Srikanth Srinivas

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

The Idea Whose Time Has Come (Part – II)

Srikanth Srinivas

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In thinking (and writing) about thought leadership, it is easy to fall prey to the approach of coming up with a few definitions, elaborating on their application and compiling a list of ‘how to’s’ and do’s and don’ts. The problem with that method is that thought leadership is an evolutionary process, learning by doing or going through a series of trial-and-error experiments.

Back in the mid-1990s, when the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) was still growing its milk teeth, and corporate disclosure standards were laughable by today’s requirements – there was no quarterly reporting then, just unaudited half-yearly income statements and an audited annual report — a small, relatively unknown company began to disclose details about investor complaints in its annual report, and its performance on addressing them.

The company’s management simply decided to put into practice almost all the best practice standards in corporate reporting, financial and otherwise: best practice by US standards, that is, then arguably the best in the world. It was not a public relations trick, because most journalists who reported on financial markets did not even notice.

Half a decade or so later, those practices became the norm, as both stock exchanges and the stock market regulator made many of those standards mandatory for all companies. The company went on to become a byword for what corporate governance standards ought to be: Infosys Technologies Ltd or as it is now known, just Infosys Ltd.

The company’s chairman NR Narayanmurthy went on to become the oracle on corporate governance. Granted, recent events have put a dent into his almost God-like status on that parameter; however, the point of the story is to demonstrate that thought leaders do not have to be people: they can be firms.

Despite those recent events – in almost direct contradiction to the essential idea that Infosys was a meritocracy, Narayanmurthy appointed his son as his executive assistant in his brief second innings as chairman – Infosys Ltd’s reputation as one of the best governed firms remains intact.

However, even the best firms have individuals at the helm, leaders in the best sense of the word; they create a repository of ideas and frameworks of thinking that propel their firms forward. They also build upon the ideas that they have inherited, Think of it as their legacy. Think of Jack Welch and GE (General Electric), Louis Gerstner and IBM, or Steve Jobs and Apple.

We now live in a world where the need for thought leadership was never greater, be it in politics and diplomacy, encouraging industrial development while caring for the environment, or inspiring social consciousness in without destroying individual aspirations (see graphic). Under these conditions, how do we go about creating or being thought leaders?

Thought Leadership_Table

So what does thought leadership look like? It’s not a business goal; for business leaders, it is about being where your customers want you to be, when they want you to be there. It is about creative and implementable business thinking that creates value. It is about being trusted (the ultimate outcome of reputation is where people position you on their trust barometers), and being perceived as having integrity. When you say something, people listen; when you have nothing to say, you listen attentively.

This is consistent with the old idea of thought leadership: that of being an expert, the person people went to or listened to on the specifics of a topic of import, for intelligent observation and perceptive insight. In today’s global context, it is about navigating a course through an obstacle course of rapid change; and, as Alvin Toffler pointed out in his book ‘Future Shock’ almost half a century ago, the durational expectancies of events get even shorter, leaving us disoriented and more than a little baffled.

Against this backdrop this sounds almost absurd, but thought leadership is about focusing on long-term results and relationships. In the world of policy-making, for instance, thought leadership will necessarily render you invisible, but you could be a trusted adviser to real decision makers.  Relationships are based on a bedrock of trust and mutually valuable.  Set against the need to be perceived as a thought leader, being in the background is not something everyone can handle.

So what does it take to become a thought leader? Recall Charles Darwin and the ‘Origin of Species’. “It’s not the strongest of the species that will survive, not the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.” Thought leaders create other thought leaders, and not just in business. It is tempting to call it taking a multi-disciplinary approach, but goes well beyond that.

It is about taking ideas from one context and testing them in others, and encouraging others in your firm to do the same. Put another way, it’s about asking the right questions, and not being satisfied with the ‘right’ answers. There are a number of potential thought leaders and an army of subject matter experts that are never heard, or share their experiences. The concept of knowledge management came from trying to ferret out such people within the organization, and institutionalising their memories.

Creating a good environment for thought leadership is also about storing, sorting, categorising and retrieving useful information, figuring out what matters and putting it where people can get hold of it quickly. Thought leadership helps people – as customers, employees, vendors and other stakeholders – separate the signals from the noise.

Years ago, a psychiatrist is said to have helped one of his patients deal with almost debilitating headaches by asking three questions. Where is it? What shape is it? If it could hold water, how much water would it hold? Yes, that sounds absurd, but apparently it worked, because it focused patients’ minds. Management experts call it targeted focus.

In the end, thought leadership is about the discovery of ideas that point to answers to the ‘what if’ kind of questions that most business leaders are seized with. To paraphrase a thinker who’s coined a number of seeming aphorisms on leadership, thought leadership is like a long epic poem: it may not make sense to memorise all of it, but you can add verses to it.

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