Thought Leadership: In Search of Your New Big Idea

Putting your name out in front of a big idea for your company is a great feat of courage and originality. Yet, it doesn’t always last forever. When the fire of your big idea has gone out, it’s a signal that the business is entering its second act and needs a new one.

Big ideas shape discourses in companies and in industries, are the source of bold innovations and give purpose to what people do. Many companies were founded on a big idea that fueled their success. For some, those big ideas were original and exciting, and when companies were winning, they felt invincible.

A few companies I know well and whose leaders I have coached were the first to market with a new service and some with a new product that became very successful. The foundational big idea was significant and attracted lots of warranted attention. It became easy to attract and keep talent with the magnetic pull that being first and dominating the market offers. Yet as time passed, with competitors entering the marketplace and the accomplishment of a driving goal, being first was no longer enough. What was fresh and new and purposeful became ordinary. Nothing lasts forever.

A big idea is tied to you and your company’s thought leadership. I first heard the term “thought leadership” in 2009 when it came into usage. Those few people who talked about it then did so in hushed tones. That was because as attractive as it seemed to aspire to it, no one was sure what it really meant or how to make it happen.

When thought leadership became more widely known in marketing and strategy circles, it was unapologetically ridiculed. That’s what led me to run multiple Kitchen Table Conversations with a colleague, inviting leaders to explore thought leadership and its meaning and utility. The consistent view from one group to the next was that it was a bloated concept and that those who dared to claim themselves thought leaders did so undeservedly.

With time, its popularity gained ground globally, and it became mainstream. We can now agree that a true thought leader has earned their authoritative voice and is recognized for their ideas in a way that engages a following.

So Where Do You Start to Create Your First or Next Big Idea?

Think of your own mindset. It’s up to you to have enough belief that you can create your first big idea or something equally as exciting as the original big idea. It’s a mental mindset that is part audacity and part creativity. With the right attitude to start, it’s possible.

Have Patience

It’s called the slow hunch. Steven Johnson’s presentation “Where ideas come from” is still my favorite TED Talk. I’ve watched it more times than any online video of its type. In it, he popularized the notion of the slow hunch, that ideas develop slowly. Any speed less than warp today sounds like it’s not productive enough to be useful. But what we know about breakthrough ideas is that slow hunches are the start of the thinking process. There are many heroic narratives in our culture that suggest that ideas come fully baked as flashes of brilliance. Anyone known for a big idea will tell you they are developed over time if they are being honest.

Look For Relevant Ideas

The best big ideas that get traction are attractive, credible and relevant. When I look at the books I’ve read and listened to in the recent past, they cover ideas on preparing for a changing world of work, ways of promoting greater thought diversity, and machine learning and its impact on politics, to name a few. Each of these is either about new challenges or intractable long-standing problems. Whether you sell services or products, look to shape the future by naming, explaining, pattern-making, recommending and predicting.

It’s Not A Plot; It’s A Garden

It’s best to avoid isolating yourself when you want your thinking to develop, not only when you’re at an impasse. Ideas grow in conversation with others to become more fully formed. When we talk about our ideas, the idea grows, is enriched, pruned and finally buds. Spending time with people in your company may surface a new big idea; learning the dreams your customers have can also help you to imagine what’s next. We are in the connection economy, and your next big idea is more than likely going to come from having conversations with others.

Go Way Outside

If you’re looking for deep expertise to work out the feasibility of your idea, that’s one thing. You can seek out a specialist for that. But if you aim to originate bold new ideas, then you’re better off reaching out to people from different industries and fields. Novel information comes from bridging across groups, not sticking with your circle. “Going outside” enables new information and the combining of ideas from different sources, some of them unorthodox. Opinions are more homogeneous inside groups than outside and across. That’s why being at the intersection of several worlds is a good idea to generate new information. Getting immersed more widely to get a hold of the zeitgeist is very helpful.

Becoming or continuing your distinction as an authority with a compelling, unique perspective advances your industry, begins new conversations and gives people reasons to fall in love with you and your company and what you stand for all over again. Crafting a big idea that is timely is an act of creativity and, most of all, divergence. It’s also about reinvention.


This article first appeared on here. Photo credit, Geordanna Cordero-Field.

Five Useful Ways Leaders Use Stories

Few would disagree that, for leaders, telling stories is useful — or even necessary. We know that stories appeal to people’s emotions — they can spread easily and change people’s minds. That’s why it’s surprising that leaders use stories far less frequently than they could. Many leaders I talk with feel uncertain about the right time to tell a story in order to advance what they want to accomplish. That is one of the reaons why it comes up as often as it does with the executives and high potential leaders who I coach. With that in mind, here are the five top uses for storytelling along with examples. See if it opens up more ideas for where you can use stories.

  1. To Make Change Happen

A technology leader I coached had reason to think that his division’s initiative was losing stakeholder support. Nevertheless, his team was singularly focused on meeting the delivery date by hook or by crook. So, he planned a half-day off-site session to communicate the urgent message to help his team regroup. They had been running hard, and he worried that they would be distracted by the belief that being productive meant being back at work. He knew, too, that whatever he did at the start of the day would need to get their attention. What he did was interesting: He told a vivid story about a time in the company when a high-profile initiative was completed on schedule — but with costly mistakes and the loss of people’s credibility. Telling the story of this situation landed the way he hoped. With a new mindset, the team began to size up stakeholder support and created a plan about how to win it back.

  1. To Build Trust And Loyalty

Personal stories go a long way toward building rapport, because sharing yourself is a means for others to find what they have in common with you. But not everybody has learned to bring their whole self to work. For example, a CFO was asked to develop her executive presence. She was strong on communicating financials but hadn’t yet learned to inspire anyone with her vision of where sales could go. Feedback from her team consistently showed that they wanted her to be “less remote.” I helped her to appreciate that people needed to be inspired to take on bigger sales goals, and they needed to get to know her better. We talked through her life’s accomplishments, and she chose to tell her story of persevering at school while her dad was ill. Sharing this story not only modelled persistence in the face of difficulty, but it demonstrated her ability to be vulnerable over her need to look good.

  1. For Thought Leadership

A Director of Market Intelligence was asked to speak on a panel about people development. She was unsure of how to maximize the opportunity without just offering tips. We had already identified the value of gaining greater visibility for her thought leadership as a goal that would accelerate her career. Once she talked through her views of what she looked for when hiring talent and what she did to boost her team members’ careers, we found she could easily flesh out her examples into stories. The thought leadership came easily by locating the philosophies that guide her decisions about people development.

  1. To Influence Decision Making

Our stories can move people, particularly to influence them in their decision making. When a bank wanted to grow talent across the enterprise, it began a pilot mentoring program. It envisioned senior executives mentoring more junior talent from a function outside of their own. But how could they get the executives to agree to mentor in spite of their busy schedules? Their strategy was to meet one-on-one and invite each executive to share a story recounting their own early experience of being mentored. Remembering these stories generated desire to give to others what they had received. It triggered generativity, and the numbers of participating executives exceeded expectations.

  1. To Unify Across Differences

The Canadian national team of a multinational hospitality company had a new senior leadership team, and employees began to feel they were on shaky ground. Legacy employees feared their hard work would be overlooked, and newer employees worried they weren’t getting the respect they deserved from their colleagues. The company’s leadership wanted to bridge the divide, and I was invited to work with them to make it happen. On the day, everyone participated in mapping a timeline of the company’s presence in Canada through their stories. Newer employees found empathy and compassion listening to war stories about how others managed without must-have resources. The legacy employees listened to stories of why newer hires chose to work at the company. Each group was surprised by what they heard, and it broadened everyone’s perspective.

Leaders can often use little nudges. Stories are undoubtedly ubiquitous, and that’s part of the challenge. Sometimes we need to remind leaders that stories can be a tool used to accomplish many different goals.

A version of this post first appeared on

Photo credit: Joel Filipe