Rattleback’s recent research, conducted with Bloom Group, on thought leadership marketing shows that the best firms have likely been at it for 4-10 years. In this episode, we talk about approaches firms could take to accelerate that journey.
Jason Mlicki: Okay, Jeff. So, the last time we talked you asked me a question, and I didn’t really feel like I had a very good answer, so I guess I’m asking for a redo.
Jeff McKay: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute.
Jason Mlicki: What’s that?
Jeff McKay: I don’t think you stated that properly. I think what you meant to say is last time, Jeff, you asked me several brilliant questions.
Jason Mlicki: Okay. So, last time, Jeff, you asked me several marginal questions, and I didn’t feel like I had a good answer, so I’m asking for a redo.
Jeff McKay: Oh. A mulligan. All right.
Jason Mlicki: A mulligan. Actually, it’s not really a redo. In fact, I actually think I alluded in the question that you asked me that it was a subject of a whole separate podcast, and so we are here to do that podcast. The question you asked and the question I want to dive into today is how do you accelerate success in thought leadership? That’s the central topic.
Jeff McKay: I like that. I mean, that really is the core of what professional services marketers do, and I’ve always held … This thought just occurred to me. One of the big drivers in professional services is innovative ideas. I’ve done quite a bit of thinking about, well, what’s an innovative idea? I have come up with all kinds of systems and things to put against that in developing thought leadership, but you know the answer I came to, because I saw this play out time and time again, the innovative idea for a client is the one they haven’t seen before. In a profession where differentiation is measured in inches, if not millimeters getting to your buyer with your idea first is critical in owning that attribute of innovation, and I came to appreciate this I think when I was in the HR space, that our systems, our processes, our CRM, our thought leadership development, and commercialization, and ability to segment by function, and buyer level, and buying power, and key account, and other key attributes like that, and get out our message to them quickly and in a pointed way, led to an incredible success in terms of market share. We moved from kind of parallel to almost double the market share of our nearest competitor in the years I was there, and one of it was the quality of the thought leadership. It was exceptional, but I think also the speed to market was really something. So, this whole concept of accelerating the journey, not just the development of the ideas and commercialization of them, but the execution and the systems that you put into place to execute them, is critical. It really is critical.
Jason Mlicki: I think the tagline on this podcast is divergent thinking. I’m not so sure I agree with a good chunk of what you just said, and the notion of being to the buyer with the idea first is sort of the section I’m going to call out. Have you ever seen Bob Buday’s talk, it’s online, of his experience riding the re-engineering the corporation bubble? He was the lead marketer on Michael Hammer’s work on that during the time in which Hammer had that discovery and wrote the book, Re-Engineering the Corporation. He reflects on the journey that he sort of experienced riding along with that.
One of the really interesting things about the talk is that Hammer has the discovery. He frames the book. He has the big idea. It’s his big idea, and he rides it to tremendous marketplace success. I don’t remember the numbers, but let’s say it gets him 4 to 6x sales on whatever the firm he was in was doing at the time, right?
Bob’s contention is that it was a billion dollar market, and he only grabbed maybe, if he was lucky, 2% of the total market, and it was the big, mega firms on the backend that rode Re-Engineering the Corporation to significant paydays. I would argue in that scenario that Bob maps out they were the fast followers. They came along and were able to operationalize the big idea that Hammer got to market first. I’m not convinced that being the first to market with your idea is the path to success necessarily.
Jeff McKay: Interesting point.
Jason Mlicki: I would argue it’s having the best thinking, right? To dial back for a second, one of the things that maybe came out of context when I presented some of the data in our research in the last podcast, this notion of the four to seven year window that I described. I think this actually got out of context at the event too as well, by the way. When I presented that four to seven year window and said, “The leaders, the best at thought leadership are most likely to have been at this in a four the seven year windows,” everyone sort of presumes me to be saying that you need four to seven years for this to work, and that’s far from the truth. I’m saying you need four to seven years to be the best. My argument would be Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer of all time. He didn’t become the greatest swimmer of all time in one year. It took him a lifetime, right? If you want to be exceptional and you want to be at the absolute top of your game, it’s going to take some time to go fast, right? You need to almost slow down to go fast is sort of another message that sort of came out of this event for me. When I talk about that four to seven year window, I’m not necessarily saying, “Hey. We’re going to do thought leadership, and we’re going to wait four years for this to percolate and us to get some revenue out of it.” That would be insane, and I can’t imagine any leader waiting four years to see commercial success from something, but my contention is that our research tells us that four to seven years is what it takes to be exceptional, to be doing this exceptionally well. So, the central question you asked that I think is interesting is can you accelerate that? Can you accelerate the path to being exceptional, setting aside my minor to major disagreement with your desire to be first?
Jeff McKay: I’m gonna not interject one of my big buts here. I think you raise a good point, and so does Bob. There was a huge market for those solutions. There are additional operational things that need to be accomplished that support the promotion of it.
Jason Mlicki: Well, I think it goes beyond promotion though, right? It’s operation of it, right?
Jeff McKay: Yes.
Jason Mlicki: It’s operationalizing it, so it’s not just promoting it. It’s saying, “Okay. How do we actually operationalize this at scale, that in some instances only a certain firm can do?” One of my faculty members from business school always liked to say that he thought the first mover advantage was complete BS, and his message was always that what did the pioneers get? They got arrows in the back, right? I cut you off. Go ahead. Sorry.
Jeff McKay: I think to some degree we’re either splitting hairs or comparing apples and oranges, because one is an idea, a finding, a learning, an ability to get that idea out there, communicate to the market, and then there’s the dimension of being able to deliver on that promise of some result, and those two have to be in balance. To me the acceleration combines both of those acts. When I talked about what happened for me in HR, we’re talking about an ability to communicate a promise, an idea, a solution to the market. What Bob is saying is you also have to have an ability or scale to deliver on that idea. The firms that were successful in building that out, built out or supplemented existing business models to do it, but I agree with you. It takes both axes of that scale in order to deliver.
Jason Mlicki: I just want to pause for a moment and just emphasize that you agree with me, so let’s bask in that moment.
Jeff McKay: In part. In part.
Jason Mlicki: I won. I won.
Jeff McKay: Nope.
Jason Mlicki: Anyway-
Jeff McKay: Once again, you didn’t think about it holistically or strategically. You just thought it one dimensionally, and I-
Jason Mlicki: Actually, I’m the one who had the second dimension. You’re the one who neglected the entire operational delivery of this thing. Anyway, I digress.
Jeff McKay: So, our listeners are getting bored. You’ve clarified what you meant in the last podcast.
Jason Mlicki: Correct.
Jeff McKay: So, dot, dot, dot, keep going.
Jason Mlicki: So, my suggestion would be that you can group this into three buckets. You can say there are things that we can clearly accelerate if we want to be exceptional. There are things that are really hard to accelerate, that we probably can accelerate, but they are difficult to, and there are things that really just probably you can’t accelerate. They just can’t be accelerated, because they’re things that just take time. I don’t know what a good example is, but a great glass of wine. I’m not a wine drinker, but a great glass of wine takes time. If you don’t let the wine sit, you open it too soon, it’s no good. I know a very avid wine collect who would say, “You never buy a wine by the bottle. You buy it by the case, because you open it the first year to see if it’s any good, and it’s not good. You keep doing that until it is good. Then when you finally realize it’s good, you have no wine left.” So, anyway-
Jeff McKay: What a strategy.
Jason Mlicki: Of course this was also a billionaire that bought wine by the vineyard in reality. The biggest one you clearly can accelerate, so if you want to accelerate this, is reach, right? It’s very realistic and probably highly suggested that you look for ways to accelerate reach quickly. If you want to have your thinking be really making the market or shaping the market, then there are arbiters of quality that can enable that to happen, right?
One of the big takeaways from our event this year certainly was that most of the people we put up on stage that were sort of exceptional at this and really at the top of their game, they had published, right? They had published a book. They had published in HBR. They had published in a highly prestigious, well known publication, and that publication both infers quality on their thinking and then of course accelerates their reach. It gets them in front of a much wider audience that they can reach on their own. That’s certainly something that you can accelerate with someone who’s talented and knows how to approach those types of publications and how to help you get your thinking placed, right? I think that’s one of the big places you can accelerate quickly.
Certainly you can obviously throw money at something, so if you want to get success quickly, you can throw money at thought leadership through paid media and accelerate traffic to the thinking itself. That’s sort of the first obvious place you can accelerate if you want to get outstanding outcomes quickly.
The second one we touched on last time is talent, right? Obviously if you want to … Think about sports programs, sports analogies for a second. If you want to be an elite athletic program in the we’ll say university circles, one of the first things you can do is hire elite talent, right? You go open up your wallet and bring in really talented people. So, bring in people from organizations that are already firing on all cylinders, who have the ability to bring some of those best practices to your organization. We talked about that last time. I think that’s fairly obvious. You can bring in … McKinsey has a wealth of seasoned talents editors of there leading thought leadership that certainly can probably be enticed out or whatever, or certainly you can go get external experts, outside experts. Bloom Group or organizations like ours, we’ve had success on these roads. We can help you navigate it more quickly.
What’s hard to accelerate? That’s the stuff that to me you can clearly accelerate. The stuff that I would argue is hard to accelerate, and you’ll probably really chime in on this, is culture. You know, one of the big findings in our research was just that, just like anything, if you want to be successful with thought leadership, if you want your intellectual capital to really perform, you need to get cultural buy in to make that happen, and that’s in just sort of all kinds of dimensions, right?
It’s senior leadership buy in. It’s connections within subject matter experts and sales people. It’s sort of just all these different moving parts, and it seems to me that that’s always difficult to accelerate. It’s difficult to change a culture. If a culture doesn’t believe this stuff is important and valuable, you can’t quickly and easily move that ship. I mean, if the Titanic is going in this direction, you can’t easily turn it, right? Now, I have some thoughts on things that you could, should do to affect cultural change, but that’s not going to happen without some time. As the culture guy, I will let you chime in on that.
Jeff McKay: Absolutely. If it’s not important, people aren’t going to do it.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. The biggest takeaways I’ve had over time is just if you want to affect cultural change in this area, there’s a couple ways to do it. One is to get quick wins. So, identify wins you can have early that will get excitement and acceptance from key people in your organization that can become sponsors and backers.
Jeff McKay: What do you call a quick win?
Jason Mlicki: A quick win could be anything, right? It could be getting published in an industry trade journal, something that you know your clients read, that will create client conversations, so when the partner is talking to one of their best clients, the client says, “Hey. I saw that article you guys published XYZ the other day. That was really well written.” That’s going to get them saying, “Oh. Our clients are paying attention to this,” right? That could be a quick win. A quick win is anything close to the money, right? So, anything that you can do that’s going to put great thinking in the hands of a partner or business development manager to enable a sales conversation, a better sales conversation that’s going to make them say, “Hey. I took this into the sales dialogue, and boy, it really helped me. It was really well received, and it was really helpful,” anything that gets you close to the money is always helpful.
Then I would say other quick wins are just anything you can do to engage clients in the thinking, so getting active, existing clients to really consume the thinking and internalize it, and begin a conversation, or at least make them aware of it, so that it comes up in conversation with partners, and business development leaders, or account leads is going to be stuff that gives you quick wins. It builds excitement and interest for what you’re trying to accomplish in the long run.
Jeff McKay: All right. I agree with that. I wrote a blog post not too long ago related to culture and engagement around things like thought leadership, around a mantra that I established after about a decade in professional services. It is that I don’t beg. I don’t babysit. I think that was born out of a lot of work around thought leadership and thought leaders. The thing that was related to that that really paid dividends for me, and in terms of quick wins and accelerating our efforts around the subject, was dividing and conquering within a firm, and going after innovators and early adopters of new ideas, and just totally ignoring everyone else in the firm, and focusing only on those few people, and concentrating all of our resources, time, money, and effort around those paid huge dividends in terms of market impact, but it also demonstrated, to your point, Jason, the quick wins that are needed to move the culture. I think you’re spot on there.
Jason Mlicki: I love the way you describe it too, because in every practice it seems to me there are some people that are forward thinking and want to try a different approach. Yeah. Like you said, you lean in and give them your energy. I’ve talked to a number of our clients, and that’s what they’ve done as well, and just sort of ignore the naysayers, say, “Well, I’m not going to put my energy with the people that aren’t interested.” Eventually, if the early adopters start to see some traction and get some success, the naysayers are going to look over and say, “That looks pretty good. I want some of that,” right? So, that makes a lot of sense.
Jeff McKay: I think related to that is it’s hard to accelerate, but it is something that you could also accelerate fairly easily. I think most firms fall into this trap of trying to do too much too fast and/or jumping on some bandwagon. I think of you’re going to accelerate and make that acceleration a lot easier if you have to focus, and you have to play to your strengths. That means picking one, maybe two, topic areas of thought leadership that you want to be known for, and two, choosing only the channels that play to the strengths of your thought leaders.
Jason Mlicki: All right. So, that brings us to the third bucket, which is things that I would argue you can’t accelerate. The first I shared in our last conversation on this topic, which is really search. I just don’t believe you can meaningfully accelerate your ability to rise in search results on a brand new initiative for a brand new firm. The second is learnings. I know for me the act of content development, the act of thought leadership development is also the act of knowledge development. As we work at this as an agency here and for our clients, there’s pattern recognition. There’s new layers of complexity and understanding that just sort of emerge over time. Even if you bring in new resources, or external talent, or whatever, there’s some just learning that occurs on the journey that just comes and just has to come. I just don’t see that accelerating in a meaningful way for one firm over another. I don’t see any real way you would accelerate that in a meaningful way. I’m not saying you couldn’t do things on the margin, but to accelerate it aggressively would seem to be unrealistic.
Jeff McKay: I’ll push back on that from this one dimension.
Jason Mlicki: Hey. You are kind of a one dimensional guy.
Jeff McKay: It gets back to your culture comment that you mentioned earlier. My experience has demonstrated that oftentimes consultants are risk adverse, and they like to move slowly. Let’s try a little of this. Let’s try a little of that. One of the things that I’ve found accelerates learning is being in action and to reduce that time of inaction, so that you’re putting something out in the market. You’re seeing reactions from it. You’re adapting and learning from it happens much more quickly when you’re in action. A lot of consultants want to perfect their idea or the packaging of their idea before they put it out there. I think they could accelerate the learning in terms of the idea’s viability and the process of the development if they were just in action and less worried about being wrong.
Jason Mlicki: Well, there’s a number of layers to that. I think we’re splitting hairs again perhaps, but I’m sure you’ve read the book, Drive, by Daniel Pink.
Jeff McKay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason Mlicki: It’s about a 10 year old book, right? One of the central premises of Pink’s argument is that if you’re going to be phenomenal at something, there’s a certain time component to it. He makes the case for a 10,000 hour scenario, that it takes 10,000 hours to be exceptional at something. I would argue that this sort falls into that bucket, that notion of the only way to accelerate the learnings is to accelerate the pace at which you consume the 10,000 hours. Yes. If you’re doing this a little bit here, a little bit there, in the context of whether client work of whatever, and you’re not really vesting resources towards it in a meaningful way, then to get the 10,000 hours maybe takes 10 years, but if you really hunker down and focus in on the task really, really sharply in measured bursts, you’d get there faster, right? I would argue I’m talking about that type of learning, which just requires time. You’re not going to go out and master a serve, he uses that as an example in the book. In tennis, you’re not going to just step on the court and master a serve without just a significant volume of time and practice. That’s the type of learning I’m speaking to, but I totally agree with everything you said anyway, which is just that … Yeah. I remember early in my journey… I always tell this persona story. The first article I ever really wrote that I put pen to paper, and published it, and put it out on the marketplace, I remember really obsessing over every last detail in that article, and thinking in great length about what I was trying to say and how I was trying to say it, and being really scared to publish it. That barrier dropped for me significantly over time. Soon, the barrier was much … I was much more comfortable putting thinking out maybe even sometimes before it was entirely baked just to get some sense of how receptive people were to it. I totally agree with you that there is that sense of over baking things that gets into firm’s DNA that they need to shake out of if they want to accelerate things, but … Your big but. There’s certain things that just are going require the 10,000 hours syndrome. There’s just no way around it. Whether it’s 10,000 hours, or 4,000 hours, or 12,000 hours, it doesn’t matter, right?
Jeff McKay: I’m not going to give up on you. It’s funny that you mention this and you mention Pink, because Drive. Geoff Colvin wrote Talent is Overrated. Gladwell wrote Outliers, and they all use this research, and the 10,000 hours kind of became conventional wisdom. If you listen to it was a recent Freakonomics Podcast, they had both Gladwell on there and Ericsson, who was the original person of the 10,000 hours research, totally debunked the 10,000 hours. It is not time based. It’s deliberate practice based and focusing not on the time you’re doing something, but the specifics of how you’re doing it. You kind of alluded that in your answer. I think that’s where the acceleration can take place if you’re deliberately practicing or testing ideas. That’s where you can accelerate.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. I mean, you can debunk the 10,000 hours, and that’s irrelevant. I don’t really care about that. That’s not my point. My point is there is a time continuum of that deliberate effort that is going to be required no matter what. You’re not going to step out on the court and serve at the caliber of Federer without work and practice. I don’t care how deliberate you are or how passive you are, you will never be at the top of your game without that deliberate energy and resources put for it. I don’t care if it’s seven hours or 10,000 hours. Whatever the number is is irrelevant. It’s just the fact that there is work that has to be done, and if you’re starting at a place of zero, that work is not done yet. No matter how deliberate you are, that work’s going to take some length of time to do. So, it’s sort of irrelevant. The number’s irrelevant.
Jeff McKay: I can’t believe you just said that to our listeners, who live and die by the billable hour. You’re saying … There just went a listener. There just went a listener, as they think, “Oh my gosh. Listen to these guys.” The point is what can you accelerate? Acceleration from 10,000 hours down to 7,500 hours or 5,000 hours is the acceleration. That’s what we’re talking about. How can you, if you’re saying it’s going to take you 10,000 hours, how can I get it down less? There are ways. If you want to serve like Federer, you need a coach like Federer. You need to practice a lot of hours. Yes. I won’t argue that, but if you’re stumbling through it on your own, it’s not going to take you 10,000 hours. It’s going to take you 20,000 hours.
Jason Mlicki: Correct, but we also already covered all that stuff, right? We already covered that stuff under the lens of what can you do to accelerate. Like you just said, you bring in talent, and the talent is the coach. The talent is the expert practitioner, right? Those are some of the things we already covered. I would argue that those are the levers you already moved. The lever that’s left is your own ability to accept and consume new knowledge and new insight, whatever that ability is. That’s a number that’s pretty hard to move I would argue, whatever that number is for you. I don’t think the number matters, but yes. You move those other levers to change those hours, absolutely. Totally agree with you, but there’s a certain amount of time and reflection that usually it takes to unlock new layers of knowledge. That’s probably not going to change. That element of your personal journey is not going to change, but for other external influences you apply against it. That make sense?
Jeff McKay: Yes.
Jason Mlicki: We agree actually in the consensus. I think we agree that I’m right. I’m teasing.
Jeff McKay: The one point that I will make that I think kind of ties everything together is the concept of focus. You can’t be a thought leader on every subject, on every industry, in every situation. You have to find your spot and go after that. That’s common sense, but it doesn’t always play out that way. Once you pick your spot, you have to tenaciously go after it, you know, the research, the thinking, client cases, case studies, those are all important, and focus as well, but I also think it’s really important to focus on one or two channels in terms of the distribution. We started this talking about reach. It’s hard for a single person to be phenomenal at writing, and creating videos, and doing podcasts, and having the time to do that. I think there’s synergies across those mediums, but consultants have strengths in public speaking, or writing, or analysis. I think the best thought leaders know their strengths, and they play to those strengths as individuals, but I also think firms do that as well. I think that’s a very important point to drive home as well.
Jason Mlicki: I mean, you may have actually the killer app there on acceleration. Focus is the killer app. If you really want to accelerate this thing, the more focused you can be as a firm, the better likelihood you’re going to unlock sources of new insight and new learning and accelerate your journey to where you want to go. One caveat I would have is that obviously the research that we are operating from, that I’m using as the reference for a lot of this podcast and the last podcast, is firm based research. So, most of the entities in that study are larger, right? The mean firm has like $500 million in revenue. I mean, it’s broader than professional services for that reason obviously. I totally agree with what you said, except I would add the complexity of that, you’re talking about being exceptional across a firm, which has lots of personalities, maybe lots of practices, lots of different things going on, and that may be a little bit more complex of course, but the intent is still true, which is that if you’ve got a group of partners that really are not comfortable in an audio setting or whatever, then why would you put them in a podcast or put them on stage, right? That seems logical.
Jeff McKay: Like I said, it seems like common sense, but it doesn’t always play out that way.
Jason Mlicki: I want to thank you for the heated discussion. I would say this is probably one of our more contentious discussion, which I enjoyed, and it was probably good for our listeners. Lots of points of agreements and lots of points of disagreement, which was really cool.
Jeff McKay: Well, I think you should go start practicing, because you still have a lot of work to do.
Jason Mlicki: I do what I can. I’ll talk to you next time.
Jeff McKay: You need as many hours as possible.
Jason Mlicki: What can I say? Some of us like to do things the right way. Others like to do things the short way.