So you wanna be a thought leader? Or a spaceman and live in the sky?

9 December 2010

John Appleby

John Appleby

Global Head of Sales

So you wanna be a spaceman and live in the sky?

I was thinking for a title for this blog and came across one in the name of the Oasis B-Side “So you wanna be a spaceman”. It feels a bit the same as trying to become a thought leader.

“Be Thought Leaders”

This is one of the high-level topics in the Business Scorecard at Bluefin Solutions and the concept is core to our culture. But around 2 years ago, one of the more outspoken people in our senior management said “We think we’re thought leaders. But we’re not”. He’s clear with his messaging like that. It made me sit and seriously consider what being a thought leader is all about. And the truth is that it manifests itself in many ways. To our customers, being a thought leader is really bringing an external and critical eye to their business problems and solving them in an innovative way and delivering value. That’s what I call 'thought leader after the fact'.

But to be a 'thought leader before the fact' is a very different proposition and that’s what he meant. To be a real thought leader you need a wider group of engaged individuals. Customers who want to listen to what you have to say before they meet you, competitors who watch what you say so they can try to get ahead, partners who want to hear your advice because they think it’s worth listening to. In short, you have to be influential in your sphere of knowledge and influence...whatever that might be.

I set out to try to get to that place and I’m still a long way off, but I thought that maybe my musings on my journey so far would be interesting to people. If not, close this window now.

Define success criteria early on

I wrote this section last, and it’s a matter of the journey that I’m on that made this so! As I wrote it, I realised that I wasn’t sure what success looked like and how far along the road I was. So take a few minutes now to think about where this journey wants to take you. Do you want to change the world? Or perhaps earn lots of money? Or just be famous? If so, you should consider a career as a rock star or Greenpeace activist. Just kidding. But be clear on where it is you want this to take you. And then think about how you would measure it.

Presumably if you want to be a thought leader, then there is an outcome that you are looking to achieve. If it’s that key industry analysts look to you for advice, or you help define product strategy for the area you work in, then aim towards that. Perhaps it is a particular new job or role that you are looking to snatch. Either way, try to be clear on what success would look like, and keep an eye on that as you go through your journey.

Content is king

I like to joke that the first step to being a thought leader is to say “I am a thought leader”. It’s true, you have to say it to believe it and you have to believe it to realize it. However it’s also missing the point. Being a thought leader is also about having real content. Real content can take many formats. Here’s the major types of content I think that make king.

  1. Consolidated information - It’s often enough to take multiple sources and put them together in a meaningful and interesting way that engages a new audience. Combined with some analysis and thought, you can make things understood to people who weren’t able to get it before. Those people will think you are a genius.
  2. Technical information - The most popular blogs I have written are simple information about how to do something. Because real life people like real content, they love it when you explain things in simple terms. Include screenshots! Be visual and Keep It Simple Stupid.
  3. Critical analysis - Give your take on a situation. Take a position, whether you agree with it or not. Position one side of an argument and engage your audience by making them have an opinion. Be outspoken!

Note that I’ve not included anything around really making new ideas. That’s actually really hard and if you think the only way to being a thought leader is to create genuinely new ideas, you will never get there because new ideas are rare sparks of brilliance.

Don’t be afraid to give away IP

I won’t give away run books (detailed and long technical documents that tell everything) or other very high value documents, let’s get that out there. But almost anything else is fair game because today’s IP is tomorrow’s toilet roll. You will get much more value out of giving away IP, educating the marketplace, helping people and being seen as a giver, rather than just hoarding IP and trying to sell it to customers. Instead, give away IP. Your employer might be uncomfortable about it at first but when you are an expert in your given area, they will enjoy the credibility you bring in for being known as such.

Be yourself, authentic and transparent

If you’re a bit kooky, be kooky. If you’re funny, be funny. Because there’s an audience out there for your content and they will come when they find you. Whatever you do, don’t try to be someone else because it won’t work for you – at least not until you’ve learnt to be yourself. Be yourself, give credit where due, and put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Who do you want to read this and what do you think that they want to hear? Be careful not to fall into the trap of just writing what you want to write, remember what they want to read.

Don’t be “me too” and be knowledgeable

This is the bad news. Don’t just plagiarise and repeat stuff you’ve heard. If you don’t have a genuine knowledge about the area you want to write about, go and research it first. Become an expert – it doesn’t take long to be well informed. If you don’t have something interesting to say then people won’t continue to read what you have to say. The good news is if you spend a bit of time thinking about it then you probably do have something to say. When I write, I write from a partner perspective. You will have your own angle as well and this will bring your uniqueness.

Reach, Amplification and Network

So let’s assume you’ve written a wonderful work of art and it’s sitting there in an email ready to be authored somewhere. Once you have that, then you need people to engage with your content. I deliberately use the word engage because blindly reading it isn’t enough. You need people to read it, understand it and want to talk to you, because that way they will see you as someone worth listening to.

In the SAP community we have the SAP Community Network, which provides a good sounding board for decent content. It’s easy to get a few thousand views and dozens of comments on a decent blog post. If you start your own blog you may struggle to get more than a few dozen views, unless you’re able to market it. And because we’re all sole traders in this market, you have to do your own marketing.

I was sent a very interesting link to a site called Klout. This site effectively tells you what your impact is in Social Media. And it’s not just about Twitter followers and Facebook friends. It profiles Twitter, Facebook and (soon) LinkedIn and looks at the information you send out. Who it’s read by. Who “likes” it. Who resends it to an audience and how wide that audience is. And how influential the people who read your content are. So a fairly balanced view of how wide, deep and relevant your social media coverage is.

Social Media Scoring – the competition

On the back of this, I created a light-hearted competition on this with a friend. We have similar “Klout” scores and quite different reaches. The challenge we set ourselves was who would have the highest Klout score by the end of the year. And this has to be done with noble measures – rather than by following thousands of people on Twitter and hoping for “refollows”. The social experiment is: is it genuinely possible to change your social influence in just over 4 working weeks? And actually if we do increase our “Klout” scores, will it really mean we have increased the impact of our thought leadership? Is this measurable?

Social Media Scoring will change our world though, because it’s easy to profile your customers. Suppose I check into a hotel and they know I’m a social customer, likely to rate them publically. Wouldn’t it be easy to make sure they give me a good room, with some chocolates on the pillow (hint hint)? And to ensure the room service is fast and efficient? Maybe the Radisson in Manchester is reading this and they won’t send me burnt toast room service next time I’m there. And you, a nobody in the social media space? You’re in the basement I’m afraid, next to the staff toilets – because your opinion won’t be heard, it doesn’t matter if they upset your feelings.

What if it all seems too hard?

In that case the best I can suggest is to just get involved in some small way. First seek out some people that you want to listen to and then engage with them. Reply to their blog posts on their websites. Reply to their tweets. You will find that your own micro-community forms around you, as you start to have an opinion. The key, I’ve found, is that this can look like a mountain to climb, and the only way is to take a step. Just remember your overall goals on your journey and you will be find.


I’m new to all of this. Social media is societally new, technologically new and constantly evolving and whilst I’ve been on the internet for 18 years now, it continues to bring new things every day. Social Media Scoring is even newer – just headed towards the mainstream in 2011, and it will change our world. None of what I’ve said is the gospel and none of it may work and there are questions as to whether Twitter, LinkedIn and especially Facebook are relevant to the impact of business messaging. The impact remains fairly unclear and it’s less clear what the ingredients to success are.

But these are my observations so far of what has worked for me. I say worked, but I’m still not clear what the measure of success is for “worked”. Since I work in consulting, you’d think the measure of success is consulting revenue, but that’s really hard to measure because you’re only as good as your last project.

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About the author

John Appleby

Global Head of Sales

I've always been passionate about new technology. I cut my teeth helping global financial services and consumer goods companies build data warehouses to manage their business - especially when they wanted to run faster.

These days, I travel weekly across continents, helping clients differentiate themselves using analytics technologies. This then involved building a team to design the solution, make it work and lead it through to successful completion.

I believe that in-memory computing is radically changing the face of business so you can ask me about SAP HANA, or about any other data platform like DB2 BLU, Hadoop or MongoDB for that matter.

I'm passionate that giving back to the community reaps long-term rewards and this has shaped the last few years of my career - being a contributor to knowledge sharing websites as an SAP Mentor; and a sometime advisor to Wall Street investors on emerging technologies and those companies bringing to market new innovations.

When I'm not busy designing in-memory apps, you may find me pounding the pavement to the beat of music in the hilly suburbs of Philadelphia, or traveling the world to meet new people and new cultures.

Bluefin and SAP S/4HANA - welcome to the one horse race

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