Finding Your Thought Leaders

In the first post of this series on thought leaders I wrote about defining thought leaders and gave some well-known examples. Today I’m going to suggest ways to identify thought leaders in your company or organisation.

So what are we looking for? here are my criteria for a thought leader;


Your thought leader needs to have expertise in their field in order to be credible to any audience.  Looking at the examples of thought leaders from last weeks post all five people have expertise in their field.

Most often this expertise is clear from their track record, as is the case of Warren Buffet, Sheryl Sandberg and Elon Musk.

Sometimes the credibility comes out of personal experience;

Malala Yousafzai is a teenager, her message is not wildly new, but she has enormous authority to call for equal rights for girls in education because of her own fight to have an education.

Ellen MacArthur is most known as a sailor, and it was on one of her solo global circumnavigation re realised that human’s impact on the world needs to change and she now devotes herself to the circular economy.

Leading Change

Thought leaders really need to be leading change, either by leading a programme of change or holding a role of accountability in your company or organisation. This builds their credibility but also means that they have something interesting to say on their field.

Communication Skills

Thought leaders communicate ideas, to inspire and convince the audience, so strong communication skills are essential. Your thought leaders need to be able to connect with their most relevant audience and they need to be able to convey the your company’s values and mission to an audience unrelated to your business. If you’re a tech company can they speak with passion about technology to non-tech people?


Thought leaders need to be working on and thinking about the thing that’s most important to your company. If you’re a healthcare company it’s innovation in healthcare, if you’re an NGO it could be policy development, if you’re a product company it’s your designers.

Begin by looking for someone who is leading change; perhaps the woman who challenges the status quo, or the guy with stealth project that turn out to make money.

Most often the person will have a senior role, either in their organisation structure or in the scope of projects they lead, simply because to have the credibility of thought leader across audiences. However the person will also need to be a representative of your brand; if you’re a youth fashion brand for example look for someone young and cool, who embodies the brand’s style.

Who gets called to speak at conferences? People who are thought leaders in your company may already have been found as speakers for events.

It’s a tricky combination of skills, knowledge and character to find, and you really want just one per business or perhaps per geography. Thought leaders are rare and valuable.

Next Week; Positioning Thought Leaders

Image: The Thinker  |  Christopher Brown  |  CC BY-2.0


Who is a Thought Leader?

The concept of thought leadership has been around for a few years, long enough to attract its own stand-up comedy character.

Thought leaders can have important role in positioning your company or organisation, in a series of three posts I’m going to provide;

  1. a definition of thought leadership, with examples
  2. the benefits of thought leaders and how to identify them in your organisation or industry
  3. guide on positioning thought leaders in your company or organisation

So what does “Thought Leader” mean? Wiki gives the definition;

A thought leader can refer to an individual or firm that is recognised as an authority in a specialised field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.

A true thought leader will have a solid base of expertise, skills in communicating with the relevant audience, ideas about the future, and be driving that future.

It’s a tough position to fill, so who qualifies as a thought leader? Some examples will help.

Humanitarian; Malala Yousafzai

The youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the girl who famously took a bullet in order to go to school. Malala now lives in the UK and continues to campaign for education and other rights for girls and women.

Innovation; Elon Musk

Founder of Pay-Pal, Tesla Cars, and responsible for landing big ideas.  I saw him interviewed at the Dublin Web Summit and was immediately impressed by the scale of his vision

Business; Sheryl Sandberg

The COO of Facebook and the first women to join their board, her book Lean In has inspired a movement of Lean In circles supporting women’s growth in business.

Investment; Warren Buffet

Buffet’s rules for investing well have become famous, some can be applied to business or even more generally to life. He’s one of the founders of the Giving Pledge, where very wealthy people pledge to give away at least half of their wealth.

Environment; Ellen MacArthur

MacArthur famous for sailing solo, non-stop around the world as the fulfilment of her childhood dream. She now campaigns for economic reform to sustain our environment, the Circular Economy.

Most of these are household names, but a thought leader may be less broadly known, but well-known, and sought after, in their field.


Next Week; Finding Your Thought Leaders

Image: The Thinker  |  Christopher Brown  |  CC BY-2.0


Improving Performance Reviews

Raise your hand if you like performance reviews! No-one?

It turns out that even people who get good reviews don’t like having them, and the workload on managers adds up to a lot of hours across a largish company. One estimate based on time spent puts the cost at 120,000 USD for 500 people. Yet it’s doubtful that we see that value out of the review process.

It’s about that time of the year when many managers are plunged into the black hole of performance reviews. It’s a fun time, particularly if you work in digital, to see how good your guesses about the year’s activities were.

There are a number of widely recognised problems with most performance management systems;

  1. Annual planning cycle, given the pace of change annual planning is too slow, and many performance systems are resistant to mid-year alterations.
  2. Annual assessment, some systems force a mid-year coaching meeting, but it’s not the frequent/continuous feedback that’s needed to create the improvement you’re looking for.
  3. Forced grading, because the results are connected to pay increases and/or bonuses managers are forced, at least in large companies, to grade to a curve in order to manage total costs. I have had an HR advisor tell me that it wasn’t possible that everyone in my team was excellent. As a perceptive team member once said “the way to maximise your income is to be the best person in a lousy team.
  4. Looks backwards, doesn’t usually result in improved performance for the future.
  5. Time spent, it’s a significant amount of time from managers and employees, with questionable value delivered. Across a company it adds up quickly.
  6. Subjective, however hard you try as a manager to be objective you’ll always get some subjectivity in the review, particularly on ‘softer’ goals your perception impacts the review out of balance

Most companies recognise the issues and there’s a lot of research backs up the concerns; a few have started trying new ways of performance management. I think the biggest issue is that it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We call it performance management, which sounds like managers will be working to help their team members improve their performance, but the reality is that it’s a tool for figuring out how to distribute a pool of money used to reward those who perform the best. Some companies try to separate the two conversations, but they remain linked in people’s minds. In one team many years ago the manager disclosed to all his direct reports how much money he had to reward them and offered options on how to distribute it. Unsurprisingly the team voted for each team member to have an equal share of the money.

We know that money is not in itself motivating yet most companies continue to with the fiction that performance reviews and ‘merit increases’ are connected to improving performance. Some companies have the courage to challenge this.

  • Accenture announced last year that they will get rid of 90% of their performance management process and replace it with something giving feedback in real time with a much simplified questionnaire to managers.
  • GE, the initiator of the stacked ranking, has changed their model for performance management to one that focuses on their goals.
  • Adobe have altered their “stack and rank” system into something that requires managers to give regular feedback at check-ins, with one rewards check-in at the end of the year to discuss targets.

In these examples the companies are trying to build a practice of ongoing feedback – rather than the annual review. Which makes sense. In some cases they’re also trying to separate the feedback/coaching process from the assessment for bonus process. Both are steps forward. If there is training and support for managers evolving their feedback/coaching skills it could lead to improved performance.


For all the pitfalls of your company’s performance review system chances are you’re stuck working with it, so here are some helpful hints and resources;

For Managers

Prepare; with a copy of the team member’s expected goals go through your notes from your 1-on-1 meetings over the last year. Check with other managers for any joint projects they’ve been on. Ask the direct report for input. (If you haven’t been having 1-on-1 meetings for the previous year set them up now).

Assess; look for what was done well, areas where you saw the person step up, skills gained – have examples. Think about what didn’t work well, limits in knowledge or behaviour that have been exposed – have examples. Prepare for questions on next steps, training needs, and salary changes.

Discuss; Be honest about achievements and failures, give feedback on 1-3 things they really need to improve.  If the person reacts with any emotion or defensiveness understand that it’s not about you, remain firm and focused on helping them improve their performance.

Manager Tools – amazing series of podcasts taking you through all aspects of performance reviews.

Performance Review Examples – ten tips explaining some of the pitfalls.

For Employees

Have a copy of your own goals, go through it and assess your performance. Be honest about what goals were met and your responsibility, be honest about what goals were not met and your responsibility. Note down any achievements that weren’t somehow listed or planned, things you particularly enjoyed, and assemble any feedback you’ve had from peers.

Looking into next year think about your goals, your training needs, projects you’d like to work on. If they’re aligned to the company’s goals a good manager will try to include those in the planning for the coming years.

Be prepared to give your manager feedback on how they can help you be more successful. I firmly believe that’s the manager’s number one task.

9 Things to Tell Your Boss at Your Next Performance Review.

Image: 42-15529695  |  Meridican  |  CC BY 2.0

The Productivity Map vs the Procrastination Trap

When you have a “real job” your productivity is driven largely by external demands, appointments and deadlines. When you start working for yourself it’s entirely up to you to drive your own productivity; on one hand it’s great to be free of those external demands, on the other it’s harder to maintain momentum without them. So I’ve been reading up on productivity, the consensus is that there are three elements to high productivity.

The Productivity Map

1 Clear Goals and Priorities

The first step is knowing the big picture of what you’re trying to achieve, defining what are the important steps you need to take to reach that. With your priorities defined you can move to planning.

I have a month by month set of goals, which can be broken down into activities to be completed each week, and from that I can build a daily plan.

Knowing your priorities will also help you say “no” to all those requests that can derail your good plans, here’s how Kristin Muhlner, CEO of NewBrand Analytics thinks about saying no to things at work.

This is about sustaining focus on results over the longer term, not about boxing yourself into a single path. If it turns out that priorities need to change, then change them. But make the decision and then change, don’t just drift onto a new path.

2 Plan

Set out a plan for your month, week or day. Find a system that works for you and stick to it.

There are all sorts of techniques out there, from productivity planners to the Pomodoro technique, to Get Things Done or the Seinfeld method.

Which method you use will depend on your personality and your business needs. Back when I had a company job the Get Things Done method worked because there were enough external deadlines to drive me forward.

If you need an easy way to time activities Google spreadsheets and calendar offer a free add-in that will help, I made a timesheet video guide on how to set that up.

I now use an adaptation of the productivity planner and I plan a week’s overview and then plan priority tasks per day in 30 minute chunks. I do a weekly review and plan session on a Friday morning which lets me relax over the weekend with the feeling that everything is under control (ha!).

3 Monitor Progress Honestly

Productivity is about what gets done, not just following a timetable so you need to monitor your output. Be honest with yourself, and remember that part of this is to refine your planning process. Look at what got done as well as what didn’t. Acknowledge any disruptions that put you off your game.

I check at the end of each day what I got done, and make adjustments for the following day. On Fridays I review the week and give myself an arbitrary “productivity score”.

I have a wide optimistic streak which has a big upside, but the downside is I tend to somehow thing I can do five 3 hour tasks in a day so right now part of my monitoring is around the time taken to complete tasks so that I can get better on these estimates. I am timing the writing of this post, for example, it’s not strictly necessary but in creating estimates for a client accurate time estimates are important so it’s a good skill to learn.

The Procrastination Trap

Ellen DeGeneres gives a perfect example of what procrastination looks like, I’m sure  you’ll recognise it.

If you watched it you may be one of life’s natural procrastinators, welcome to the club. There are lots of reasons we procrastinate, sometimes we talk ourselves out of the hard tasks, sometimes we just get distracted – like a cat seeing a lazer light.

Setting goals and monitoring them honestly will help you build productive habits that will edge out the procrastination habits. But there are a couple of things to do in addition to this.

1 Remove distractions

Close email and social media sites, and remove notifications. There’s nothing more likely to distract you than that little flag saying “read me, you know you want to”. Checking email/status updates is a known productivity killer.There are lots of tools to help you focus when working online.
I’ve taken the simple step of putting all my work stuff into one browser (Chrome), and all my personal stuff into another (Firefox). Of course I can still fall down an internet rabbit hole, but it is a psychological help.

2 Listen to music/Don’t listen to music

Whichever helps you focus, I know lots of colleagues who find listening to music lets them focus. Sometimes it can also be a welcome way to block out office noise in open plan offices.I prefer not listening to music, but sometimes it can help my concentration if there is a lot of other background noise.

3 Tackle the hardest/easiest thing first

Some advice suggests that you should plan to start with the easiest task or a pleasant part of the overall task. Maybe that will work for you – try it.

I prefer beginning with the hardest “biggest” task, and plan the easier or more fun tasks as a “reward”.

4 Reward yourself

A reward could be a break, a walk outside, 10 minutes of facebook time, a good cup of coffee, a trip to the gym. It could also be one of the more pleasant tasks you need to do, for example, some online research for a conference to attend. Once you’ve defined your reward you can tell yourself “I’m going to finish this blog post by 11am and then I’m going out for coffee”, it’s a good way to trick yourself into focusing.

Productivity is about outcomes, but the way that we get there is by having a system that works and building productive habits. All the research I’ve found states that you need to maintain your own health, know your own goals, plan tasks against goals, monitor output, and break the procrastination habits. For me it’s a work in progress.

Image:  time via pixabay

The Two Most Important Words for Managers

Years ago, during all the pressure of a work crisis, one of my team members who had just joined the team worked tirelessly with a demanding colleague to solve a tricky problem.  He was dedicated and patient, I was relieved he could find a solution by about 6pm.

By then I was in a meeting deep in discussion with colleagues, but one of the advantages of working in a glass building is you can see out. I spotted him leaving with his head down, bag over shoulder, hands in pockets. I excused myself and raced to catch him by the lift.

“Thank you” I said “I saw how hard you worked to solve that today and you’ve done good work!”

He smiled and straightened up. “It’s my job” he said shyly.

The look on his face made me realise just how important it was and in that moment I knew I’d be OK at this management thing (still learning!).

And those two words “Thank you” are the most important words from managers and leaders, and not just the generic “thanks for your hard work”. When you follow thank you with specific feedback that s

What does Leadership Look Like?

I was looking for an image to illustrate my version of leadership, for once Google was not helpful. Here are some of the images Google provided and my first, somewhat snarky, reaction to them.

Apart from an apparent gender bias (none of the stick figure appear to be female), the images all show leaders in a sort of exalted status that I’m not comfortable with.

I’m drawn more to a version of leadership that relies on inspiring people, of helping them to be the best they can be.  As John Quincy Adams said “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader”. Academics describe leadership as “a process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task” (Chemers M. (1997) via wikipedia). I’ve always liked that wise quote from the Tao te Ching  “When a good leader is finished, the people think they did it themselves.”

None of the images I found in common search seemed anything like my version of leadership, although I did recognise the truth of  Gaping Void‘s brilliant cartoon.

So I decided to make my own image on leadership.

I wanted to convey that for me leadership includes the idea of “we do this together”, that there’s a team of individuals who bring their differences to the table, that we’re equal and the contributions of all in a strong team are valued.

It’s hard to get all of that into a single image, here’s what I’ve come up with (which you’ve already seen if you came here via twitter – sorry for the recursion).

How would you visualise leadership?

(And for those of you worrying about the gender depiction in my image, you needn’t).

Setting Annual Goals


At the beginning of each year most large companies ask all employees to set goals for the year. The tools and process vary widely between companies but there are some elements that are really consistent.

I’ve outlined the principles to follow, with background examples where I can find them.

Set S.M.A.R.T goals

The S.M.A.R.T acronym is often used as a guide or even a requirement by companies. Even if it’s not required it’s a good way to think about goal setting. Here’s how the acronym breaks down.


Set out what the goal is including purpose or benefits, geographic scope, business scope,  and dependencies or constraints.

  • roll out programme B in EMEA markets, provided business case proves value in individual markets
  • increase sales across T category of products
  • evaluate process X, and plan improvements.
  • build network of experts in field P, across European markets
  • increase customer satisfaction


Explain how progress will be measured. Measurement may be quantitative or qualitative. You could use sales data, website traffic, lead generation, marketing reach, survey data (including internal surveys). I encourage my team to focus on impact on the company, rather than counting tasks completed, but I try to make sure it’s still something easily measured and unambiguous.

  • roll out programme B in 60% of EMEA markets, provided business case proves value in individual markets
  • increase sales by 30%   across T category of products
  • evaluate process X, and plan improvements, goal is met when plan is delivered and 3 improvements have been made
  • build network of experts in field P, across European markets, with participation rates in online community reach 70%
  • increase customer satisfaction as measured by quarterly online survey by 5%

You can also include some “stretch” in the goals, particularly if your pay system has a variable component;

  • roll out programme B in 60% of EMEA markets, provided business case proves value in individual markets, stretch goal = 80%


The goal should be something the you or your team can reach in the time frame given. It should not be extreme, as this would be demotivating. It should not be to easy, as this could reduce the drive and initiative applied to achieving the goal.

If you’re writing a set of goals make sure that the total list doesn’t exceed a year’s work. Make sure that each goal is proportional to the time it will require, if you have five goals each one should be roughly 20% of the time needed through the year.

Defining an achievable goal may include stating constraints or dependencies.

  • roll out programme B in 60% of EMEA markets, provided business case proves value in individual markets
  • evaluate process X, and plan improvements, goal is met when plan is delivered and 3 improvements have been made, note that this depends on budget being available.
  • increase customer satisfaction as measured by quarterly online survey, excluding any product recalls.


Relevant goals are ones that deliver value to the company, department and team.  They should be aligned with the goals of leaders, peers and any sub-ordinates. The goals should also be appropriate for your seniority level, both in terms of complexity and impact on the company.

If goals set are relevant they will be meaningful and motivating for you.


Each goal should set out a timeline for achievement, this may mean breaking goal into constituent parts to specify timeline.

  • increase sales by 30%   across T category of products, by end October to meet sales planning.
  • evaluate process X, and plan improvements by end Q1, goal is then to deliver 3 improvements by end of year, note that this depends on budget being available.

It can be a challenge to get this right as an individual, and even more difficult when setting goals across a larger team, but it’s important to do it right. It’s good for the manager to have specific goals and alignment across the team, with each person knowing how they contribute to the big picture. And knowing your individual goals focuses your attention on what’s really important.

On a more practical note; setting up the goals well makes the performance review conversation much easier for everyone.


image goal