One of the surest ways to increase your ability to sell is to increase your strategic visibility – i.e., your visibility and standing with the people who matter, says Denise Brosseau, CEO of Thought Leadership Lab.

“I’ve seen thought leaders become rainmakers who attract customers for their products, clients for their services, partners for their companies, followership for their blogs, readership for their books and funders for projects they have underway,” she adds.

Thought leadership can give your ideas exposure both inside and outside your company – especially with journalists, analysts, event organizers and conference hosts. And it will give you access to people who can help you make things happen – leaders in your organization or community; innovators in your profession or industry; or influencers in government or regulatory circles.

Still need more reasons to grow your impact and influence?

Denise says recognized thought leaders have the power to persuade, the status and authority to move things in a new direction and the clout to implement real progress and widespread innovation.

And because people want to affiliate with those who are well known and in the know, thought leadership leads to invitations to join corporate boards, serve on government commissions and participate in industry-wide committees.

If you’re ready to step up and take ownership of your big ideas and become an insurance sales innovator, read on as Denise shares more about the good and bad habits of thought leaders and who to follow for inspiration:

Tell us about Thought Leadership Lab…what is it?

At Thought Leadership Lab, we work with executives and entrepreneurs who want to increase their impact, scale their influence and leave a legacy that matters.

Our clients include leaders of companies, teams, not-for-profits and consultancies who have big ideas they believe can create sustainable change in the world. They work with us to build their platform, find their tribe, take their seat at the table and become discoverable for what they have underway.

How did you become interested in the concept of thought leadership? What about it inspires you?

Earlier in my career, I co-founded a nonprofit working with women entrepreneurs – helping them raise venture financing and grow their businesses. (At the time, less than 1 percent of venture capital went to women-led businesses; today that number is still only about 7 percent.) As the CEO, I scaled that organization to seven chapters across the U.S., and then I helped to start the first venture conference for women entrepreneurs – Springboard. The Springboard Venture Forums have since helped women raise over $6.5 billion in capital for their entrepreneurial ventures. Those experiences gave me a unique (and amazing) opportunity to speak for a community and build a following for the idea that women should have far more access to venture capital. I never set out to be that spokesperson for women’s entrepreneurship – I think of myself as more of an “accidental” thought leader.

A few years later, a friend approached me because she wanted to become a thought leader in her industry. She convinced me that my earlier journey, from leader to thought leader, could be replicated and she asked for my help. Over the next few years, we crafted a plan and worked together to build a program in her company that she then replicated across her industry. She was soon invited to testify in front of the U.S. Senate, her company was later recognized for its best practices by the White House and she was then recruited by the governor for a statewide role. That experience, helping her, not only inspired me, but also led me to develop a framework and a seven-step process that others can follow to take their own journey from leader to thought leader. I am excited to see how others are using that framework and expanding their influence and impact every day.

What are the qualities all thought leaders possess?

Thought leaders expand ideas – they seek out novel ways of looking at the world, out-of-the-box solutions, and the sparks of innovation everywhere. They nurture relentless curiosity, continually seeking out creative suggestions from, and collaborating with, those in their ecosystem – those tackling the same challenges or looking for the same answers that they are.

What often transforms leaders into thought leaders is their willingness to bring about something new and then to learn from their early efforts and be willing to share their successes and failures, best practices and lessons learned so that others don’t have to start from scratch when it’s their turn.

Thought leaders see their role as more than the leader of one team, one initiative or one organization. They go further, to show how their experiences can be applied much more broadly. They focus on developing principles, processes or systems that others can use, expand on and transform in turn. They identify the right direction, forge into new territory and then craft the mileposts and chart the way forward for the rest of us. Their goal is for their followers to expand on their efforts and help them create not only incremental change but potentially even a movement.

What are some bad habits that people who want to be thought leaders need to ditch?

I like to say that the difference between an expert and a thought leader is that experts want to be sure you know how smart they are while thought leaders want to make you smarter. Thus, one of the bad habits we all need to ditch is trying to show off our knowledge and expertise. That doesn’t really engage a community or build trust. Instead, focus on becoming a better storyteller so that you can engage others to get on board with your ideas. Another bad habit is to play too small or to stay fairly invisible. I invite people to think (and play) big and to be as “discoverable” as possible. Only by being discoverable will you build your tribe and bring about sustainable change.

What should business owners, salespeople or anyone in a leadership role do when they feel they’ve hit a slump? What are some of your favorite means for getting back on track?

Leaders and thought leaders face a lot of different fears along the way: fear of failure, fear of being judged, fear of being vulnerable, fear of letting others down, even fear of success. Many don’t step into the spotlight because they are not yet “expert” enough, even when they know far more than everyone around them. Others fear that everything they have to say has already been said, even when they have a unique point of view that others need to hear. And some hold themselves back because they are too young or too old or don’t have the right job, the right title or the right degree. For me, it’s often a fear of the judgment of my peers – is what I have to say “good enough” or “smart enough” to measure up?

When I get stopped by my fears – rational or not – I try to shift the prism a little bit to find a new perspective. I look around me and find people who have done what I want to do or those who are doing big things regardless of their fears. (You notice I didn’t say find people without fears. We all have fears.)

One person who inspires me is Hank Leber, cofounder and CEO of GonnaBe, who believes, “Failure doesn’t even really exist. If something doesn’t go the way that you planned it to go, and you learn from it, that’s just called learning. That’s not really failure. Failure is if you keep doing the same wrong things over and over; you’re not really making progress. Otherwise, it’s just learning – and learning is good! So, if your goal is to learn as much as possible as you go, instead of your goal is to not fail, then you can keep on going and going and going.”

Another person who has the right idea is my client, Antonia Galindo, who talks about the importance of firing your “itty-bitty-shitty committee” – those voices in your head that essentially tell you that you are never going to be successful, so why start anyway. Sometimes this requires having a cheerleader (or a team of them) to remind you how wonderful you are and that you should keep going. Other times, you just need to remind yourself why you are doing what you are doing. When you stay focused on the why, that is often the single biggest motivator for any of us to achieve anything.

What advice do you have on networking in a digital age? How can we build a brand and engage with people without coming across as disingenuous?

My clients often ask me about how to use social media to expand their network and spread their message. What I advise them is to figure out where your customers/clients/tribe are “playing” within the digital world. Despite the fact that you may find social media platforms to be trivial, if your community is active there, you need to be there as well. It’s all about engagement and building trust by fostering online connections and sharing information where people are. If the online conversation in your industry is happening on Pinterest, for example, you’d better learn the language of and engage on Pinterest.

Senior executives often have all kinds of excuses for not using social media platforms – I don’t have time, I don’t know how, I don’t know what to say. I really try to advise people that things have changed and you must transform according to today’s demands. Find a young person – a digital native – and have them mentor you. You’ll learn a lot and so will they.

Start by being an observer – learn the rules of the road before you begin. Then start small and try some experiments to see what people respond to and what they are interested in learning more about. You’ll develop your “voice” and brand online over time, but I like the advice of Brene Brown – which I won’t get exactly right but is something like: “Don’t puff up, don’t play small, allow yourself to be seen.” By being genuinely ourselves – with all of our bumps and warts – we will engage authentically and build the kind of community we want to be a part of.

How should someone get started to establish themselves as a thought leader?

There are several different ways to get started. You can be a content curator, distilling the best ideas and information in your industry or niche and sharing it with others. You can be an amplifier or an idea carrier – taking the ideas of others and broadening their reach. You can be a content creator, framing your own ideas into OpEds, speeches or publications. You can also be a supporter, someone who identifies the people in their own organization or industry whose ideas need to be heard and encouraging them to be more discoverable. All of these roles will begin to shape the conversation and establish you as someone who is making a difference. Thought leadership is, after all, not just about being known, but about being known for making a difference.

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