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How to Identify and Connect Your Employee Thought Leaders

June 16, 2021 Leadership
scott clark
By Scott Clark

Are there employees in your organization who others often turn to for guidance or insight? These subject matter experts and "thought leaders" help bring out the best in other employees and improve employee engagement, job satisfaction and the overall employee experience. They're also a source of potential business opportunity.

An Edelman-LinkedIn study surveyed 1,200 US business decision-makers, content creators and salespeople about thought leadership, and revealed that 55% of decision-makers say they use thought leadership content as an important way to become more informed about their business, and half of decision-makers spend at least an hour each week watching or reading thought leadership content.

Even better for a company is when these thought leaders are their own employees. Here's how companies can identify and connect with employee thought leaders through organizational network analysis.

What Is Thought Leadership?

A thought leader, as defined by Jon Miller, vice president of marketing at Marketo, is "an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded." Thought leadership consists of concepts and ideas that require attention, provide guidance or clarity, and have the potential to lead people in unexpected directions. 

The concept of a thought leader started as an outgrowth of marketing, specifically educative marketing, the practice of creating relationships with customers through non-promotional and industry-focused content. The goal is for customers to turn to the thought leader as a trusted, non-biased source of information when they are ready to make a purchase. 

Thought leaders are typically bloggers, columnists and authors and often use social media like YouTube and TikTok to showcase their insights. They often become a high profile source for insights, research and opinion on industry-related trends and news. 

David Wagoner, co-founder and chief marketing officer of P3 Media, an e-commerce marketing and media agency, said the vision and integrity of employee thought leaders can be instrumental to a company’s success, because it’s people that matter, not the profit motive.

“Long-term vision and integrity always win out over short-term transactional thinking in the end," he said. "That's because ultimately, businesses are made up of and sell to people.”

Much like traditional leaders, thought leaders are inspirational and encourage others to achieve more through teamwork. “When a leader is working at their best, they inspire others to work in unison to solve a common problem," Wagoner said. "And that means understanding others' values, and taking the contents of their hearts just as seriously as you do your balance sheets."

Inside a company, conducting an organizational network analysis will help identify internal thought leaders.

Related Article: How Workplace Leadership Shifted in the Last Year

What Is Organizational Network Analysis?

Organizational network analysis (ONA) — a method for studying communication patterns and socio-technical networks within a business — captures data from employee email, instant messages, feedback surveys and collaboration platforms to understand how information flows and decisions get made within an organization. ONA can also pinpoint the influencers in the company, which employees others regularly come to for assistance, mentoring or discussion. There are several ONA tools available, such as Polinode, a browser-based platform that allows companies to run an organizational network analysis and then visualize and analyze the results. 

Using data analysis, ONA measures and creates a graph of the patterns of collaboration by looking closely at the strength, frequency and nature of interactions between employees. Conversely, ONA also illuminates where departmental silos have hindered or stopped collaboration and communication and also pinpoint employees who may be experiencing collaborative overload. 

With ONA, companies have a visual representation of their employee network that makes it easy to see which employees have communicated and collaborated the most with others, or which employees stand out as the thought leaders within a network. 

Related Article: Is It Time for an Organizational Network Analysis?

What's the Benefit of Employee Thought Leaders?

Some companies are becoming aware of the benefits of showcasing their thought leaders on social media such as Facebook, YouTube and TikTok. When thought leaders are showcased on social media, they help companies stand out and the original content they create can attract customers. 

But the benefits are not simply in marketing to customers. Showcasing internal thought leaders can also help boost employer brand and attract potential new employees. There's also the added benefit in employee retention. Identifying and connecting employee thought leaders to other employees and customers empowers them and shows trust that will help keep them engaged and retained. 

Thought leadership also facilitates new ideas, collaboration and innovation. These positive attributes are able to spread across different departments, eliminating departmental silos and enhancing productivity and morale while improving the employee experience. 

Norman Guadagno, chief marketing officer at Acoustic, said employee thought leaders are an important part of a successful company. Often members of the executive suite are the first to be considered thought leaders, as they have years of experience under their belt and are already in positions of leadership. Others should be considered as well, Guadagno said.

“Those who consistently perform well, come up with new ideas, understand industry trends, and aren’t shy about sharing an opinion are all qualities to look for in your thought leaders,” he said. 

Are Employee Thought Leaders 'Influencers'?

Typically, thought leaders are passionate about their work and tend to be positive, vocal and opinionated on social media. These are the type of employees that are also likely to already have an attentive audience of followers. They are influential to employees and customers, and each group considers them to be knowledgeable and trustworthy. That said, the concept of an "influencer" has taken on a negative connotation, with many social media influencers tending more to be fashionable personalities vs. actual thought leaders.

Some caution is warranted. Employee thought leaders should be carefully encouraged to publicly share their knowledge with others. “By sharing these employees’ insights publicly — whether that’s through owned properties like websites, blogs, and social media handles or third-party sites such as media outlets — you’re positioning the employee as an expert while elevating the brand they work for simultaneously,” Guadagno said. 

The topics employee thought leaders are passionate about may fall outside of traditional business areas, but that’s just icing on the cake for companies.

“Employees can be experts across a range of topics, including some areas that may not seem like a perfect fit to the brand," Guadagno said. "However, if a topic is sufficiently interesting to your target audience, it can create additional benefits for everyone involved. The brand is credited for hiring someone so knowledgeable in a particular field while the employee’s personal brand is further enhanced — it’s a win-win."

This isn’t to say that thought leaders will always be associated with social media accounts. Many employee thought leaders simply make themselves available to other employees to assist them with learning how to perform their duties, to answer questions, to provide guidance and mentor them — without additional compensation or encouragement to do so. Additionally, thought leaders are subject matter experts in their fields of work and tend to be people of action who are able to inspire others to take their ideas, concepts and creativity to the next level. 

Employee thought leaders may be C-suite executives, managers, team leaders or employees who have simply become experts on a specific topic. These employees help elevate other employees, provide actionable insights and positive feedback, and generate social media content that helps enhance productivity and improves the quality of each workday and with it, the employee experience.

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