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How to become a "Thought Leader" ...

Speaking of books that took odd paths to get into my hands … Tim McDonald, a buddy I've known from the Social Media Club of Chicago (who, ironically, is currently “taking time off from social media”), has a personal project he's working on called #365DaysOfGiving, where he (wait for it …) gives away something every day for a year. This manifests variously, from postcards on his travels, to very expensive tickets for events, to framed graphics of his favorite sayings, to, well, books. He'd attended the book launch party for this, and was offering it on his list. As it turned out, I was one of a number of people who requested it, and he (randomly) sent it off to somebody else, but when I mentioned that I'd do a review of it, he was essentially wanting to “gift” that to her, and so (over my protestations – at this point I can pretty much hit up any publishing house for review copies of new books, and was certainly willing to do so in this case) he ordered me a copy from Amazon.

I figured that it would only be polite to bump this up to the top of my “to be read” pile when it came in, so I got Dorie Clark's Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It  read over the past week. This book is, essentially, a how-to manual for becoming a “Thought Leader” ... and, as I've always somewhat aspired to this sort of role (albeit, hoping for “organic growth” to get me there), I was certainly interested in the topic.

Ms. Clark's bio is interesting … from her site: “At age 14, Clark entered Mary Baldwin College’s Program for the Exceptionally Gifted. At 18, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Smith College, and two years later received a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School” … so she's smarter than either of us. Unfortunately, I suspect that her experiences give her a somewhat “unrealistic” view of what is generally possible for “most folks”. While I mean this to be a mild caveat on the book, I did find myself reacting to a number of things in here with some incredulity as to their "general applicability".

As regular readers know, I fall back on this crutch way too often, but sometimes the best option for giving you the “broad strokes” of the book is to pass along the contents listing … of course, for some books that would be pointless, but others, like this one, are very clear on how the info's set out … so:

                  Part 1 – Finding your Breakthrough Idea
                          - The Big Idea
                          - Develop Your Expert Niche
                          - Provide New Research
                          - Combine Ideas
                          - Create a Framework
                  Part 2 – Building a Following Around Your Ideas
                          - Build Your Network
                          - Build Your Audience
                          - Build a Community
                  Part 3 – Making It Happen
                          - Putting Thought Leadership Into Practice

Now, I'm pretty sure that most of my issues with this come from my own personal situation … I'll have been stuck in my current job search for six years as of next week, so when Clark talks about “becoming a recognized expert in your field”, I have to ask “and what field would that be?” … if I was in my 36th year in Public Relations, or 22nd year in Publishing, I'd have an answer for that (and I'd anticipate that I'd already be a “thought leader” in either by now), but no. While my situation is, quite likely, extreme … I'm guessing that not being on the cutting edge of one's field is a majority state – especially among Millennials, who are notorious for job/field hopping. While Clark insists: “If you want to become recognized as the best in your industry, you'll have to fight for it, but the promise of this book is that your goal is possible”, I can't help but see a parallel to Lake Wobegon's “... and all the children are above average” in the possibility of each and every reader becoming the “best” in their industry!

However, we're talking about you, not me … you're likely in “an industry”, you've got some ideas, you want to be a “thought leader” … well, Stand Out does systematically walk you through the steps. Interestingly, the book starts with a story of a gal who was in a VC firm, who did an analytic report on its performance … not even looking to be a “thought leader”, she got to that by just sticking to her guns on the (very disturbing) report … she faced a lot of resistance on what she was researching, on releasing the results, and doing subsequent articles on it … and came out as a go-to voice on (the pitfalls) of venture capital. So this is possible even if you're not specifically looking for it.

There are many, many stories in here illustrating specific points, more than I could possibly name-check in this review … in fact, they're the saving grace of the book, as they show how many of the steps here (which, as noted, frequently sound on the surface pretty much only achievable by some tiny minority), have played out in people's lives on the way to their becoming a “thought leader”. The other recurring element that is of great value in this are the “Ask yourself:” lists at the end of major sections. Starting with “The Big Idea” (once she gets out of the way that one need not be an Einstein, Gandhi, or Jung to come up with significant idea), there are subsections walking the reader through how to get to a “big idea” - “What Assumptions Are We Making?”, “What's Next?” (trends), and “What Can You Draw On From Your Own Experience” - each of which focuses on the experience of particular individuals, and offers a list of questions to elicit what you may have to offer (such as: “What experiences have you had that others in your field most likely have not? How does that difference shape your view of the industry?”).

The next part, “Develop Your Expert Niche” addresses the questions of how to best stand out: “Building a base of knowledge in a narrow subject area may seem like a career-limiting move, but sometimes it's the only way to get past the competition.”, noting Robert Scoble's recommendation (for tech blogging – but generalizable from there) of “... choosing one segment to specialize in so that your coverage can be much deeper than that of even the better-funded players … if you write exclusively about that subject you're going to rapidly outstrip {the other players} and become the definitive source on the subject”. Clark suggests looking at what you're a “local expert” in, or what you are “passionate” about (even your long-time hobbies), as a way of narrowing down the niche. Once one finds that, it's time to look for ways to “distinguish yourself” in it … even if by being “not that” of the expected traits (and example she gives is how Rachel Ray got hired by Food Network for not being a chef). Next there's “developing” your niche – digging deeper into the subjects, and “expanding” your niche – moving in to adjacent areas, or producing new channels of exposure.

Not being “in an industry”, the next part was one I had issues with, as “Provide New Research” can be painfully broad if one is not starting from some settled place. However, the section walks you through some illuminating examples, and the “Ask Yourself:” questions, such as: “Who are the usual information sources in your industry? Who else is knowledgeable but doesn't often get asked for their insights or opinions? How can you reach out to them?”.

I felt one of the key parts of the book was the “Combine Ideas” chapter, as this is where the successful “mashups” come from. One of the examples Clark offers is how Steve Jobs' college class in calligraphy ended up spurring some of the typographical features of the Mac … and refers to this ability as “Janusian thinking” (from the two-faced Roman god Janus). The focus here is how to take the things you may know from one area and bring them to bear in another … with some very interesting examples. She states: “If you want to develop breakthrough ideas, something outside the norm, you need to be willing to live outside the norm. At times, that can subject you to scorn … even when you're not being attacked, you may be greeted with a subtler form of skepticism …” {people not seeing the potential in your ideas}.

The last part of the first section is “Create a Framework”, which is set up in regards to Kübler-Ross' work on grief or Maslow's famed “needs” structure. Clark suggests: “If you want to make a mark in your field, try to spell out the fundamental principles behind it. Surprisingly often, the central tenets of a field have never been consciously articulated.” … and follows up with questions about what in your field are “mysterious”, “secret”, or “misunderstood”. The more “systematized” you are able to make the material, the better it will be understood – and spread: “Creating a framework means helping others think about a topic …”.

That, of course, brings us to the second part of the book - “Building a Following Around Your Ideas” - with individual chapters on building one's Network, Audience, and Community. This is very nitty-gritty, and familiar territory for those toiling in the social media trenches. She gives an extensive look at Seth Godin (obviously in the “Create a Tribe” sub-section) and how he's built himself up into a global phenomenon, and offers several other stories from varied settings. This part of the book, however, didn't lend itself as much to cherry-picking quotes, so I'm pretty much going to leave it at this.

The last part of the book (consisting of the one chapter “Putting Thought Leadership into Practice”), is for a fairly rarefied audience … those who have both come up with a breakthrough idea, and have built their “tribe”. Needless to say, most people reading it won't be there. The subsections here are “Making Time For Reflection”, “Making Time For Luck”, “Making A Living”, and “Making the Effort”.

Despite all the aforementioned concerns about the “general applicability” of Stand Out  (and, I must admit, Ms. Clark does address a lot of my own personal issues up front in terms of how “a generalist” can find that one idea … although, she sort of stumbled into hers, as one 700-word blog post she'd done for the Harvard Business Review “took off” and gave her the platform to build all the rest on), it is quite an engaging read. Her combining direct discussion of the main points with examples of how this has played out in “real life” is quite effective, and, as noted, the questions for digging into one's own experiences are awesome.

While this book is probably best for those in a significant position in an identifiable “industry”, it is a worthwhile read for anybody who has ever contemplated the possibility (dream?) of becoming a “thought leader”.  This is brand new (just out a couple of weeks), so should be available in the brick-and-mortar book vendors, and the on-line guys are offering it at about a 25% discount. I just wish that I were in a better position to put the info in here to use!


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