top of page
  • Chealsea Wierbonski

How to Become a Thought Leader

For many years in my career, I was confused by the fact that there were some people (mostly men) who were at the same level as I was but who seemed to be so much more respected. I felt like the quality of my work was just as good, and in many cases, I felt I worked harder and actually executed more consistently. What I finally realized after years of observation was that these people were getting the respect of those above them because they were perceived as thought leaders.

After getting to a certain point in my career and hitting what I felt to be a ceiling, I looked at those around me to identify what they were doing that I wasn’t. What I noticed was that these people were not afraid to present their ideas, insights, and perspective on pretty much anything, but especially on topics that were a priority for our organization. They also seemed eager to do this in large groups and in front of people who were more senior than them. In fact, it seemed like they used any opportunity they could to be heard by a large group with a senior lead present.

This is when I realized that being perceived as a leader is closely tied to being perceived as a thought leader.

What is a thought leader? According to Business News Daily, a thought leader is someone who, based on their expertise and industry perspective, offers unique guidance, inspires innovation and influences others. By definition, thought leaders are perceived to be authoritative and influential. When you are striving to be a leader at work, who wouldn’t want to be thought of as authoritative and influential?

Becoming a thought leader can be challenging, especially in large organizations, in male dominated fields, or both! It can be intimidating to become a thought leader if you have anxiety about speaking up or if you aren’t even sure what thoughts you want to be a leader of.

If you read my previous post Transcending Smallness (Part 2), you may recall that for a long time, I was hesitant to speak up in large groups. This stemmed from my fear of being judged harshly if something that I said didn’t resonate with my audience. I want to acknowledge that this isn’t an unfounded fear–women are judged so much more harshly than men, and often have their ideas dismissed or not really listened to in the first place.

According to a study from the Pew Research Center, 37% of women who work in male dominated workplaces report they have been treated as if they were not competent because of their gender. In this same study, when asked how often they feel they have to prove themselves at work in order to be respected, 25% of women say they have to do this all of the time.

Additionally, according to a study from the Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Research, women who committed misconduct at work were 20% more likely to be fired than their male counterparts and were 30% less likely to find new jobs after committing misconduct compared with male colleagues.

There are countless studies that support this notion of a “gender punishment gap”, so it’s no wonder that we women are hesitant about sharing our ideas. But as difficult as this data is, it’s not a reason for holding ourselves back from becoming thought leaders.

In my many years working in tech, I’ve observed that men seem totally comfortable being thought leaders. It’s almost as if they haven’t even considered that someone might think their idea is “stupid” (and according to the data, this may be true!). Furthermore, they seem so confident when they are talking, that others can’t help but to buy into their ideas.

I used to be intimidated by this dynamic at work and I wondered how I could ever be a person who could speak with this much confidence. Over time, I developed a general framework that helped me build my own confidence around thought leadership, as well as to build buy-in amongst influential leaders. This framework can be used in any scenario, whether that’s in a meeting or on a long-term project and I’d love to share it with you!

  1. Identify a topic you want to become a thought leader on. This can be anything, but good topics can include current trends in your industry, projects that are of strategic importance to your company or immediate team, or even something like Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

  2. Get clear on what you think and why you think it. The way I usually do this is by writing a short document. I write my perspective or opinion as a sentence, and then I write a few bullet points to support what I think. I also review this a few times so that if I’m ever in a situation where I need to discuss my point of view, I have supporting rationale already top of mind.

  3. Talk your idea over with a few trusted colleagues. It’s best to first start out with a peer, someone in a similar position to your own, but you’ll eventually want to take it to someone more senior. Talking ideas over with peers are safe forums for testing your ability to answer questions about your thoughts and perspective. The added benefit is that if you are talking over your idea in a meeting in the future, and some of your advocates are present, they will usually support you and your perspective since you’ve already vetted it with them. Having this clear public support from others, especially more senior folks, usually helps sway the skeptics.

  4. Look for opportunities to present your thoughts in large public forums. If you are trying to build respect and establish yourself as a thought leader amongst your peers, this could be in a team meeting or a similar forum. In tech companies, we have tech talks or information sharing sessions that can serve as great forums to test out your ideas before going to more senior audiences. If your goal is to demonstrate to your executive team or senior leads that you are a thought leader, you will want to find a forum for that. Many companies require their teams to do reviews with leads before moving forward on a project. Or they have strategic planning cycles. Both of these forums are great opportunities for sharing your thoughts, perspectives and recommendations.

  5. For extra credit, go big! If you are starting to feel really confident about what you have to say, try going public either by presenting at a conference, publishing a paper, getting a write up in a trade publication or something similar. If your company hosts a blog, ask if you can contribute your idea to that. The marketing and/or PR teams are usually a good place to start for all of these forums, but you can also check to see if anyone you work with is doing something similar and ask them for support.

If all of this still feels intimidating, check in with yourself and ask why. Identifying what is making you nervous is the first step in identifying a pathway forward. In my own experience, I found that a lot of my fear not only stemmed from being judged harshly if I made a mistake, but also feeling like no one would be interested in what I had to say. When I dug into this further, I realized that this feeling was none other than the much discussed Impostor Syndrome.

Check out my next blog post where I’ll go into more detail on this dreaded (but extremely common) phenomenon as well as how I navigated my own case of Impostor Syndrome throughout my career.


bottom of page