If “thought leadership” was not a contender for phrase of the year in recent times, it should have been. It’s a motherhood- and-apple-pie-flavored bite of business jargon defined by Business News Daily as “the honest and admirable ambition of being viewed as a credible industry expert, one who cuts through the ‘noise’ and offers something worth listening to.”

There’s lots of talk about thought leadership, but what does it actually mean, and why is it valuable for growth-minded accounting firms?

We all know that innovation is essential if you want to remain relevant to your clients and prospects, and competitive among your peers. But many firms struggle with how to do it. Well, more than a boardroom buzzword, thought leadership is the first step in the process of service innovation. The second step is development and execution of the innovation itself.

Market shake-ups are predictable. And they are an important opportunity to invest in thought leadership. Whether you’re selling an audit or an Audi, offerings get stale over time. In the predictable lifecycle of “fat cat” (late stage, sluggish) offerings like audit and tax, lethargy is upended by a thunderbolt precipitated by technology, competition, regulation or economic conditions. And these are the times we are living in right now. You can’t sit back and wait for the technology thunderbolt to arrive, however. You have to create the conditions for acceptance. If you don’t, someone else will, and will position themselves as the provider of choice as time unfolds. That’s where thought leadership comes in.

If you are a forward-looking firm, you should now be planning for the future of audit, tax and consulting. If you have no market-leading thoughts, go out and get them. Conduct deep, thorough internet research to find out who is leading in the space you need to inhabit — for example, data analytics for health care institutions, or cybersecurity for manufacturing companies. Research universities, vendors, consultants and peers. Notice who is writing, and read their material. Learn all you can about the conditions, challenges and possible solutions. Your research will yield people who have thoughts. You can sponsor their thoughts until you have your own (example: interview them in a firm-hosted webinar panel). Eventually, you’ll have your own thoughts.

Once you have some thoughts, strategically introduce them to your targeted markets. Listeners must become knowledgeable and comfortable with the concepts before ever accepting an innovation. Not only are you educating, but you are positioning your firm as forward-thinking and cutting-edge. One of my firms has started including an executive overview with their proposals regarding the future of the CPA profession and implications for companies. Among a pile of alternative proposals, the firm stood out as unique, while others plodded along talking about the wonderfulness of their (undifferentiated) audit. The firm won the business.

Remember, if you aren’t the one to help your market understand the vision of the future, you can be sure that a competitor will move in to fill the void. You want your market drinking from the fountain of insight and information that has your name on it, not the name of the firm down the street.

The natural evolution beyond communicating thought leadership to a market is to identify early adopters interested in working with you to craft new offerings — in data analytics, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, continuous audit and blockchain. Communicating to the market will smoke out these important early adopters, enabling you to get to market faster and segue to full commercialization.


Choose your flavor

Thought leadership comes in many flavors — from proposal content, articles and blog posts, to webinars, events, one-on-one conversations and summaries included in client communications. More importantly, thought leadership moves you past knowledge about what’s coming, into action — thought leadership, innovation with early adopters, and commercialization — priming the pump for innovations that will put your firm and your clients competitively out front.