. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C. (2001). The trusted advisor. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Meyer, E. (2014). The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business. New York, NY: PublicAffairs
Prizeman, T. (2015). The Thought Leadership Manual: How to grab your clients’ attention with powerful ideas. St Albans, England: Panoma Press.
Wiseman, L. (2017). Multipliers, revised and updated: How the best leaders make everyone smart. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.