Thought Leadership: The Way Forward for Professional Services

By Doug Donsky

From global law and management consulting to accounting and executive search, 2020 has been a tough — if not terrible — year for professional services. Not only have salaries, employees and budgets been cut for many, but most professional workers have been forced out of their offices and into their homes and are now gamely trying to balance the demands of clients and new business efforts with those of family. Everyone’s just trying to hang on, but hanging on won’t likely cut it in 2021 and beyond. And it has raised a question within professional services that many would just as soon avoid: How will we ever win new clients if nobody ever wants to physically meet again?

COVID Business Development Challenge

This isn’t an inconsequential question and, unfortunately, there’s not a readily apparent answer. All businesses thrive on relationships, but professional services is uniquely driven by the needs of the client, which can require grueling travel, pulling an all-nighter at the office, or working onsite for weeks, months or even years at a time.

Against the backdrop of the global pandemic, Zoom and other video services have been a lifesaver in keeping professional firms’ communicating with their clients and business moving forward, as well as providing strong evidence that work-from-home actually works, improves productivity and offers a better work-life balance for employees.

What this new virtual “office light” work environment hasn’t proven, however, is whether it’s sustainable and, specifically, whether it can become a profitable business model for professional services long term. Moreover, it says nothing about fashioning a winning organizational culture, which prioritizes and respects collegiality, teamwork and mentorship. FaceTime can’t replace “face time,” especially for younger employees who need to learn from managers by observing.

Despite these headwinds, a small number of firms are in fact having a record year, while the vast majority are coping with some level of pain. And within this small but elite group, there’s one common denominator: reputation. Almost always, the firm is known for something. Or, more specifically, someone at the firm is known for something. They can be rainmakers or “umbrellas,” those so knowledgeable they can keep a client dry when it pours. But regardless, they’re vital within professional services and often the key difference between the elite and the pack.

The Importance of Thought Leadership

If business development separates the successful from the rest, then thought leadership is the platform to generate new business. Thought leadership has long been a cornerstone of professional services business development, but without the ability to develop relationships and establish credentials in person, implementing a thought leadership program takes on increasing importance. Today’s pandemic crisis, therefore, is forcing many to look deeply toward deciding what they’re known for and whether they’re truly a leader or just another competitor in a hyper competitive industry. Even the largest and most successful global consultancies are reevaluating whether they can truly be all things to all people. And many are trying to get ahead of the coming industry shakeout and consolidation, deciding today where they want to place their time, resources and focus, as well as how they wish to communicate to become the go-to providers for their expertise.

The Three Cs of Thought Leadership

Developing thought leadership involves many ingredients but, critically, it requires a champion at the top and strong consistency of fresh and timely content, which continues to drive the point of competitive differentiation and market expertise home. Without delving too deeply, it’s best for those in public relations and strategic communications to keep thought leadership focused around three simple themes when explaining to either internal or external stakeholders:

Captivate: In today’s always-on and always-communicating world, you’ll never be heard above the dissonance if you’re timid. You need a strong point of view and a gifted messenger, one who can captivate both mind and spirit, as well as simplify the solution. Being edgy — not crazy — while also being thoughtful — not frantic — are solid guideposts to consider for creating impactful thought leadership. Of course, you can remain an impassive observer; nobody’s forcing you or your organization into the traffic. But you won’t build much of a reputation staying on the sidewalk and, eventually, you need to figure out a safe way to cross the street if you ever hope to get somewhere.

Content: In thought leadership, content is king. Companies serious about building reputation work hard every day to be both opportunistic and thoughtful, looking at ways to insert themselves into trending conversations while building “set pieces” into a calendar that consider surveys, white papers, conferences, webinars, podcasts and more. In addition to bringing ideas, media relationships and strong writing to the table, strong communicators also play the crucial roles of “convener” and “challenger-in-chief,” assembling people from different areas to discuss the latest news and asking how new ideas, products or services tie back to a firm’s mission, objectives or messages.

Capture: One of the biggest failings in thought leadership is the inability to “capture,” which means growing a loyal audience actively engaged in your ideas. LinkedIn is a fantastic platform, but especially when it comes to crushing egos and putting people in their rightful place. Everyone on LinkedIn has “connections,” a few have “followers,” fewer still have graduated to loyal “subscribers,” and a rare group is recognized as “influencers.” With a global audience of more than 700 million, LinkedIn today has roughly 800 influencers. (I’m not great at math, but I would say that’s infinitesimally small.) Most have earned that exalted status by their position, not because they actually said anything of interest. More interesting, though, is that a lot of LinkedIn’s most prominent influencers are sort of nobodies who have busted into the club because they have strong opinions, great ideas and, of course, publish regularly. That should show there’s hope for all. But you sort of need to bring it if you’re going to capture attention.

Even before the pandemic, professional services was hurting. Artificial intelligence was automating many services, clients were yanking more work in house, and there was little time during the day for relationship building, which gave rise to extending day into night with dinners and evening client events. In a virtual world, however, a lot of this has gone away and won’t be coming back soon. Thought leadership is the one and maybe only certain way forward, providing an opportunity — not a guarantee — of how to build and bank reputational capital. Time, however, isn’t on the industry’s side.

Learn more about how to establish your company as a thought leader, as well as the other critical components of a successful PR strategy, by downloading our eBook, “PR 101: A Guide for Today’s Public Relations.”

This blog post first appeared on the O’Dwyer’s blog.