Srikanth Srinivas

Srikanth Srinivas is the Senior Vice President - Advocacy Strategic Communications at Adfactors PR.

The Idea Whose Time Has Come (Part – I)

Srikanth Srinivas

 

Thought leadership is what you make of it: fad or a powerful change facilitator.


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David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times (NYT) – perhaps unkindly – calls them ‘concept peddlers’. Whether it’s an experiential basis for talking about reducing global poverty, or innovative ways of dealing with business growth challenges, thought leaders – and thought leadership – has become the latest addition to the management lexicon.

But does that phrase even mean anything? In the complicated world we live in, the socialisation of business has given experts and common folk alike, new ways of looking at the seemingly mundane essence of business: how to address the demand for strategic solutions to problems of increasing business growth.

Many of us are familiar with the old definition of a management consultant, the person or firm you went to when you needed help thinking about your business. You hire them to teach you how to tell time; they take your watch and proceed to teach you what you need to know – and then, they keep the watch.

In many ways, there is some truth to that analogy. The first thought leaders came from the management consulting profession. After a few hundred consulting assignments and experiences, our consultant is able to put together a model for extracting some best practice lessons, build a knowledge base about the industry or industries, and develop a portfolio of solutions that can be customised or modified for new customers.

These models are frameworks to view the issues and challenges that face any company or industry: competitive landscape, opportunity/ threat maps, regulatory impact and organisational structure, to name a few determinants of the company’s present situation. Put another way, consultants figure out what makes the watch tick.

Since a good consulting firm is always creating new management concepts, the idea of thought leadership has taken root in business concepts. In the consulting business, that idea is probably its bread and butter. Whether you want to call it ‘thinking out of the box’ or ‘strategic thinking’, or any other out of a number of impressive sounding phrases, they all share one feature in common: they are all about thinking differently.

However, by themselves, consulting firms and their ideas will not be able to address many of the challenges that face business leaders; chief executives as a class have to step in and expand on the idea such that they address the specific problems facing their particular business.

Take environmental sustainability. Corporations are imbued with the idea of corporate responsibility, an idea that was the sole remit of individuals. Business conversations are no longer just about stockholders, but about stakeholders. That larger community impacted by the presence of a business entity within society whose actions impact us all.

Thought leadership is thinking about the future and giving people – employees, vendors and customers – perspectives about the future.

CEOs are answerable to their shareholders for profits, to their employees for creating a safe and nurturing work environment, and to the customers and communities that surround their offices and factories for the quality of life that their products and services influence.

Thus, Mc Donald’s has to worry about child obesity and measures that address that particular challenge — about reducing the fat content in their burgers and fries, about its marketing campaigns. True, we are some ways from that in our country, but consumer awareness and lifestyle changes are persuading companies to think about emerging and future trends.

So, thought leadership is also thinking about the future and giving people – employees, vendors and customers – perspectives about the future. Take Royal Dutch Shell, the global oil company that pioneered scenario planning. Since the 1970s, Shell has been developing stories about the future that try to answer the ‘what if ’ questions.

The idea seems simple: instead of just using forecasts (which are probability based) Shell looks at a range of plausible futures based on what is happening today in the world of energy. To explore the many possible futures, they assess changes in the global economy, the geopolitical environment, everincreasing demands on limited resources, water, greenhouse gas emissions, and so on.

The belief is that its business leaders will make better decisions if they had access to such scenario planning (of the many scenarios it explores, Shell focuses on two or three of the most plausible ones for decision-making). Every five years or so, the company’s key decisions are reviewed, and course corrections made. Many other firms also use scenario planning as a management tool, though perhaps not as elaborately as Shell does.

These are just three examples of the use of thought leadership, or the way that business leaders think about the present and the future, as new ways of business strategy development, as ways of incorporating or accounting for changes in customer demands of sustainability and environmental responsibility, and ways of preparing stakeholders for the future.

Until recently, business leaders have focused on being leaders in developing new business and executing extraordinarily – think Jack Welch and how he reinvented GE – or being creative geniuses – like the late Steve Jobs of Apple Inc. In the complex world that we live in, and the even more complex future we are likely to face, the CEO has to be and be seen as a thinker. Not just any thinker, but a thought leader: in ideas, in execution, and in communicating his or her thinking to a number of stakeholder groups — from employees to the government.

As is with most new management concepts, the risk of some CEOs using it simply as a marketing tool or a fad does exist. Thus, the kind of sarcastic and even cynical reviews of the very idea of thought leadership that David Brooks wrote about in his December 18, 2013 column in the NYT. What separates a good thought leader from a bad

one? There are no true or fake thought leaders, really – it is clarity of thought and alignment of purpose about business goals, a corporation’s social goals and stakeholders’ demands and needs. That’s what thought leadership is about. Thought leaders will come and go, but their ideas will go on – well, almost forever.

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