In this article, and the accompanying video, I share a 5-part strategic framework to position yourself as a thought leader in your niche – and the best part is you can probably do 4 of the 5 parts right now, today!
A “thought leader” – by my definition – is someone who cultivates influence in order to impact the world. It’s someone who’s changing the way we think, someone who's introducing new paradigms, someone who is grabbing a torch and leading a charge on something new, different and unique.
So how do you position yourself as a thought leader? It starts with Branding.
But before we get into Positioning, we first need to address BEING. The most important factor I’ve witnessed in working with people, as they step into thought leadership, is not tactical or even strategic, it's mindset and attitude.
One of the biggest challenges I see – especially with, but not only with women – is a reluctance to be seen as “bragging,” and a belief that branding = bragging. They worry “what will people think?” when they put themselves out there, and fear they’ll turn people off if they’re “too much.” These fears can be conscious or subconscious (or, very often, both).
And so instead of claiming their thought leadership, they wait for OTHERS to proclaim their thought leadership. I call this “Waiting To Be Discovered.” They’re waiting for someone to discover them and say, “YOU!! YES! You’re IT! I’ve been LOOKING for someone JUST like YOU! Where have you been all my life? Can I (please) hire you?” Needless to say, this rarely happens – unless and until you put yourself OUT THERE.
Okay, let’s dive into the 5 steps to branding like a thought leader!
Step One is “The Inner Work,” which involves getting clear about who you really are, and what you really love to do, so you can create an ALIGNED brand.
Simon Sinek famously claimed you should “Start With WHY; I call this step “Start With I.” That's because your WHY becomes clearer when you know WHO you really are.
A quick story… Like many brand new entrepreneurs, when I started my business (in 2007, right before the big recession), I was almost 100% focused on my money-making strategy, nothing else. I thought: “I need to make money, and corporations have money, so I’ll brand myself as a corporate consultant!”
Can you relate – crafting your brand from the OUTSIDE IN?
I looked at other corporate consulting websites and business cards, and emulated what I saw. I ended up with a navy blue, black and white website with lots of text and information, but no color, no emotion, no joy, and no SOUL (lots and lots of text, though!!) Here’s a screenshot of that website:
Essentially there was this BOX labeled “Corporate Consultant,” which I spent 2-3 years trying to contort myself to fit. No surprise, it never did.
That didn’t stop me from hammering away, hustling and trying to make it work, but it just wasn't happening naturally. And the reason it wasn't happening naturally is because the brand I created was not aligned with my authentic nature. I LOVE color. I love to have FUN. I love connecting DEEPLY with people.
Luckily one day a woman in a seminar I was facilitating called me out. After spending the afternoon together, at the end of the program, I showed my headshot and contact info – a headshot featuring me in a navy blue suit with pearls – she said “is that you? That doesn’t even look like you!! You’re NOTHING like that picture!” She was adamant, and insisted I change out my headshot – and even sent me an email later after reviewing my website.
It was a wake up call. I couldn’t ignore what she was saying, because it felt so TRUE.
So I started to ask myself the deeper questions and started to bring my OUTER image into alignment with my INNER identity. I started using a new headshot, which I affectionately termed the “Sharpie Pic,” and the response was swift and positive. See images below.
From there I changed my website, business name, tag lines, programs, services, and pretty much EVERYTHING else. And over the years, I did a good enough job at rebranding myself, that I started doing it with and for others.
The key to doing this Step One well, is instead of STARTING with questions like “what does the market want me to be?” or “what can I sell?” or “what's popular right now” or “what's trending?;” starting with questions like: “who am I really?” “what do I enjoy doing the most?” “what’s my FAVORITE part about the work I do?” “If I could have it ALL my way, what would that look like?”
When we DON’T do this work first, you can end up with an “ill-fitting” brand like I did — like ill-fitting clothes. Not super comfortable – and not super compelling either. People can FEEL that discomfort (even if they’re not sure where it comes from).
Step Two is “The Higher Work” – your WHY, your “North Star.” The bigger, deeper meaning of what you’re here, on this planet, to do.
The Higher Work is the connection to something bigger than you. Sometimes this can be challenging when we're just trying to “get by” and make some money. We can forget the value of connecting to something greater.
I’m not necessarily talking about God or religion or spirituality, though maybe that’s what it is for you. I'm talking about connecting your brand to something that's meaningful for you, a contribution that's beyond you.
It could be something like empowering others, or giving back, or bringing awareness to a cause… there are a zillion possibilities, but whatever it is gives FUEL to your devotion to the work, AND can also be a boon to your brand.
Brands like Tom’s and Goldieblox are great examples of brands that LEAD with their why, and attract people to their mission, message and movement – and it drives attention, loyalty and sales.
So, what’s YOUR greater mission, message or movement?
Step Three is “The Creative Work.” The creative work is the FUN part (in my opinion). This is where you get to decide and bring forward what you do UNIQUELY.
The Creative Work is what differentiates you from everybody else in the market. It’s your innovation; it’s your CREATION. It’s the center of your thought leadership; it’s the actual “thing” that makes you a thought leader.
It can be a body of work you developed, a system you designed, a product you invented, a book you wrote, a methodology you devised, an event you founded, a story you lived… it can be anything that’s uniquely YOURS. It’s your “Special Sauce.”
*** If you want to go deeper on this topic of your Creative Work, watch my video “What Is A Personal Brand and Why Is It Important?” In that video, I dive into my “Red Sole” branding concept there, which explains how to find the unique value that increases your perceived value (and your price!) ***
Step Four to personal branding for thought leadership in your niche is the “Strategic Work.”
This is where a lot of people start their branding journey, in the middle, if you ask me. The strategic work is what's more commonly associated with “Branding.” It encompasses mostly what I refer to as POSITIONING.
These are questions like: Who is your target market (which I prefer to call “Ideal Market” because “target” is, well, a bit aggressive, isn’t it?) What’s the market opportunity, AKA: the commonly known (or perhaps not so commonly known) PROBLEM you solve? What will you charge? Where do you / your offerings “fit” in the market landscape? There are other questions too, but essentially what we’re getting at here is who are the PEOPLE you will focus on, and how will you PROMOTE, PLACE and PRICE your offerings?
This work is also about putting language to your message and determining how you will EXPRESS your brand in the world. Essentially, what is your MESSAGE? Every thought leader has a message, and a thought leader is someone who changes minds (and likely wins over hearts, too). So, what is that message that you're going to put out in the world?
The Fifth Step is the “Implementation Work” or “Execution Work.” This is the physical look and feel of the brand; the materials that represent the brand out in the world.
These include your logo, website, headshots, bio, business cards, flyers, book covers, and more. It extends to your MARKETING – youtube videos, blog posts, emails, events. Yes there’s a distinction between branding and marketing, but, in my book, anything that represents your brand and adds to your brand “oeuvre” IS branding.
SO that’s it! The 5 key components of positioning yourself as a thought leader.
I hope that was helpful for you. One thing to remember on this journey is that these days, people's “BS Meter” is on MAX, and there's very little tolerance for anything that smells of inauthenticity. No matter what you do for your brand, do yourself – and the world – a favor, make sure it feels TRUE and ALIGNED for you, before you put it out there.
If this article or video resonated with you, and you're ready to take a next step, check out my free guide: Googleicious 4.0, at www.googleicious.me.
This guide will help you brand yourself online, and will give you TACTICAL things you can do TODAY – to be known and seen as a thought leader when people search for you on Google.