Episode 5 of The Campfire Circle is all about transforming from a leader to thought leader. I had the pleasure of talking to Denise Brosseau – CEO, Keynote Speaker, Thought Leadership Strategist, Author, Executive Coach, and LinkedIn Learning Instructor.
“Thought leadership is not just about being known. It’s about being known for making a difference.” – Denise Brosseau
When I served as a nonprofit executive director, I read Denise’s book, ‘Ready To Be a Thought Leader?’ and that book taught me everything I needed to know to step into my leadership role and start creating a ripple effect in my community. What a full-circle moment to interview her today!
Highlights from the podcast episode:
[02:34] Why Denise became a thought leader on thought leadership
I really wrote that book (“Ready to be a Thought Leader?”) to my younger self. There was nothing to guide me at the time. I started my company when I was 26 and the journey of entrepreneurship, startups, and technology satisfied my soul for a few years. Then I got an MBA at Stanford and came out of there with this amazing community of women leaders. We weren’t a big portion of our class, but we were mighty.
The women I met had an idea of starting this trade association for women entrepreneurs. At the time, less than 1% of venture capital funding was going to women. We were just determined to do something about it.
Fast forward many years later, that organization still continues today in its new form, Watermark. Yet the venture capital stats have not changed a lot. I did spend 10 years of my career on that path of trying to make a difference for that world, but honestly, because I didn’t have any of the strategies on making a big impact. I was in the blocking and tackling phase. You know, opening a new chapter, trying to help the next entrepreneur versus really understanding how to have a real trajectory of change. That’s why I’m so committed now.
About 12 years ago, I started my present company, taking everything I learned from that journey and from working with others. My commitment is to help leaders, executives, and entrepreneurs make that bigger impact, build those ripples of influence, and create a legacy that matters to them.
[05:40] Creating your own influential platforms to attract the right investors through thought leadership
So often, entrepreneurs keep their heads down, focus on the to-do list, and creating the next product, improving the features and benefits, and less on thought leadership.
Miki Agrawal is a great example that comes to mind of an entrepreneur attracting investors through thought leadership. She started a healthy pizza company without knowing how to run a business, but she was very smart and savvy about using her voice and her platform.
Within a short time, she wrote her first book, got out and started speaking, and really building a community around this idea of entrepreneurship and taking action.. Anyway, she started her second company, then she started her third company … and each time her trajectory got bigger and bolder. Her platform got more meaningful. She was giving back all the ideas, knowledge, and expertise she has, but also bringing in partners.
She’s someone who has used her voice and her platform as a way to scale multiple businesses.
[08:49] Why thought leadership can be a challenge
People don’t see it as a journey. So, they start to do a few things – they put out some content, do a talk, or put forward their perspective in a corporate industry event. Maybe they don’t get an instant response. Maybe they don’t get instant traction for those ideas. And so, they just stop.
Thought leadership is like a flywheel; you have to do those first efforts because the flywheel is slow to start. I certainly learned that in my own journey. We started the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, and we got a little bit of press in the community. Then I helped cofound Springboard (the first venture capital conference for women entrepreneurs) and that became the tipping point and pushed us in a new trajectory, as we got a few press stories about these women entrepreneurs who were presenting their businesses at this first conference. Then that next story was much easier to get. That brought in partners, and that brought in a much bigger community of people to apply for the program or even sponsors.
It was all a flywheel that all began with a few somewhat painful efforts. But once it got going, it just continues to grow. Springboard continues to be at the forefront of the story of women’s entrepreneurship and the growth of high-growth startups and venture capital.
[10:54] What’s thought leadership and what’s personal branding
I think of it, partly going back to that idea of a journey. We began our journey by building our personal brand. The personal brand is differentiating ourselves from others and having some way that people can see us as unique individuals. That’s where we begin our work as executives.
But the second step is becoming respected experts. We take our subject matter expertise, and we become known for that. We understand the knowledge base that we are bringing to the community. And we’re out sharing that.
The third step is really thought leadership. And to me, that is about being the pebble in the pond and creating that movement.
So, when you think about it, the first two are about bringing attention to you. The third one is bringing attention to an idea, a transformation, some actual undertaking that is going on in your field, in your community, and something you are trying to make change around.
So for me, certainly we were building the respected expert status of myself as a knowledgeable person about women’s entrepreneurship. But I think the reason that things tipped is because Springboard was about really changing the trajectory of access to capital in people’s minds. People saw it as that pebble in the pond. And that began to ripple out in ways that perhaps the earlier efforts were built upon. But this third piece was our chance to really make that bigger and broader difference.
[13:20] How to not burnout while pursuing your big vision
As I was writing my book, it was a core element of what I was trying to address because there are two pieces to this conversation. The first is the burnout piece, which is thinking about this as a relay race. You’re not going to get from where we are (1% of venture funding) to what I wanted, which is 51%. That is not going to happen in my lifetime. At some point, I did hope and wish it would but given how slow the trajectory of change was, we’ve never gone to more than about 8%. We’ve got a long way to go.
So, you have to think about this as a relay race. I think that ties into taking care of yourself and understanding your role in passing down understanding. That’s the second piece, which is the key differentiator, often between leaders and thought leaders: the ability to distill the lessons learned to codify your framework, or a blueprint, or guide that others can then pick up, learn from and carry forward.
We don’t want the people picking up the next step on the wheel to reinvent the wheel. We want to be saying, “Okay, here are the seven steps I learned, or here are the five important guideposts that you must follow, here’s the lay of the land.” I think that is the key element of being a thought leader and not just another leader in the long path.
[18:01] Thought leadership for busy nonprofits
I think you’ve really hit on a big challenge, and the opportunity is: what about board members? What about that community you’re serving? How could we enlist and enroll them in the actions as well?
I’ve served on a lot of nonprofit boards. And I can’t tell you how many hours have been wasted of my life when they send me a board packet. And then they regurgitate the board packet during the board meetings.
Let’s instead use our board meetings for the strategic conversation around what would it take to create a movement around these ideas. What can we be doing to enroll and enlist the platforms of all those people that are already involved, whether it’s our staff, volunteers, board members, advisors, funders. How can we give them messages and action points that can help both propagate our messages, but also add to our messages?
We can have the conversation in those board gatherings. Instead of giving them another assignment, we can get them thinking and strategizing, and taking action around using their social platforms, using their voice in the community, and using their reputation on behalf of the cause that they obviously care about.
[22:30] Getting over the itty bitty shitty committee
This is the hardest part, isn’t it? It’s why I spent a whole chapter in my book and gathering ideas from lots of different people on how they did this.
The itty bitty shitty committee is that very loud voice that is saying, “Who are you to be the one?” or “What do you know anyway? or “Nobody’s going to listen to you!” or just worrying about the naysayers. The potential attacks. I think all of that is the hardest part of this journey.
There are a couple of things that I’ve seen over and over again that have worked. One of them is finding the bigger story tying ourselves to the bigger story. It’s getting out of our own way about the small stuff and realizing how much work there really is to be done. And that yes, you may not make the biggest difference in the world. But you got to do your small part.
I think another is absolutely finding the buddy, the coach, that mastermind, the advisor, somebody you can pick up the phone talk to. I was very fortunate that my co-founder was also the board chair for 10 years while I was CEO, and she was always that ally and kind listening ear when things were not going so well.
The third thing is some little tricks that I learned from others. You may remember from the book that Chip Conley said he started consistently writing by getting up at the crack of dawn, because he said that his brain was awake, but his inner voice was quiet at that hour. I think that we have to find those tricks that work for us. We have to find ways in which to clear the outside voices.
Then finally, we need allies. So let’s say somebody attacks you, let’s say somebody comes at you in an online setting, or in-person meetings. Having other allies in the room to shut this down and say “You’re attacking someone who’s doing a lot of good. We don’t need this anymore.
[27:31] Can there be more than one thought leader in an organization?
In fact, the best CEOs are the ones who recognize their voice only plays in certain communities. The best thing they can do is leverage those others within their company whose voice might be heard by a different community to have a different set of connections. Everybody at all levels in an organization and company can have their own platform. We can leverage all of that.
The other half of this conversation is what do we do when we want to be that voice, but our CEO isn’t quite as enlightened. There are ways for us to speak up right from the beginning, and say “these are my ideas and not the ideas of anyone that any company I work with, or anyone I’m affiliated with. We need to be very crisp and clear upfront. I’ve seen clients who have agreed upon platforms that they’re allowed to play on and others they are not. Financial services is probably the hardest. There are some forums and industries where this can get you into regulatory hot water.
But if you’re talking about women’s leadership, or you’re talking about some technology transformation that’s happening in the world, you’re not going to run into the kinds of issues. So find your guideposts are and the platforms where it’s less threatening to your organization. And finally, you need to absolutely start by stating “This is me, this is my voice, and these are my ideas.”
[29:58] Thought leadership for those who aren’t into writing
Some people get stuck thinking they have to write books. But you don’t! I know someone who does a one-minute video once a week that’s really establishing her thought leadership.
I’ve had other people who are speakers. And then I can take her content and repurpose it into written pieces because that’s not her medium. But she’s so articulate and has very thoughtful frameworks behind her talk.
A third option that we often overlook is being a convener. When we think about creating a movement, we’ve got to bring people together, getting them all to agree on those messages and on some shared action. That’s when real change can happen.
If we think about major movements like women’s right to vote, how many times did those women come together for over how many years, to strategize and identify the leaders who were going to do X, Y, or Z? Any movement takes convening. So setting the agenda, inviting the right people in, and guiding the conversation is hugely important to thought leadership.
[32:41] Denise’s big vision for the world
My vision is guided by a class I took in business school many, many years ago. We were asked to create our vision to guide our own lives. It took me the whole quarter before I could finally come down with something that could guide me.
For me, it’s always been about more women leaders at the top of every organization, whether it’s as women entrepreneurs, as executives, or as leaders in their community. I believe the world will be a better place if we have more women leaders. So every piece of work has been guided by that vision.
Thanks for joining us by the fire.
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Resources from this episode:
To learn more about Denise, visit her website or connect with her on LinkedIn.
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