An IT industry thought leader or influencer is someone who uses their expertise and perspective to offer specialized guidance, inspire innovation, and motivate followers to business success. A thought leader’s followers can include colleagues, business partners, on-site and virtual conference audiences, and website and book readers, as well as social media followers.
Getting started as an IT thought leader requires industry experience, a winning personality, lessons to teach, and an eager audience. The most successful thought leaders address the two major needs of IT and business executives: making money and saving money, said Juan Orlandini, chief architect at Insight Enterprises, an IT systems and services provider.
Leaders, Not Followers
IT thought leaders don’t follow the crowd. “You have to be able to set a path that’s your own — a path that’s informed by the prevailing wisdom, not driven by it,” Orlandini said. “IT thought leaders, regardless of what level they’re at, also need to remain current and relevant with the changing landscape,” he added.
Beyond deep technical and/or business knowledge, becoming an IT thought leader requires a significant amount of self-reflection. Points to consider include motivations, such as career advancement, enterprise recognition, increasing product or services sales, building close ties with business partners, and perhaps even the desire to help improve and advance the IT community. “Understanding those motivations will help you plan your approach,” said Jeff Ton, a strategic IT advisor to IT solutions provider InterVision.
Gaining widespread recognition requires the ability to communicate ideas through multiple channels. “Critically assess your ability to write, to speak in front of audiences, to be the subject of an interview,” Ton advised. Getting started doesn’t require perfection, but if there are any glaring weaknesses, it’s important to address them. “For example, if the thought of public speaking makes your palms sweaty, find low-risk opportunities to speak to groups,” he suggested. If you need to hone your writing skills, seek out guest blog opportunities. “If conversation is more your thing, identify tech-related podcasts and propose being a guest on the program,” Ton recommended.
Ask your enterprise’s marketing department to help you get your thought leadership career off on the right foot. “Marketing can help you find opportunities to amplify your voice,” Ton said. “They can also help you with editing, fine-tuning your message, graphics, social media, and much more.”
Personal and Career Benefits
Most thought leaders launch their quest with the goal of enhancing their careers. “Within your company, other executives will gain an understanding of the way you think about your role, the business, and the industry,” Ton said. “They will begin to see you as more than just the ‘IT person’,” he noted.
Becoming a thought leader creates an instant credibility that can be used to build strong connections to C-suite executives, said Ari Lightman, a professor of digital media and marketing at the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. It also creates a sense of pride in the IT department that there’s a leader who can help other in-house strategic thinkers work through challenging issues, he explained.
As they raise their industry profile, thought leaders are frequently targeted by enterprises searching for a new CIO. “They may think of reaching out to you prospectively because they know your name and know your reputation,” said Rich Temple, vice president and CIO at the Deborah Heart and Lung Center. “It becomes that much easier for potential employers to see your body of work and get to know you,” he noted. “That can be a real differentiator for you in a competitive job search.”
Becoming a thought leader isn’t an entirely risk-free initiative. Appearing pompous or arrogant can easily tarnish a reputation and irreparably damage a career. Humility is an essential asset, Lightman noted. “Shameless self-promoters are rampant,” he observed. “Always try to add value to your community, department, organization, and colleagues rather than looking for what’s in it for yourself.”
Staying focused is also important. “There can be a risk of aspiring thought leaders focusing their time disproportionately on being on the road at conferences or doing a lot of social media posts,” Temple explained. “Sometimes, that extra time takes away from their primary duty, which is to provide visionary guidance and a stable information systems environment for their employers.”
Another common mistake is getting too far ahead of technology trends that sound mesmerizing but may not actually gain traction in the real world. “Be a visionary but be skeptical enough to not hitch your wagon to something that doesn’t come to pass, because doing so could damage your credibility down the road,” Temple advised.
How to Submit a Column to InformationWeek
IT Leadership: 10 Ways to Unleash Enterprise Innovation
Digital Transformation: How Leaders Can Stand Out