This post first appeared in Authority Magazine.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Parna Sarkar-Basu.
A tech evangelist, Parna Sarkar-Basu serves as a strategic advisor to transformational leaders and tech pioneers and helps them launch and reinvent companies, globally. A brand architect, Parna also designs powerful programs to spotlight startup founders, entrepreneurs and innovators and elevate them to industry thought leaders. She has been the “quiet power” behind dozens of experts who are now considered thought leaders in their respective industries.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
When I migrated to the US, I didn’t know anyone here, other than my husband. I didn’t have a network or an alumni group to tap into. Now I feel privileged to have a strong network of professionals to learn from and interact with. After several years in the corporate world, I launched a consulting firm, Brand and Buzz, working for dynamic publicly held companies as well as daring industry upstarts. One of my missions is to help more women in tech gain visibility and credibility in their respective industries. I live in Boston with my husband and am the proud mother of two wonderful children. When I am not working, I am working on my golf swing.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
I have had the privilege of working with brilliant entrepreneurs and innovators and helping them become thought leaders in their respective industries. For several founders, we’ve had to start from scratch — from identifying what they want to be known for to positioning them appropriately for the investor community. Over the years, I’ve designed numerous thought leadership programs that helped build market credibility for several dozen tech experts and entrepreneurs — which in turn helped them take their companies public, raise millions in new funding and get acquired. In short, I am a thought leadership practitioner, and we do a lot of the behind-the-scenes work for the executives so they can focus on growing their business and interacting with customers.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is? How is a thought leader different from an influencer?
A thought leader is someone people go to for expert advice and opinion. They are considered an authority in the industry and are trusted by their peers and business leaders. I believe the key to being a thought leader is originality, experience and passion. Thought leaders have innovative ideas and unique viewpoints. For example, a CEO of a company who is considered a thought leader will help build trust between a brand and its audience. Done right, thought leadership has tangible business impact. Done poorly, it creates risk.
Influencers on the other hand, are (online) personalities who can influence their followers on a purchasing decision (think Kylie Jenner) or influence a particular course of action. Remember how Taylor Swift got Apple to change course on streaming royalties? Influencers usually partner with brands to create and promote their products.
In short, thought leaders are about expertise, while influencers are about followers. We need them both.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically.
Sure. A thought leader can help break through the clutter, build business credibility and open doors for their sales team. Thought leadership is key to meeting your business goals — from taking a company public to getting promoted. I’ve also used thought leadership campaigns to change market perception for several companies. One such program helped a company raise $75 million in funding, while another startup got acquired by a large company within a year. In both cases, we developed the CEO as the thought leader and the face of the company.
Also, take a look at some of the data from the Edelman-LinkedIn survey that shows the benefits of thought leadership: 89% of decision makers say thought leadership enhances their perceptions of an organization, 59% of them use thought leadership to vet a company and 42% say they are more willing to pay a premium to work with a company that produces thought leadership content.
So yes, thought leadership can be a key business driver.
Who can be a thought leader?
I believe anyone can gain visibility in the industry by sharing viewpoints and engaging on social platforms. But to be a true thought leader, you need to have original ideas, creativity and insights. According to a survey, though consumption has increased during the pandemic, 71% participants say only half or less than half of the thought-leadership content they read or watch gives them any sort of valuable insights. Which means, creating random content does not help a company or an individual.
Thought leadership is both a science and an art. It should be done right, or you run the risk of losing credibility. So, if you are serious about becoming a thought leader, hire the right team to build you up.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry?
Thought leadership is a journey, a process. Here are a few tips to help get you started.
- Set your primary goal. Ask yourself why you want to be seen as a thought leader. Is it because you are looking for funding and want to build market credibility? Are you a consultant looking to be paid to speak? Or perhaps you want to land a new job as part of your career transition. Once you’ve identified your goal, it’ll become easier to develop a strategy to build your presence.
- Identify your expertise to position yourself. Now that you have a goal, identify the area of expertise that will allow you to reach your goal. If you are an entrepreneur, for example, and planning to raise funds for your self-driving car company, you’ll have to focus on demonstrating relevant expertise as well as an understanding of market challenges and opportunities. Given everyone has different areas of professional expertise — finance to engineering — and hobbies they are passionate about, most individuals I’ve worked with struggle the most on this front. This is critical in the process and extremely hard to do. And yes, it’s one of the areas we specialize in — positioning executives in the industry before designing a thought leadership strategy.
- Create insights to build credibility. As mentioned above, thought leaders are often visionaries with unique perspectives. Granted, not everyone can be an innovator like the late Steve Jobs or a pioneer like Elon Musk. However, everyone can tap into their experience and knowledge to develop interesting insights to showcase expertise and build a digital portfolio. I say digital, because the first thing we all do now is to “Google” a person. So, it’s imperative that you show up online when someone is searching for your specific area of expertise.
- Educate. Don’t sell: People new to the process often confuse thought leadership and personal branding with self-promotion. In fact, it’s the opposite. Thought leaders don’t brag about their expertise or success, nor do they call themselves a thought leader. As a thought leader, you should focus on sharing your insights and helping others solve a problem, leveraging your knowledge and expertise. So, whether you are speaking at an event, writing an article or engaging in a conversation — elevate your message. Talk about trends in self-driving cars (continuing on the above example), provide best practices and tips on manufacturing to market opportunities for engineers and students — all of which will allude to your expertise and what your company does.
- Be human. Be respectful. Deliver your message and insights in simple language rather than using jargons and acronyms. Explain solutions using phrases that everyone can understand, focus on your customer’s pain point and how your product or service can solve a challenge they are facing. Also, be open minded and learn from others as well as be respectful of people who may not be as knowledgeable about an industry as you are.
Bottomline: These tips may seem simple. But believe me when I tell you — it’s not easy to identify your expertise or position yourself in three to five words. I’ve seen smart executives and entrepreneurs struggle to identify their expertise or execute on a strategy effectively. After all, they have to focus first on running their business and serving their customers. So, my final tip is — don’t go at it alone. Consider collaborating with a professional who can help with the positioning and developing an area of focus that will be important to investors and customers. Let them turn you into a rock star, while you focus on growing your business.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I agree with you. People who are truly visionary don’t go about declaring themselves as thought leaders.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Thought leadership is a team effort. So, surround yourself with professionals and let them do the heavy lifting. It’s hard for an individual to become a thought leader on their own, especially if the person has a business to run. Behind most thought leaders, there is a team of experts who are helping position the person, crystallizing the messaging, identifying and using platforms to amplify the person’s voice/ideas.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” ― The Dalai Lama
When I am in the presence of smart people and successful entrepreneurs, I try to be a sponge. And often, I come away learning something new — whether it’s technology or a new perspective.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can follow me on:
Brand and Buzz: https://bit.ly/BrandandBuzz
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.