One summer I coached one of my kids’ sports teams. (Okay, I was guilted into it by my friend, who had the more thankless task of convening U8 soccer). I admit I was kind of making it up as I went, and there was one dad who liked to make it his business to remind me (and all the other parents) that I had room for improvement. Reply-all complaints about the practice schedule, in-person critiques of the roster, the snack assignments, the uniforms, even the weather. This guy was making me nuts.

My mother, who has been a volunteer for more than 60 years and knows her way around the politics of such things offered this advice: “just give him something to do, dear.” It worked. I asked him to tackle the rosters (which is its own special hell), and he quickly stopped the public floggings and became almost not whiny.

I have since adopted a “keep your friends close, your enemies closer and the whiny people closer still” philosophy. It works in kids’ sports, school fundraising and, I later discovered, thought leadership content development. Who knew?

Last week we looked at the business case for getting employees more involved in and aware of the content we’re creating to support our thought leadership (TL) efforts. From test driving executive speeches to offering sneak previews of new videos, the more investment we have from our employees, the more authentic we are when we trot this stuff out to the wider world.

Whiny People Build Great Thought Leadership

This week I’d like to share a great way to approach your TL strategy, while also dealing with the people who are inclined to whine.

Who could possibly be whiny about thought leadership? It’s quite amazing, really. I’ve had whiny people from sales, insisting the strategy is off the mark, the content is too complicated, too simple, too blue, not frequent enough, too frequent, too big, too small, not relevant, full of big words and countless other offences. Mostly what this means is they were either surprised by it (see last week’s post for what to do about that), or miffed because they weren’t consulted.

I’ve had very senior people whining about not getting their share of speaking opportunities, media interviews and bylines. I chalk this one up to a combination of their lack of expertise, my fear of putting unprepared spokespeople out in public and that they’re miffed they weren’t consulted.

Customer service people are often whiny about thought leadership stuff, mostly because they are afraid someone will ask the service reps a difficult question, and they’re miffed they weren’t consulted.

Product managers and other subject matter experts (SMEs) will whine about the superficial treatment of the subject, the limited number of things we’re focused on, and the questionable references in the footnotes. Here again, we have a combination of surprise, hurt feelings and not really understanding the point of thought leadership and its content.

I’m sure every organization’s list of whiny people is a bit different when it comes to thought leadership, but I do have a solution that should work a treat for just about all of them. It’s the editorial board!

Editorial boards are a mainstay in traditional media, such as magazines, news organizations and aggregation sites. Basically, they’re the people who set the editorial agenda, establish the guidelines for what gets published, sometimes approve specific content, and generally keep everyone honest. I think they’re a fantastic idea for any organization that’s cranking out content in support of thought leadership. Here’s how we ran one at a place I worked.

Thought Leadership Agendas

We met every second month (it usually took a month to get everyone scheduled, so the timing was not quite by design) and this, more or less, was our agenda:

  • Review our content, media relations, events and speaking calendars to make sure the TL plan is still relevant
  • Review the organization’s updated plans, product roadmaps and campaigns to find TL opportunities or (and this is key) times we might want to throttle back a little on the noise
  • Discuss new ideas and themes that have emerged in the industry or the broader world that we should watch
  • Review the latest batch of content for what worked, what didn’t and what else we could do with it (it was a no-holds-barred sort of meeting, so we got great feedback, even if it was a little hard on our self-esteem)
  • Take a look at what are we seeing from competitors or other companies that was worth stealing
  • Are there any folks we’ve met inside or outside the organization who might be good SMEs, or who have original ideas we could use?

In between meetings, this group also saw the early drafts of speeches, videos, presentations and other content. We never chased them for feedback, but we also rarely got pushback from the folks who didn’t provide any input. Occasionally we even got great edits and ideas about the content. But the most amazing thing we got, and it wasn’t planned or I’d have done it sooner, was the advocacy.

This committee included the whiniest people in sales, customer service, product management, market insights and operations, plus a senior executive who desperately wanted to be on TV. By the middle of the first year, they had become the most ardent defenders of our thought leadership program and the content and events it drove.

They silenced the whiners, championed the execution, celebrated the successes and fought alongside the marketers, agency people and freelancers for the resources to build out the program in a thoughtful not-too-random way.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Whiny people are usually more invested than silent people
  • I should have included HR in my committee because their support would have built our internal brand much more quickly
  • I would consider adding a customer to the committee next time, depending on the group dynamic, because they are the best reality check ever
  • Most people want to be consulted. It doesn’t mean you need to take their advice; you just need to listen
  • Even a tiny bit of input creates a sense of ownership in the project
  • The ROI on a sense of ownership is measured in champions and defenders
  • Not all thought leaders need to be market-facing; indeed some of the best ones are terrified to put up their hands for fear of the spotlight.
  • Safe spaces are important for nurturing your TL program
  • Don’t order wraps for lunch. Nobody likes them. Grilled cheese, on the other hand, makes the most fractious meeting that little bit nicer.

What if you work in a smaller organization? I’d say start with a sales squirrel and a senior executive who can represent the product or service side of things, and go from there. If you have an HR person, add them next. They don’t get out enough.