You’ve no doubt heard or seen the term “thought leader” tossed about in a seemingly endless number of articles, posts, videos, and on-site and virtual meetings. But what exactly is a thought leader? After all, nobody holds a college degree in thought leadership.
An IT thought leader is someone who has disruptive yet practical ideas about how to help IT work more effectively, says Suresh Bethavandu, chief people officer at digital transformation consulting firm Mindtree. “An IT thought leader understands not only the potential for emerging technologies, such as AI and the cloud, but also business strategy,” he notes. “An IT thought leader has a deep understanding of IT’s role in the context of helping the organization grow by looking at all elements across the business lifecycle.”
There are many great technologists, but only a relative few are deeply in touch with their entire enterprise. “They are fascinated by the problems the business faces,” says Doug Ross, practice vice president of insights and data for IT consulting firm Sogeti, a unit of business advisory company Capgemini. “They seek to translate desired organizational outcomes into actionable steps that IT can take.”
An IT leader who becomes a trusted advisor to enterprise management has a distinct advantage over less insightful colleagues. “Those who can translate business needs into realistic business cases … will become the first person that leadership calls when they need strategic help,” Ross observes.
An IT thought leader possesses digital savviness — an understanding of IT knowledge and an enjoyment of digital tools, says David Zhao, managing director at IT management consulting firm Coda Strategy. “They know how to arrange people, processes, and technology to achieve a digital transformation.”
Becoming a Thought Leader
Perhaps the best way to get started as an IT thought leader is to lead by example. “Don’t shy away from bold ideas, and don’t be afraid to push your organization out of its comfort zone,” Bethavandu says.
For an IT professional, the benefits of thought leadership include both professional development and personal brand growth. “Employing a thought leadership strategy allows you to become an influencer in your field,” says Claire McKenna, senior writer and researcher at BARR Advisory, a cybersecurity and compliance services firm. She suggests exploring different media for sharing thought leadership content. “Writing blogs, appearing on podcasts, and giving media interviews are all great ways to get started.”
Still, it isn’t necessary to make a big splash. Thought leadership can be confined to in-house colleagues “Stay focused on your objective, continue leading with curiosity, and share your excitement with your peers,” Bethavandu recommends. “Get acquainted with colleagues in different business units and talk to customers to understand their challenges.”
Individuals aspiring to be disruptive leaders can learn lessons in perseverance and innovation from IT startups. “Disruption doesn’t always have to be a big-bang phenomenon,” Bethavandu says. “It can happen on multiple fronts in multiple ways — big as well as small — and should propel the organization forward and help it differentiate itself.”
Being overly tech-centric is a common mistake aspiring thought leaders make. Such individuals start with a technology, then look for problems to solve. “Instead, it’s important to remember that an IT thought leader drives digital change,” Zhao says. “Understanding the technology is only one aspect of IT thought leadership.”
Ross concurs. “I’ve seen several troubling examples of large technology purchases occurring before key business requirements were fully understood,” he says. “Seek first to understand the desired business outcomes and remember that technology is a potential enabler of those outcomes, but never a cure-all.”
A strong business case is essential for any proposed new technology, Bethavandu says. “If your company is not ready for, say, DevOps or containerization, be self-aware and don’t push for those projects until your organization is ready,” he states. On the other hand, excessive caution can also be dangerous. “If you want to be a thought leader, you have to be bold and you cannot be afraid of failing,” Bethavandu says.
Quality Leaders Needed
Most enterprises already face a shortage of quality leaders. “Enterprises need both people leaders and thought leaders,” Zhao says. Thought leaders develop a vision for a company’s business units. People leaders marshal employees to achieve that vision, he observes.
For thought leaders looking to spread their vision beyond their organization, it’s important not to be viewed as a self-serving promoter. “The goal should be educating your audience, not scoring more qualified leads,” McKenna says. “Trust that the leads will come once you’ve built industry recognition and confidence in your brand through thought leadership.”
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