“Thought leader”―what does that even mean? It’s a phrase that has been overused to the point of being a cliché, yet it’s still a status many covet. While there’s no textbook definition of the term, a thought leader is generally a person whose thinking shapes that of others and spurs conversations within his or her field of expertise. The label has gained currency in recent years, since anyone with access to a computer now has the opportunity to influence multitudes.
“A thought leader is someone who professionals look to for advice or insight,” says Tamara Rasberry, SHRM-CP, principal HR consultant at Rasberry Consulting LLC in Washington, D.C. She, like everyone quoted in this article, is considered a thought leader in her own right, as a frequent contributor to HR blogs and on social networks.
Thought leaders use all channels at their disposal to influence their industry, says Anthony Paradiso, SHRM-CP, HR partner and consultant at New York City-based Industrial U.I. Services. “They’re on social media, they’re networking at events, and they’re helping and growing the profession.”
Their prominence gives them a leg up in their careers as well. “It makes you more visible within the industry, so it can lead to job interviews and job offers,” Rasberry says. Being a known voice also enables you to build relationships with other influencers, which helps establish credibility, she adds. The good news is you don’t need any special credentials or pedigree to be a thought leader. You just have to be willing to put in the effort and, well, thought.
Here’s some advice on how to join the ranks of the HR illuminati.
1. Carve a Niche
Don’t brand yourself as a generalist. “People have to know what to go to you for,” says Katrina Kibben, CEO of Three Ears Media in Boulder, Colo. Focus on honing your expertise in a specific sector, like small businesses or startups, or in a subject matter area, such as onboarding or talent acquisition.
“Find a particular area in HR that you’re passionate about, or find a particular problem in the industry that you have the keys to solve,” advises Joey Price, CEO of Baltimore-based Jumpstart:HR LLC and host of the podcast “Business, Life, and Coffee.”
2. Cultivate Content
Also, “you should be creating and distributing content,” Price says. This might include starting a blog, newsletter or podcast, or it may involve using the self-publishing tool on LinkedIn to comment on industry trends and spread your voice. Your LinkedIn articles will be shown in your connections’ and followers’ news feeds—and if those folks, in turn, share them, your reach could expand exponentially. Those who aren’t in your network can opt to follow you, which means your next article will be surfaced in even more feeds.
To maximize your exposure, make sure your profile visibility is set to “everyone.”
“When people read your content regularly, they become a member of your tribe,” Price explains. “Sharing my content on social media has allowed people to know what I do and what value and knowledge I bring to the industry.” Expanding your sphere of influence in this way also gives you more exposure to recruiters.
[SHRM members-only content: Creating a Competency Development Plan]
3. Connect with Your Tribe
Having a lot of followers and connections on social media is a good first step to getting more visibility, but you need to engage your camp in conversation if you want to be known as a thought leader. One of the best ways to do that is by posing provocative questions to start a dialogue.
Look for other thought leaders in your universe and respond to them on social networks. “You have a great opportunity to learn from other influencers when you’re associated with them,” Rasberry says. Sharing these people’s tweets or content can help you cozy up to them. Just make sure you’re adding value to the conversation by commenting on the content or sharing your opinion, rather than just hitting the retweet or share button.
“Always use hashtags to make sure people are seeing what you’re sharing,” Price says. And don’t focus too much on self-promotion. “There should be a 3-1 ratio,” Kibben says. “For every four tweets you send out, three of them should be about other people, and one should be about you. In other words, you shouldn’t only be using social media to promote your brand.”
4. Call On Your Network
Joining trade associations and labor unions gives you access to resources and networking events. To distinguish yourself from your peers, you’ll want to assume a leadership role or volunteer position on a committee. This will give you greater exposure to other influencers and prospective employers and can even lead to job offers, since recruiters often poach talent through industry meet-ups and conferences.
Pro tip: When attending networking gatherings, don’t squander the opportunity by latching onto the people you already know. Push yourself to forge new connections. If you don’t like approaching people cold, set up in-person meetings in advance through e-mail.
For example, you might try sending a short note to someone you’d like to meet, saying, “I read your book and saw you’re going to be speaking at the summit. I’d love to meet for coffee and learn more about what you do.”
Also, take a peek at the individual’s social media feeds to identify shared interests that you can use as talking points in person.
5. Conference Yourself In
To maximize your exposure at industry events, use your position to become a speaker or to moderate a panel on your area of expertise.
Don’t sit back and wait to be tapped for these opportunities—reach out to conference organizers and request to speak, or “talk to people who are already speaking and find out how they got on the docket,” Kibben says.
It’s normal to be nervous. Practice helps. “Start slow if you need to and speak at an event for your local chapter, then work your way up to bigger events,” Paradiso recommends.
6. Classify Yourself as an Expert to the Media
Another way to put yourself out there—and establish yourself as a thought leader—is by appearing as an expert in news articles or TV segments in trade or mainstream media outlets. You can pitch yourself directly to reporters at your target media. Or use the website Help a Reporter Out (HARO), a database that journalists rely on to find sources with particular experiences or areas of expertise. (Reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post and other major publications use it.)
7. Convey Authenticity
Although it may sound obvious, above all, stay true to who you are. Be yourself and go in with good intentions. “Becoming a thought leader isn’t just about selling yourself, or putting dollars in your pocket, or amassing tens of thousands of followers,” Kibben says. “It’s about having original thoughts and bringing value to the evolution of your industry.”
Finally, even though your goal is to become a thought leader, don’t call yourself one. True thought leaders are declared to be influencers by those they’ve influenced. That means their peers—not themselves.
Daniel Bortz is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.