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The growth factor professional services CEOs may overlook

Karl Feldman, partner at Hinge

A recent study identified key new business development skills of high-growth professional services firms, defined as those achieving 20% or greater annual growth over at least a three year period. Perhaps not surprisingly – at least not for a category that sells thinking – four of the seven top skills relate to thought leadership.

What is surprising is how few professional services firms, and their top leaders, are effectively leveraging this growth tool.

The basics of professional services thought leadership

Reviewing this survey of 1000+ firms, it was clear that the long-time basics of thought leadership development for professional services, or any B2B firm, are still very much in play.

For instance, 33.8 % of organizations achieving high-growth report that their subject matter experts are skilled speakers, whether live at conferences or on podcasts – while only 18.7% of lower growth firms can say the same. Similarly, 32.8% of high-growth firms are good at writing blog posts and articles, while just 18.9% of average firms are effectively publishing that same kind of content. These traditional “basics,” however, may no longer be enough.

Why leading thinkers now also need to lead conversations

With nearly six million blog posts published every day, breaking through with traditional content alone is more difficult than ever.

That’s why one research finding was of particular interest, as it identified a less common but rising skill set for high-growth firms: leading conversations. According to the study (produced by Hinge, a prominent firm in thought leadership marketing for professional services), 34.8% of high-growth firms are “skilled at interviewing other subject matter experts.” These conversations may take the form of interviewing (on video, in podcasts, or simply in writing); moderating roundtables at industry events; or hosting live event series on topics of key interest.

I sat down with Karl Feldman, a partner at Hinge, to see why conversation matters. He said, “Establishing yourself as a thought leader – what we call a Visible Expert – takes conversation.

Just think about it: wherever you are on the spectrum, whether you’re just starting out and growing your visibility or you’re already a global star, you want to appear in the right group of colleagues, to get that lift and visibility. We want to have conversations. We want to be seen in the light with the stars that shine brightest.  We want to do that in real life, and we want to replicate that kind of exposure and association in the digital world.”

There are several additional advantages to leading conversations, not the least of which is that it can be a direct door opener for new business development. After all, if you create a valuable industry conversation, people are eager to participate. That means you, as a CEO, can call up a subject matter expert (who is also potential prospect), offer to feature them in an interview, and they’ll be glad to take the call. They get some welcome exposure, and you get in front of them, not to sell, but to share thinking, to, in effect, demonstrate the quality of your intellectual capital rather than simply promote it.

Feldman added that the power of conversations to put CEOs in front of prospects also helps sell professional services via another critical dimension: personality. “As a leader in professional services, you have to be somewhat of a people person,” he says, “Because, ultimately, your clients aren’t buying a product. They’re buying people. They’re buying talent. They’re buying you.”

The first step CEOs should take to becoming thought leaders

So, how do you break out of the corner office and become that “visible expert” that Feldman describes? While even top executives can be daunted by the time or talent required be seen as a leading thinker, he simply says, “Start with a hard look in the mirror,” as he encourages executives to match their best skills to their primary goals.

“Let’s say your goal is to be a national leader on a conference stage, to have conversations with some of the best and brightest. What parts of what it will take to get there that you are already comfortable with? Are you a proficient writer? Are you comfortable speaking in front of a large audience? Does it feel easier to do a Webinar? Start by being honest with yourself. Where are you comfort zones? Where are the areas of talent that you can use right now and build on from there?”

The payoff

But is the effort really worth it? According to the research, firms that put in the effort, whose leaders become visible experts, and who increasingly are creating compelling, engaging industry conversations – those firms are growing five times faster than their competitors. Which makes thought leadership, and the trend toward conversation leadership, growth tools that cannot be ignored.

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Chuck Kent
Chuck Kent is the Chief Conversation Officer at Lead the Conversation, a content creation consultancy that makes it easier for busy executives to create authentic thought leadership content and lead meaningful industry conversations. Chuck Kent is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.