Lessons from The Trenches: Creating a Culture of Thought Leadership at Vistage

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently thinking about thought leadership from a broader perspective. In my first book, Ready to Be a Thought Leader?, I explored what it takes for individuals to make the journey from leader to thought leader. But what does it take for organizations to take a similar journey? As part of this exploration, I had the opportunity to interview Joe Galvin, Chief Research Officer at Vistage, about his new role providing Vistage members with ‘the most current, compelling and actionable thought leadership on the strategic issues of small and mid-sized businesses.’ He’s learning a lot about what it takes to create a culture of thought leadership. Here is Part 1 of our conversation.

Vistage Helps Business Owners Thrive 

Vistage, founded in 1957, brings together over 22,000 successful CEOs, entrepreneurs and business owners in 20 countries into private peer advisory boards in order to facilitate their growth and success. Through the course of its 60-year history, Vistage has gained a unique vantage point on the inner workings and best practices across a wide variety of industries. Joe was hired in 2016 with a unique mission – ‘to uncover, measure and analyze the innovations and emerging trends that drive the performance of the most successful small and mid-sized businesses’ and then share them widely with Vistage members and the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem.

With both sales and research roles at Gartner, SiriusDecisions and CSO Insights – Miller Heiman, his career profile gives Joe a unique set of expertise for this role. He has held every position from sales person to sales leader, then worked with the ‘legends’ of Gartner who taught him the ways of the analyst. These experiences gave him both the practical skills and the time to step back and study an industry–which provided him context. He believes that, “Expertise is only valuable if you can apply it in the context of the given situation.”

His Mandate is to Create Relevant, Meaningful Content

Joe’s mandate is to craft the philosophy, research infrastructure and approach as well as create, develop and deliver content that is relevant and meaningful to the Vistage community. This content will be supported with research data and expert perspectives because “research without data is just another opinion.”

Research without data is just another opinion.”

He believes that many thought leaders “take positions and put forward ideas based on their experience, thinking or who/what they are trying influence – but often lack the data to support their position. That is not to say the thinking is bad or wrong – but it’s an opinion, it’s what they think.” He argues that, “Data takes into account the opinions of others as the foundation for the thought leader’s thoughts” which then makes those ideas far more valuable to the reader and more worthy of being called research or thought leadership.

He points out that lots of people/organizations “publish their opinions masked as research. This is really prevalent with vendors who try to masquerade as thought leaders.” At Vistage, they take a different approach.

When you create content, your job is not to answer questions, it’s to raise questions.”

Joe believes that “when you create content, your job is not to answer questions, it’s to raise questions” because only the reader/member/person you are trying to target can contextualize what you are saying. After publishing over 500 articles and pieces of research when he was at Gartner and Sirius he told me that he’s “never known a piece of paper that actually has solved a problem.”

For example, Gartner publishes a lot of Magic Quadrants, but no one ever made a decision based on the Magic Quadrant. Instead, it is a tool that helps companies think about how they align and compare and contrast the various competitors in their space and this gives them comparatives so they can weigh what is meaningful and important to them — because only they know. That’s the viewpoint Joe advocates for Vistage’s thought leadership voice. Provide people with fresh perspectives backed up by relevant research and let them reach their own conclusions rather than come from a “only I know” or “only I can fix you” approach.

First Step? Create the Common Language

To get started, Joe felt it was important to first understand the language that is used at Vistage to describe the issues and topics that are of importance to their members. “One of the key elements of thought leadership is to create common language.” To be able to have a discussion about a topic, everyone must use the same words to describe the same things and connect the same meaning to that. Otherwise “you spend a period of time trying to rationalize my words and your words.”

“ One of the key elements of thought leadership is to create common language.”

Next, Draft the Taxonomy

Next, he looked at how those words connected and contrasted with the words that are being used beyond their walls. That led to developing a taxonomy that everyone could use to describe and define the issues and topics that they think are important that are also important to their members/customers and the open market.

As he began that journey, he found they were using a variety of different taxonomies – different groups were using different words with different meanings. To develop a shared language, it was necessary to “lock people in a room together; after about 4 hours you come to the same place.” They began by understanding where they each were, how entrenched they were and what the pain of change would be.

Joe’s view is that, “Sometimes there is a value in change for the sake of change – it forces people to re-think and re-set what these words mean to them. And as a thought leader, a legitimate thought leader, you want to create and use words that have universal meaning. And sometimes that means you make those words up and sometimes you use words that others use.” Having that shared glossary – labeling or defining the words you will use or even crafting your own words to describe something — may take time but it is a critical first step.

“As a thought leader, a legitimate thought leader, you want to create and use words that have universal meaning.”

In 2001, when Joe was a new analyst at Gartner, he learned the value of crafting your own words as a thought leader when he created a new category in the employee incentive management world called ICMS (incentive compensation management system). This allowed him to differentiate the incentive commission monies that sales people are paid from the compensation and bonuses that non-salespeople are paid. He then became the go-to expert in ICMS when he began to present and publish content and ideas and concepts on related topics. Because he was at Gartner, he had the bully pulpit that people would gravitate towards these ideas, and over time they gained adoption.

Decide What Gets the Seal of Approval

Developing a taxonomy is difficult, but “getting people to agree and to change or give up their definitions and use the new definitions” can be even harder. At Vistage, that process is still on-going. In fact, they discovered that “there were a variety of indexes and taxonomies and tools being created – all really good stuff – but none were connected. Like in kindergarten, where we have lots of parallel play. People are all in the room playing but not playing together. The taxonomy gives us a common language to allow us, over time, to begin to align the varying types of content into a hierarchy.”

“A taxonomy gives you a common language to begin to align the varying types of content you have into a hierarchy.”

As part of their alignment process, they have begun to identify and assess their current asset inventory and evaluate it against the taxonomy and hierarchy they’ve developed. There is an extensive legacy library of content and as he uncovers it, Joe has begun to think of this phase as an archeological dig. “It’s like the Romans on top of the Greeks on top of whatever came before that. Over business generations everything kind of piled on top of each another.”

He likes to use the image from Walt Disney; he’s in Orlando in the 1960’s. He’s standing in a swamp up to his knees and he has the plans unrolled in front of him and his team is beside him and he’s pointing out where the Magic Kingdom is going to be. Joe is not sure where Vistage’s research kingdom is going to be, but he knows he’s standing in a swamp because “we have acquired and accumulated and layered good stuff and bad stuff and old stuff and it’s all there.”

They are uncovering different content styles (video, audio, written), but also a multitude of topics and subtopics. To determine the viability of what’s they’ve found, they then must determine where it was used, when it was used, and who it was used by. They must also assess its currency, quality, relevance, impact and alignment.

“Useful content has currency, quality, relevance, impact and alignment.”

If the content they uncover meets the criteria they have established in all of these areas, they will then “dust it off and give it a new coat of paint and stick it in the hierarchy.” As Joe has learned, “Some content is timeless in nature and some has a very specific shelf life.” If the content doesn’t meet their criteria, they will “put it back in the swamp and in 20 million years it will be oil. We’ll worry about it then.”

The Goal Is Helping People Find Content with Your Seal of Approval

As Joe sees it, people don’t want to search, they want to find. “They want to find content that has your brand, your logo or your validation attached to it.” Like when you buy an appliance, it has the UL sticker on it. This shows that someone has tested it and it’s safe. “You want the people accessing your content to know that the content they find has your seal of approval on it or they wouldn’t find it in your location.” This is a critical element for any organization establishing itself as a thought leader.

“ People want to find content that has your brand, your logo or your validation attached to it — content with your ‘seal of approval’.”

Follow These Steps

There are a lot of juicy ideas in this post, so let me summarize. If your goal is to establish your organization as a thought leader, here are the first steps:

1)   Create the common language – the shared definition of words you will use to define key concepts.

2)   Develop a taxonomy – the classification system you will use to describe and define issues and topics that are important to your members, clients or customers.

3)   Identify and assess your current asset inventory (audio, video, written) to assure it is current, of high quality, relevant, impactful and in alignment with your organization’s point of view.

4)   Grant the seal of approval – Before you put your brand, logo and validation on any content, assure that it meets the bar for each of these criteria.

In my next post, I’ll share Joe’s thoughts on what it takes to create and showcase content that is of real value to your audience.

About the Author

Denise Brosseau is CEO of Thought Leadership Lab, the author of Ready to Be a Thought Leader? (Wiley/Jossey-Bass) and a lecturer at Stanford Business School. She works with executives, entrepreneurs and their teams on how to position themselves and their organizations as thought leaders. After an early career in the technology industry, Denise co-founded Watermark and Springboard Enterprises, an accelerator program for women entrepreneurs that has led to more than $7 billion in capital for 627 companies. Today, she is hard at work on her second book on how organizations create a culture of thought leadership. If you have ideas for stories to include, please be in touch.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Photo credits: McKinsey, Disney


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