‘A thought leader is not necessarily the biggest company in the sector, but the company that is recognized as the champion of innovation in an area that is relevant to the market or society. Thought-leading companies are able to break through conventional thought patterns in the market and offer customers innovative insights.’ I read this on the web.
I guess I wasn’t paying attention, because I wasn’t familiar with the term ‘thought leader’. I’m always surprised to discover that concepts and processes that I’ve been familiar with for a while actually have a name. Have you ever had the feeling that your thoughts or experiences are reflected back to you from outer space? Encountering a familiar thought is exhilarating, but it also makes you wonder whether your thought was indeed original.
I realized that almost all of the companies I have worked for are thought leaders. Thought leading is inherent to innovative environments, creative people, and environments where new ‘categories’ are invented – to continue using jargon. I’m hypothesizing here because in terms of positioning, image and reputation, I see a link between the terms ‘bonding’ and ‘conscience’ as they are used in education and social cognition. (I looked this up – I am not a walking encyclopaedia!)
What I’ve noticed in the last years is that a lot of processes and terms in the field of communication are being labelled. Probably because it’s still a young field. When I started studying, the University of Amsterdam had just started offering a minor in mass communication, and Professor Van Riel in Wageningen was using a bunch of printouts that were supposed to be published later. I started working at ASML in 1996 as Internal Communication Officer (ach, what’s in a name?) when communication at this stock-listed company meant nothing more than ‘marketing’. Just think … internal branding, job market image, corporate communication, reputation management … all of these terms entered the Dutch language and have been given definitions in the last 15 years, often as a result of the influence of American managers who have a passion for control, management and hierarchy. We are the polder people, which has its advantages.
We understand labelling. In order to play at a high level and be acknowledged by customers, meaning large companies, communication needs nice packaging. HR made the transition. The academic approach to communication as a field – the documentation of procedures and labelling them with terms – is a way of controlling this acknowledgement and positioning process. This led large consulting firms to break down their consulting projects into processes so they can assign specialists and invoice new services. Money enables you to buy a relationship with a company.
But I can’t help thinking that if you work as an implementation consultant or officer in the field of communication, the customer doesn’t really want to know whether you can dish out a communication process. What the customer wants, is that you understand the company, the problem, the people and the playing field. And if you can change things and are pragmatic. If you can build a relationship of trust that enables you to really find out what’s going on. If you can establish connections, motivate people and employees, if you can help the customer inspire others. If you’re authentic and can inspire, and are yourself a thought leader.
In my opinion, bonding plays an important role in every positioning process. It’s the term that is used to describe the relationship between a mother and her newborn baby: if you look the baby in the eyes, you see the child’s heart, its soul. It’s the ability to establish connections and look into the soul. In companies that want to be seen as reliable, stable and pleasant to work at, and want to be at the vanguard of innovation, the ‘conscience’ of the company is closely linked to its heart/soul.
The conscience is something that needs developing. Educational theory says the following: ‘In order to speak of a conscience, more is needed than the cognitive understanding of right and wrong: a development must have taken place in which one has learned to associate a feeling with events and actions. An acquired, created or innate ethical norm can then be linked to practical behaviour.’
In business, the Code of Conduct is the guideline. But the company culture – feeling you are part of the company’s heart and conscience – determines how employees behave and develop. If employees are seen as corporate ambassadors, they will have to recognize and acknowledge the company culture and ideally lead by example. It’s not the number of words we use, but the things we do (that without the metatext) that determine whether we see someone as a role model and wish to follow them. And whether we are willing to tell their stories to others with pride.
A company is based on an economic model that requires money to be made. For families, employees, shareholders or the development bank. But you can only build up a solid, positive reputation if you have a relationship of trust with your employees, customers, suppliers and consultants. Here too, honesty is always the best policy. This is what branding, positioning, alignment, communication etc. is all about.
Consultants apply communication models and processes. But as I said, they’re just names and labels. In the end, it’s about understanding the needs of customers, employees, suppliers and other relations involved in the organization. The needs are realigned with the heart of the company over and over. For me, the old communication model in which information flows between sender and receiver is like a lemniscate, a mathematical symbol. A relationship that is infinitely renewed.
Research has shown that higher remuneration does not proportionally increase the motivation of an employee or consultant, but that loyalty to the company does increase when solidarity, satisfaction and personal growth are part of the package. Thought leadership is probably always aimed at partnerships, in the broadest sense of the word.