Becoming a thought leader is an essential part of transitioning into senior leadership roles. It’s not enough to be an expert. You also have to be able to communicate your ideas to a broad audience.
My guest Rhea Wessel, a journalist by training, is the founder of the Institute for Thought Leadership. She explains what a thought leader is and how you can find the sweet spot between your passion (purpose), your credentials (experience), and your “big idea”. The intersection of those three is your thought leadership niche.
I also get an impromptu coaching session when Rhea asks me to explain my podcast’s motivation and purpose. And Rhea shares how she got drawn into the world of thought leadership.
About my guest
Rhea Wessel, an American writer based in Frankfurt, Germany, writes magazine articles, studies, speeches, and other material for corporate clients, helping them formulate their ideas and present them to readers in the right tone, style, and structure.
A graduate of Columbia University, Rhea specializes in finance, technology, and social issues. She is a native speaker of English and fluent in German.
With more than 25 years of experience in daily, deadline writing for publications such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, Rhea knows how to simplify complex topics and mold them into a compelling story. One of her features appeared in the Best of Newspaper Writing 1999.
In 2019, Rhea founded the Institute for Thought Leadership and began advising subject-matter experts on their journey to thought leadership.
Her book, Write Like a Thought Leader: How to Find, Frame and Tell the Stories that Position you as an Expert in your Niche, is forthcoming in 2021.
Matthias Catón: Being a thought leader – isn’t that something that sounds appealing? Making your voice be heard, being an expert in your field? Why this is something that is not just important if you are, say, a researcher or a journalist, but also if you’re a leader of a company or an organization, that is something that we will be talking about today. Stay tuned.
Welcome to another episode of the Wholegrain Leadership Podcast. My name is Matthias Catón, and today we will talk about thought leadership and about becoming a thought leader. And I’m joined today by an expert in the field. Her name is Rhea Wessel. Rhea is an American, she lives here in Frankfurt, Germany, and she’s a writer. She has written many magazine articles, studies, speeches for herself and other people, material for corporate clients. So she is a thought leader in and of herself, and she has more than 25 years of experience in writing, in particular for outlets, such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
She’s a graduate of Columbia University and specializes on topics mainly around finance technology and social issues. She is also the founder and current head of the Institute for thought leadership. So she is an expert in thought leadership herself, and she is advising experts and other people on their journey to thought leadership.
And she has a book forthcoming: “Write like a thought leader. How to find, frame, and tell the stories that position you as an expert in your niche.” Welcome to the show.
Rhea Wessel: Thank you very much, Matthias.
Matthias Catón: So when is your book coming out? Is there a date already, or is it still in the making?
Rhea Wessel: It’s still in the making. And now, with the coronavirus crisis, it’s either going to come out sooner than planned or a lot later than planned. I’m not sure which one of those it’s going to be, but the dust is still settling after the shock.
Matthias Catón: Good. It’s a new situation, obviously for all of us. And there is a saying in Germany that in normal times there are 83 million inhabitants here in Germany. We have 83 million coaches of the national soccer team. Now we have about 83 million virologists and epidemiologists who all weigh in on how to best handle the current crisis that we’re in.
Let’s hope that your book will not be affected negatively by the crisis, but the good news is that you can give us the executive summary of your findings here in this podcast today. I would like to start with a very simple question. When we talk about thought leadership, what is that for you? How do you define thought leadership?
Rhea Wessel: Thought leadership is when a subject matter expert has found the right way to share his or her knowledge that makes it new, interesting, relevant, and forward-looking. Thought leaders are people who are so specialized in what they do. And enamored by their ideas and what they’re chasing and pursuing that they sometimes lose the right language for articulating that, and thought leaders give away their knowledge for free, that’s one characteristic. They educate, they narrate, they articulate what’s perhaps hard to articulate, and some people get a little bit too close to their idea set and to their knowledge, and they need new and different ways to talk about it, finding new and different stories.
The difference between a subject matter expert and a thought leader is this ability to articulate that understanding and teach it and spin it forward and use it as a way to affect change.
Matthias Catón: So it’s basically a lot about the packaging, the way you transport things so that they move from being arcane knowledge that is only interesting to some specialists in a very narrow field to something that is understandable for a broad audience?
Rhea Wessel: Yes, it is very much about how you articulate that, how you go in and find new ways of talking about it, finding adjacent subjects. One example I give is in my writing. I write for consulting companies, and very often, I would get a story that I was asked to edit in the storyline was like this: Digital is here to stay, and your company needs a digital transformation.
And then it was packed full of really great ideas and a lot of actual project experience, best practices that had been extracted, all examples and things like that. But the rich material that could be shared, it’s getting a bit lost because the people are going with this storyline.
We desperately need a lot of new ideas about the digital transformations, but we need them to be from a different angle. And it’s very much about the articulation, but it goes a lot deeper than that.
A thought leader is someone who’s working from their passion, their purpose, their big idea. It’s an intersection of many points.
Matthias Catón: So the starting point is always the need or the urge to communicate something that is important to oneself, be that the results of some research or anything else.
Rhea Wessel: No, it’s more about articulating what’s important to your audience. So it may be important to you too, but you’re adapting your message for the needs of your audience because thought leaders are about solutions. They’re coming up with solutions to the needs of their audience, whether that’s their customers, their general audience, their internal audience, et cetera. So yes, that happens to be important to you, but it’s more about the audience needs.
Matthias Catón: If I’m now a listener and I am considering of becoming a thought leader. Why is that important to me? Why should I even care about this?
Rhea Wessel: Maybe we can do a little bit of ad hoc coaching of you, and then that will become more apparent to answer that question. So tell me, just to begin with, why did you start this podcast? What was your intent with this podcast?
Matthias Catón: That’s an interesting question. I think there is not just one answer. There’s many answers. One is that as you may know, I’m fascinated with technology and wanting technology, everything that has to do with online communications or whenever there’s. Something new coming out. Podcasts are not necessarily new, but whenever there’s something coming out, I have this urge to try it out and to see how I can use it for myself and what implications it has.
So it has to do with a fascination for the medium. But then, of course, I also care about the topics that I talk about here in my podcast. And as I work at a business school here in Frankfurt, this podcast is about a lot of the topics that we are dealing with at Frankfurt School and the people that come to us, the students, but also those people who do executive education trainings with us, they are generally people who either are leaders already if they are in a more advanced stage of their career or they aspire to becoming leaders. For me, this concept of leadership is a very broad. That’s also why I called this podcast Wholegrain Leadership because I want it to be the whole grain, very nutritional, a very broad concept of leadership.
I think there’s a lot of ideas and concepts approaches that can be useful for people who are either aspiring or already in the process of being leaders. That’s why I started the podcast, and I hope that it will turn out to be useful for our listeners.
Rhea Wessel: Okay. So you’re motivated by your desire to help people cultivate their leadership skills. If I got that.
Matthias Catón: I guess so. Yeah.
Rhea Wessel: This usually takes a lot more inquiry and time to explore, but let’s just use that now. I’ve got a Venn diagram, three overlapping circles. So if you place that as your passion or purpose, that’s one of those points. The second one is your experience and credentials. So tell us a little bit about that, please.
Matthias Catón: Okay, my credentials are now about eight and a half years at one of the leading business schools here in Germany in different positions. I am a teacher. I teach people in different aspects of leadership. Obviously, not all of them. I do a lot of work with communications, negotiations, for example, also in the field of global politics, I have a background in political science, that’s what I studied, that’s where I did my Ph.D. in. Those are my credentials.
Rhea Wessel: Then you probably have a unique viewpoint on this subject matter. You’re probably interested in a lot of other topics besides leadership development, but let’s take that one for example purposes. So if you could articulate, and I know I’m putting you on the spot, I’m sorry about that. But what is it about leadership development where you say, I see this differently than most people? This is my big idea, or this is the trend I’ve noticed.
I’ll give you an example. If you think about Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, and he noticed a trend, which is that these tipping points come and they go and they come faster than you expect and they’re not always positive, they can also be negative. And you’ve got to learn to see the signs. And he was able to let’s say, create a methodology of sorts for beginning to identify And understand and predict better when a tipping point is coming. That would be his big idea in that particular book.
So if I asked you similarly for your leadership development efforts, whether it’s for your students or for your other audiences , what’s your unique viewpoint on that?
Matthias Catón: Wow. You’re really putting me on the spot here. Normally it’s me asking the questions and not my guests, but that’s one of the benefits of running a podcast. You get a lot of things for free.
To your question, what is my unique view on leadership? It’s a little bit what I said earlier when I talked about the title for my podcast. For me, leadership is something that is very broad and has to be seen very holistically, more so than it’s usually done at most business schools or in other contexts.
When we’re talking about leadership and leadership development, I think a real leader needs to have so many skills and so much knowledge of very different fields. Even outside of the narrow realm of management studies or business studies that in order to be effective you have to be a really whole grain in the sense you cannot just have a part of the grain. You need to have the entire thing to be successful. Therefore the topics that we have addressed so far on this podcast, and that I’m planning to address are very broad. So this is a little bit my unique view, if you will and obviously this is not something that I can do on my own. I have knowledge in some of these aspects. There are also solo episodes of this podcast, but for the most part, I am not really the expert, but I bring in other people such as you to help our audience advance their knowledge in this field
Rhea Wessel: In a holistic way. So if we’re using those three points as your Venn diagram, your passion being to develop leaders, your credentials quite clear and then your holistic approach is your big idea where those three circles intersect that’s what I would call your thought leadership niche.
We could map this out, using mind maps and things like that. and from that niche that’s where you find your writing sweet spot or your story sweet spot. That is the niche of the passion, experience and big idea. In my workshops, I also have another exercise. I’ll give you an example of, the phrasing. And I’ll do it from myself from, my own experience and this articulation of my own thought leadership niche.
How I got started on the book is that I realized that thought leadership was an area that I was attracted to and that in my work I was advising other writers who are not professional writers, but there are subject matter experts on the right story and how to tell the story better and in a more interesting and fluid way. So I would get all these stories to edit. Maybe written by an academic, maybe written by a team of consultants.
Very often what I would consider your journalistic lead would be buried at the bottom and instead of taking my red pen and marking it up completely, I very often engaged with the writers to talk about, how we can take this story and make it fresher, spin it forward, focus more on the solution and make that article a better service to the reader .
I noticed that I was doing this advising more and then I thought potentially an opportunity for me. So I went out, I went, but all of the literature on thought leadership, every book on Amazon that has the word thought leader in it. I bought. This was beginning of 2019. And then I sat down and started to read them all and they were really fascinating and included many exercises to help you articulate your own intellectual property because, people like yourself who are really curious and focused on leadership, you have probably come up with some theses about leadership, some things you’ve recognized that you could potentially put into a five step methodology or process or, a do’s and don’ts list, et cetera.
And so I read all of these books and then I just did the exercises that they told us to do . Many of them focused on purpose finding as well, starting at that level. And then I had this burst of creativity and I came up with all of these ideas related to my topic, which is writing and writing better and how to find the right story angle.
Just like I had been advising all of my clients. When I took stock of it after having worked through all the exercises like, wow. I didn’t even know that I had this many ideas for myself. And then looking at the literature on thought leadership I noticed that many of the books tell you how to find your niche, how to codify your intellectual property, like how to extract your best ideas from yourself and put them into a a form that’s usable for others and how to build an ideas based business around this intellectual property of yours. And then somewhere at the back of the book, there would be a short chapter that says, and by the way, you need to write a lot, if you want to be recognized as a thought leader, and don’t forget to do it and here’s where you should write. And none of the books actually told me how to write better or how to write like a thought leader. And then at some point I was that’s my angle. That’s where I can contribute to this conversation. And where I can bring it forward is the actual writing of the thought leadership materials.
So I’ve had that Venn diagram. And then I came up with this statement exercise that I use in my workshops. So I will tell you what mine is and now, the background before I read it out and then I’d like to ask you to articulate yours. Here’s my statement. I want to be seen as an authority in thought leadership writing, help others articulate and spread good ideas to help solve some of humanity’s biggest problems.
Then I need to articulate my business and personal goal: build my business and enable me to live the life I want to live. And that last statement can be grander or bigger for you.
So if you’ll allow me, I’ll dictate and you fill in the blanks.
Matthias Catón: I had no advance notice. So this is totally improvised. Okay. Let’s see how good I can do this off the cuff.
Rhea Wessel: So I’ve got two versions. One, if you’re an independent business owner and one, if you’re employed or you’re changing your job, so I’m going to give you the option 2. So in my organization, I want to be seen as an authority in…
Matthias Catón: Let’s go for leadership. In my organization, I want to be seen as an authority for leadership and communications. Let’s say.
Rhea Wessel: Okay. Two. And now you’re going to insert your higher goal. This is where for instance, I had the solve some of humanity’s biggest problems.
Matthias Catón: Yeah, you had a very narrow, modest purpose
Rhea Wessel: one. Yeah.
Matthias Catón: So that’s the purpose. So let me think about this for a moment. Okay. Good question. What do you actually want in life? So you’re bringing me into an existential question here.
Rhea Wessel: We have plenty of time. Just take your time. I’ll have some more water here.
Matthias Catón: Let’s let’s start with the purpose. So the purpose for me is, and this fits in nicely with an educational institution where I’m working is to help others. And those are obviously my students, but can be anyone actually listening to, for example, my podcast to help develop their true leadership potential. So it’s a kind of a facilitation process that I want to contribute to so that people can become better leaders, better communicators, and therefore on the one hand more successful in their own lives, but also to be more effective in whatever organization or company they are leading are aspiring to lead.
Rhea Wessel: I like that. What’s the benefit you’re going to get from achieving this
Matthias Catón: I will be recognized as an expert or a go-to person for these kind of things. I may be hired as a consultant, as a speaker, for example, things that I usually do in addition to my day job.
Rhea Wessel: So would you like to try to sum it up again from the top? So I want to be seen as an authority in…
Matthias Catón: I hope that I still remember all I said,
Rhea Wessel: I took some notes.
Matthias Catón: I want to be seen as an authority in leadership and communications so that I can help people develop and unlock their true leadership potential, which will lead me to become a go-to person in the field of leadership and communications who will be sought after as a consultant an advisor, and a speaker.
Rhea Wessel: Excellent. I love it. There’s one tweak I would make as I really like your point about holistic leaders and outside of their standard expertise, Becoming leaders in many other areas and in different ways. that’s reflected in the really nice title that you chose for your podcast, “Wholegrain Leadership”, it’s just really clever and pleasant and refreshing.
And so I would tweak your statement just by saying, I want to be seen as an authority in holistic leadership and communications .
So this is the kind of work I do on the advisory side. And once we get this kind of thing nailed down and you’re clear on that, from there, that’s a three-step process. You’re finding your niche, you’re framing your stories. And then you’re telling your stories in a journalistic way.
So here, we’ve done a turbo finding of your niche and then out of that we can create story ideas . That’s where I particularly have a lot of fun is coming up with story ideas. This comes from my history as a journalist. In the book, you’ll learn a methodology for taking this thought leadership niche and finding story ideas around that.
Matthias Catón: I heard you mentioned the word niche a couple of times. So in your opinion, is it important for someone, especially someone who is starting out on this journey of becoming a thought leader to play in a rather narrow field or niche? What about people who have broad interests? Is that advisable or do you spread yourself too thinly if you try to tinker in too many areas?
Rhea Wessel: I think it may depend on your business goal. As part of the research for my book I coached three emerging thought leaders. One of those was a man in Frankfurt who’s full of great ideas. He’s a leadership coach, a facilitator and he holds workshops. He also does some writing.
We began to map his business and we began to map his idea set and it was all juicy. I found potential in all of them. It then came down to which of these ideas is the one that you burn for most, you’re most passionate about.
You can either take that route to deciding on what it’s going to be, or you can take the one that also has a business angle because thought leadership writing is commercial writing. That’s what makes it different from academic or journalistic writing. You are using this type of writing to promote your service, product or solution, and that’s acceptable and that’s expected. What distinguishes this type of writing from PR type of writing is that the commercial offering is completely separate.
So for instance, if you’re writing an article for LinkedIn you’re not gonna write a paragraph, in which you digress and say, Oh, and by the way, call me up, for a consultation. Even if it’s packed at the bottom, I always cut that out. Thought leadership writing is solutions writing. You’re addressing the needs of your audience.
You’ve got suggestions for how they can do it. We’ve got solutions that are tried and tested and examples and best practices and stuff like that. And you have a, let’s say a commercial offering. In the writing, you’re giving your knowledge away for free and you get the advertising or the PR effect by the way. It’s the, by the way advertising. and they can see your title on LinkedIn. They can see that you offer consultations or that you give keynote speeches and things like that.
So it’s does serve an advertising or commercial purpose, but by the way, purpose,
Matthias Catón: It’s very close then, in my view, to what is something that’s called content marketing, right?
Where you try to use a marketing approach by providing information that is useful on its own without necessarily just to being an advertisement that offers the service. So it’s basically the same or very close.
Rhea Wessel: Yes . I think thought leadership writing often falls into this category of content marketing but there are things that pass for content marketing that have nothing to do with thought leadership. If you’ve got a standard white paper and you’re explaining the process of rolling out an ERP system, and there’s not much more behind that beside your commercial offering, there’s not some sort of personal or business story or purpose or niche , then I consider that to be not necessarily thought leadership writing.
Matthias Catón: So who comes to you? Who are the people who approach you and say, can you help me become a thought leader? Are those CEOs who want to leave a legacy or is it a shy professor who was not able to package his or her information in a way that is digestible for the general public?
Rhea Wessel: Many of my clients know me as a writer first and foremost, and then they experience the way that I shape the ideas and find the next story and so forth. When it comes to individuals, for instance partners at consulting companies, they may have ideas that they want to spread, perhaps it’s around the Davos conference, for instance. I know that you used to work for the World Economic Forum. So it’s people and companies that need to put their ideas into better shape and form and articulate those in new and fresh ways. sometimes I do ghost blogging for partners. Sometimes I work for an accounting company, so I speak to their subject matter experts. In that case, we do a story finding conversation where we speak up to an hour about what it is they want to say what the problems are of their audience that they want to address. And then how we can talk about that in a way that’s understandable and useful.
And then in the second step we do the content interview. So it’s companies, it’s individuals it’s also coaches, I find coaches and leadership consultants, motivation experts. I find these people have a lot of great ideas and sometimes they get a little bit lost in their ideal world.
Matthias Catón: Generally, those are professional services, one could say. Generally people or companies that live from being seen by their potential clients as experts in their field. What about researchers?
In the wake of the crisis that we’re in right now, a lot of experts are in the media. I don’t know if you follow German news as well, but there’s one, guy who’s on TV a lot. He has a podcast. He’s a virologist from Berlin. His name is Christian Drosten, and he is seen by many as a very authoritative figure. Someone who is able to explain very difficult, very complex subject matters such as, how a virus spreads in a way that is understandable for the general public, but also for decision-makers in politics. Do you work with those people as well? And what are their particular problems or maybe challenges?
Rhea Wessel: I think I could if someone came to me and needed help like that. One time a doctor came to me and, she had been reading my things on LinkedIn . I’d met her at an alumni event for my university and she came in and said, Oh, I want you to help me write something for the website of my practice. she showed me something that she had written before. Her heart was in cancer prevention. So I got this story with the storyline of Breast cancer is the biggest killer among the cancers for women, this breast cancer is a cancer that is preventable. Women, get your tests done. And that was her storyline. And so I looked at that and I said I’m sorry, but I’m not going to read this. And if I’m in your waiting room, I’m not going to read it either, because I already know that even if I’m your target audience, which I am, it’s, it’s not an interesting angle.
And then in the story, framing process, we just explored new ways to approach that adjacent stories. So I asked her, what are the struggles of your patients? How did you hack this for yourself? How do you talk to your teenage daughters about this? And through that, we came up with four or five new entry points into telling the exact same story, more or less, and And then I did that as ghost writing for her.
Matthias Catón: I would be interested in talking about where I can place my thought leadership pieces. We started by looking at my podcast. So a podcast is obviously one outlet. You mentioned writing a lot because that’s your passion and that’s the nexus that you are working on, primarily between thought leadership or the development of ideas, and then putting them in good writing. When I start out where do I put my thoughts?
Rhea Wessel: A good place to start is your LinkedIn profile. You can start with smaller posts but then actually writing articles and articles are the ones that that stay visible for the longterm. So the posts will fall down in your feed, but articles are the ones that are pinned to your profile at the beginning.
You can begin by taking your ideas and framing them, shaping them, writing for that. You should also find what’s easiest for you. And what’s the most interesting communication method for you. And if writing is always a slog or you’re not getting it done, because you struggle with that then, start somewhere else, creating videos or what have you.
It’s important to start articulating your thoughts and developing them. A podcast is a great way to do that because you have a sparring partners, guests, new ideas. People in my orbit like Medium as a place to post, or you post on your own blog and then you link that content to your social media feeds.
Matthias Catón: Most of our listeners who may be tempted to dab their feet in this area will not do this full-time, so this will always be something that they will be doing as a side job in addition to their day obligations, whether this be as an employed person somewhere at an organization or as a freelancer business person. How much time do you realistically need to start out if you want to become a thought leader?
Rhea Wessel: It depends on where you are in the process of articulating your ideas and your ideas set. You’re asking me particularly about the writing process or the whole trajectory?
Matthias Catón: I would say the whole trajectory because you can’t have one without the other. You have to start with some strategic thinking before you get into the writing or the production phase.
Rhea Wessel: It could take up to 10 years for some people, but I think that people whose passion is the right one and they’re able to articulate it they can also see a very quick development.
Matthias Catón: I didn’t mean the total hours. This is a concept you’re probably also familiar with because it was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell who said you need 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert or a master in whatever field you want. I meant more in the sense of how many hours per week or per month do I have to set aside to make meaningful progress?
Rhea Wessel: If you’re going to take a structured approach , then probably you’re going to need up to five hours a week to begin reading the literature, perhaps, hiring an advisor to explore your niche, go through some of the exercises. Then come up with your story ideas and then get them and execute on them. It’s not a small project.
Matthias Catón: You’re in the business of producing more thought leaders, putting more thoughts and opinions out in the world. Do you sometimes also feel that there is too much opinion out there and some of the people should better not voice their opinion?
Rhea Wessel: Good question. Yeah. There’s always room for less noise. It is very noisy out there and it’s the irony of the whole thing, because the more those type of people you have in the channels, the more you need the true thought leaders to stand out and shine and have a clear message.
Matthias Catón: Thank you very much for being on the show!