How do you become a thought leader? Become a boundary setter. That is the advice from four thought leaders who joined my panel at the Grace Hopper Celebration in Fall 2012. The panelists included Janet Murray of Georgia Tech, Candice Brown Elliott, CEO of Nouvoyance, Inc., Shelley Evenson, formerly with Facebook now Executive Director Organizational Evolution at Fjord, and Nina Bhatti, formerly of HP now doing a new start-up.
There are two somewhat opposing contexts of thought leadership – thought leaders are both at the ‘center’ of things in their respective fields but they are also ‘boundary-setters’.
To me, that dichotomy is what makes thought leadership both challenging and exciting. Being at the center means you need to understand where your industry niche is today and engage people who want to talk about and learn about today’s key issues while being at the boundary means understanding where things need to move in the future and getting people to head in that direction. I invited each of these women to participate in the panel because they are all clearly exploring and pushing boundaries and have been their entire careers.
One of the people who really understood this idea of exploring boundaries was the scientist Stuart Kauffman who described the Adjacent Possible – a kind of shadow future that hovers on the edges of the present state of things and includes a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. That space is not infinite nor is it a totally open playing field. At any moment, as he described it in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain things can happen.
“Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually, you’ll have built a palace.”
Using Kauffman’s analogy of the palace, which I love, as a thought leader, we have to both be in the room where everyone else is presently hanging out – probably the family room in front of the TV – while also opening new doors for people to help them see the possibilities ahead.
connect new dots
The master at this was Steve Jobs. He crossed so many different boundaries – computers, animation, design, mobility, etc. and he took ideas from each into the other. He understood how this helped him to stand out from the others around him. “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
This means not just looking at ideas from fields that regularly overlap with yours, but also going far beyond the normal boundaries to explore completely new fields. The fact that I have worked in technology, politics, education, entrepreneurship, women’s leadership, and the utility industry gives me a lot of different perspectives and allows me to draw connections far outside the norm.
The panelists, too, have regularly broadened their access to new ideas – Shelley, by designing her career to allow her to move gracefully between industry, consulting, and academia. Candice joined the Springboard network of women entrepreneurs, which not only taught her how to raise money but exposed her to lots of others working in completely new arenas. Janet not only works in academia, she also started an experimental television lab. And Nina’s role as a research scientist has given her an extremely diverse set of internal and external clients that have allowed her to learn about mobility, cloud computing, and even the make-up industry.
How can you get outside the expected and what everyone else is doing? What can you do to stretch and expand your possibilities? Read, attend a conference beyond your niche, watch a TED Talk, join a professional society, take a class, say yes to a new opportunity.
broaden your access points
You can’t work in or learn about every different field – you have to sleep sometimes. Instead, create a network of people you can call on to both share your expertise and learn from theirs. Being a thought leader is both who you know and who knows you. People can’t refer you or recommend you if they’ve never heard of you.
The panelists each took a different path to making new connections: Candice nurtured connections to industry analysts and journalists in her sector providing them with inside news and information about her industry; Janet is a member of AFI and the Peabody Award boards and wrote two widely popular and ground-breaking books; Nina joined academic conference committees, professional organizations, university research groups and the Advisory Board of the Anita Borg Institute; and Shelley co-founded and is an advisory board member for the international Service Design Network. (There were many more examples from these women’s careers, but this gives you the idea…)
How can you broaden your connections and access points? Participate actively in LinkedIn Groups, MeetUps, committees, boards, events, etc. Nurture the relationships with those around you who know about things you don’t know about, as well as those who know more than you do about what you do know about. Meet the pundits, columnists, and analysts in your area of expertise and become a source of ideas and quotes.
listen to what they’re resonating with
To be a thought leader, people have to know what you are thinking and what direction you believe the world should go in order to get on board with your ideas. As my friend, Sam Horn of the Intrigue Agency would say, “No one can get on your bandwagon if it’s parked in your garage.”
But you don’t want to start by taking your bandwagon into the middle of Central Park. Nina has some great advice – learn from the comedians and play the small venues first, then take your best material to the larger arenas. Her first speaking roles were for the internal HP community – she started by having a project open house to show off her team’s work, gave interesting talks for employee-only programs and internal conferences.
There she learned which of her ideas, stories, and messages resonated with her audience. She looked at each of these as “auditions” and there was always a “scout” in the audience for the next venue. She was asked to present her “Color Match” technology to industry analysts and later for HP’s international technology events and at press events. This raised her profile and led to many more speaking invitations as well as new customers for her innovative technology.
Early in her career, Candice was invited to submit articles to an industry journal and was selected to be the editor while she was still in her 20’s. She described this as the opportunity that ‘super-charged’ her career.
Where can you find your own small venues where you can test out your ideas? Start a blog, create a LinkedIn group, convene a meeting of others in your industry or with a similar job title to yours, join a local Chamber, host a brown bag lunch. Remember there are scouts at each event if you can educate, enlighten and move a room with your story, you will get invitations to new and larger opportunities.
One caveat – Testing your ideas for those that resonate doesn’t mean tossing aside ideas that are controversial or that no one agrees with. Being a thought leader does not mean watering down or abandoning your big ideas, but instead learning to craft and hone them in such a way that others will get on board.
About the Panelists:
Janet Murray of Georgia Tech was recently named one of the 10 top brains for the digital future and is the author of Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, widely used as a roadmap to emerging broadband art, information, and entertainment environments. She was one of the first to create interactive video applications and was the founder of one of the world’s first Ph.D. programs in Digital Media.
Candice Brown Elliott, CEO of Nouvoyance, Inc., is the inventor of PenTile, a set of novel color flat-panel display layouts and associated digital signal processing algorithms that are now in every major smartphone brand except Apple and are improving resolution and battery life for consumers every day. She holds over 60 patents and is an internationally recognized leader, entrepreneur, manager, and technologist/inventor in the flat panel display and microelectronic industries.
Shelley Evenson, formerly with Facebook now Executive Director Organizational Evolution of Fjord, was recently recognized by ACAD as a top Woman Innovator in Design and is known for having jumpstarted the study of service design in the U.S. while a professor at Carnegie Mellon and hosting the first international service design conference. She was a co-founder and is an advisory board member for the international Service Design Network. She was recruited from Carnegie Mellon to join Microsoft and later Facebook where she collaborated with researchers and developers of new digital social media experiences.
Nina Bhatti, formerly with HP, now CEO of a stealth startup, is the inventor of Color Match, a highly innovative imaging-based mobile cosmetics advisory service, and Mobile Connect, a near-field RFID mobile device platform suitable for retail, guest services, and museum applications. She has published more than 30 different papers, has been granted more than 25 technology patents and has spoken widely about the topics of innovation, technology, and women in computing.