Becoming a Thought Leader with Bill Sherman

by | Dec 10, 2020 | Podcasts


For a business to succeed, it must go beyond content marketing or personal branding, but also tap into thought leadership. Becoming a thought leader can be a bit confusing for most people, and hesitation usually comes because of the pressures of society. Bill Sherman from Thought Leadership Leverage sits down with Elizabeth Bachman to discuss what it really takes to be transformed into an effective thought leader. They go deep into the effects of the current rise of thought leaders in most companies, the gender imbalance they somehow face, and influencing others from the place of passion. They also talk about overcoming content insecurity and connecting well with a chosen audience.

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Becoming a Thought Leader with Bill Sherman

This is the show where we talk about how to use your presentation skills to move your listeners to take action, especially how you can show up as a leader and use the visibility of presenting to promote yourself or your career, which is why I’m excited to have Bill Sherman from Thought Leadership Leverage with us. Before we begin, I want to remind you that if you’re curious about how your presentation skills stack up, you can go to our free assessment at You can see where you are strong with your presentation skills and where you might need a little bit of support.

The official bio is Bill Sherman helps people take their ideas to scale through thought leadership. He spent many years in the field working with world-class business thought leaders and Fortune 500 organizations. Thought leadership helps people see around corners. As the COO of Thought Leadership Leverage, Bill helps clients who want to use thought leadership, whether to fill a sales pipeline or influence how people think and act. This show is all about using presentation skills to influence how people think and act. It’s a perfect fit. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to interview you.

He is considered one of the world’s leading voices in the area of organizational thought leadership. That is the people who create, curate, and deploy thought leadership to help their organization reach its goals. He hosts a weekly podcast titled Leveraging Thought Leadership, where he talks shop with people who are doing thought leadership work inside their organizations. Bill Sherman, welcome to the show.

Thank you, Elizabeth.

I want to start off with the question I ask all my guests. If you were to have a dream interview with someone who’s no longer with us, who would it be? What would you ask them and who should be listening?

The person who comes to mind is Elinor Ostrom. She was a professor at Indiana University. She won the Nobel Prize. Her work was understanding and the tragedy of the commons, specifically how self-organizing groups allocate scarce resources in situations that are not ideal. In one of her most famous dissertation, she looked at water rights in Southern California and how many of the municipalities in Southern California are all drilling wells into the same reservoir and depleting that reservoir because they couldn’t agree.

Thought leadership would only be effective if you come from a place of passion. Click To Tweet

She then looked at a group in Nepal that had a water rights agreement, which was recorded verbally and passed generationally for hundreds of years. She said, “How is it that this community, which has not a written agreement does not have degrees and education in that, how do they manage a modern society? What are the underlying structures and rules necessary to make shared common resources be effectively managed?” It’s fascinating work. That’s what I’d love to talk to her about.

SWGR 551 | Thought Leader

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change –

I would think that every politician everywhere should be in the audience reading to that. How you found her? How did you find out about that?

I spent a lot of time in 2000 and 2010, looking at the concept of social capital. It relates a lot to the work that I do in thought leadership. If you want to take an idea to scale, you need to have respect. You have to have a network, and you have to be able to maneuver and position yourself effectively in that. I came across her work and found it fascinating. She codified early on, long before we had social media and those tools, the rules of how social networks work and what is a healthy social network versus one that is depleting destructive.

I have to go look that up.

She’s the first woman who was a Nobel Laureate in economics.

I would like to interview her on this show. Too bad, she’s no longer with us but that would be a good one. Talking about thought leadership, what is thought leadership and how is it different from personal branding? It’s a term that’s bandied about a lot.

Let me start with what isn’t. Thought leadership often gets confused with personal branding or content marketing. Those are two things that people say, “Thought leadership is bad in a different word. It’s a fancier word for either personal branding or content marketing.” Let me draw the distinctions. Personal branding is about developing a reputation for yourself, who you are. That may be skills and may also be your work style. It may be that you work hard, you’re a team player, a great collaborator, and you elevate the people around you.

That becomes part of your personal brand. However, you can think of it as if there’s a stage with a spotlight, a personal brand puts you on stage in the spotlight. Thought leadership uses a stage and a spotlight, but for your ideas, because you want your ideas to be in the spotlight, so people can encounter them and you don’t have to be the person creating value in the room all the time. There’s a process as you get into thought leadership, where early on, you may feel like you’re the roadie for your own ideas. You’re the one convening them from place to place either for speaking, consulting or presentations. The ideas flourish and you don’t have to be present. For example, Stephen Covey with 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He wrote that very clear and distinct.

It’s a great book. He defines what those habits are and it has survived him. He’s someone who’s been gone for many years, but that book still sells. People still cite his work. It has a legacy piece. He didn’t need to be in the spotlight. That’s the distinction between personal brand and thought leadership. Content marketing is putting content out regularly. What you’re using content marketing to do is to generate the leads. That’s what content marketing is good for. On the other side, thought leadership can be used to generate leads, but it can also be used to develop relationships and continue conversations. When a sales conversation would be awkward or inappropriate, whether you’ve got a prospect that’s not in a buying cycle, or you’re talking to someone who would never be a buyer in a classical sense. Maybe they work with the media and they’re in government. You can’t sell to them in the same way, but you want to influence them.

You want to get them thinking about topics you care about. The public policy relies on thought leadership a lot. Finally, influencing how people think and act. You could be a senior leader in an organization trying to get their employees to see the direction of where the company is going and what do you have? One hundred thousand employees? That’s a big challenge. Thought leadership can show what’s around the corner and what needs to happen. You can also use thought leadership to impact your customers and vendor ecosystem. There’s overlap between thought leadership and personal branding, thought leadership and content marketing, in what they can achieve, but what’s on stage and the results you’re trying to produce. Those are different.

Love your critics and invite feedback. Click To Tweet

I have several friends who have written books about thought leadership. It’s a term that gets bandied about. I didn’t realize that there was an actual job title within a corporation about, how often are you the thought leadership for GE say, and when are you the person who serves that function but they would never give you the title?

Here’s what I’ve seen at large organizations. Let me break this down. Many years ago, there were very few people in large organizations who had a thought leadership in their title. Within the last few years, it’s becoming increasingly more common. You may see ahead of thought leadership, a VP of thought leadership, and an SVP. It is a role that is taking on increased responsibility. It sits in different places in the organization, sometimes in research, in marketing, public policy, exec comms, investor relations, and strategy. It depends on the organization side, who the executive sponsor was, who saw the need to create a thought leadership function, and then who’s that first person that sits in the chair. There are people who are doing work in executive communications that they would say they do think leadership work, but their title hasn’t evolved to include it.

There’s a large percentage of people at this point, who have thought leadership in their title, and many of them have stumbled into it. An example that I would give is there is someone who works in the GIS space, geographic information. She was responsible for content marketing for her company. She started dabbling in thought leadership. At a certain point, people came to her and said, “You seem to be doing something different than content marketing. What is it?” “That’s thought leadership.” “Why don’t you become the head of global thought leadership?” There’s this moment of, “How did I get you?” That’s common right now among heads of thought leadership across organizations globally.

Title or no, a huge part of the work that I do is working with women, especially those who have a seat at the table but aren’t being listened to. A lot of what we do is how we use the presentation skills to establish ourselves as a strategic thinker or thought leaders. What people come to me and they say, “I think I am a thought leader in this area or in my industry, but nobody knows that.” I help you create the speeches that help you do that. It said that thought leadership is a title that is given to you. It is not a title that you can take on. Is there a way that we can think about it to raise our visibility so that when it’s time to promote somebody, you’re at the top of the list, instead of sitting in the background saying, “Hello? It’s me.” Something like that.

Let me clarify one thing when I was talking about heads of thought leadership. There are three roles for an organization. Many of your clients are working inside of organizations. For thought leadership to be effective, you need someone to create the thought leadership. Just because you’re the head of the leadership does not mean you’re responsible for all the ideation at an organization. The head of thought leadership is a real role, there’s a significant amount of time that’s curation. Finding the people who have those ideas, helping them develop their voice, package the idea in a way, either internally people hear or externally so that curation role is a primary role. Many of your people are who you would work with, they’re on the creation side and they’re saying, “Let me have that opportunity for speaking. Let me write that article,” then deployment. Create, curate, and deploy for thought leadership.

Something that you talk about for women is especially true. There is a habit that it’s cultural and coding in many cases. It’s different among cultures around the world. In general, if you ask a man for a speaking opportunity or a chance to write an article, many times the man will say yes, even if it doesn’t feel that it’s 100% in their sweet spot. Whereas women, I have seen and heard a number of cases where they’ll hesitate and it’s like the trend on job applications, “Are you the perfect fit for the job? Are you 85% of the way there?” In many cases, the organization is looking for someone who can cover 85% of that. Finding these opportunities is essential.

Some people are good at speaking and writing. You don’t have to be good at both, but there’s a need for thought leadership among organizations. For the people reading, it’s about raising your hand and letting people know, and showing your passion. What makes thought leadership effective is when you’re talking from a place of passion. You will not get your audience, reader, listener, whatever to care about a topic more than you do. If you’re like, “I’ve got to write that article.” Nobody’s going to care about it because you didn’t. If you’re on fire about it and you show that fire, people will be curious. We respond to passion.

SWGR 551 | Thought Leader

Thought Leader: Thought leadership can be used to generate leads, but it can also be used to develop relationships and continue conversations.


One of the reasons why this technique has been so effective with my clients is that once we’ve dealt with the short-term, getting them heard within the company to go out and talk about something that you’re passionate about so that you become the expert in XYZ. People say, “Bill Sherman. He’s the thought leadership guy. He’s the guy who could talk to you about thought leadership,” or Betty Sherman shall we say. It could be anything. I’ve been listening to your podcast with great pleasure and I noticed that most of the guests are men. I know that on my show, most of the guests are women. For me, it’s the circles I’m running in. I’m wondering, is there a gender imbalance around thought leadership? Is it assumed that the thought leadership will be male or female? Does it matter?

There’s a bit of a gender imbalance and I have not codified it, but there is some. From the interviewing perspective, I get more women who will say, “This sounds great. Why don’t we cycle back in 3 months or 6 months when I feel a little bit more prepared for this?” I wind up recruiting guests for the podcast, having to be a little bit more proactive in asking for referrals of who would be a good woman to get on the podcast. I also wind up then having to be a little bit more persistent. I wish that were not true. I wish that women when I send a message, enthusiastically say, “That sounds great. Let’s do that.” Some do. There’s on average, a difference between how men and women respond to that request on podcast guests.

I did an interview with a woman who worked in the White House for the council on aging. She’s running the Milken Institute’s Alliance on Dementia Care globally. There are women out there who are doing fantastic work. We had a fantastic conversation that focused on that convening power of thought leadership. How do you use your network to bring people and to focus them on an issue such as dementia care, which for her was a place of passion? Her father has dementia and to get people to say, “This is a topic that matters. It’s a scenario that’s falling through the cracks that should not be. We’re working on treatment and cure. Let’s focus on care.” We had a conversation around that. If I extrapolated from it, nor super who I interviewed, she’s not the only person out there who has amazing stories. It’s incumbent if you do have a platform such as a podcast like I do to find women and to ask them to share their stories. I would also equally welcome women to say, “Yes.”

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It’s raising your hand. It’s getting out there and doing it. For those of you who are reading who aren’t raising your hand and you know you should and said, “I’ve got to get out there and speak.” The thing that gets me to do it is I have an accountability partner. We meet every two weeks and it’s a sacred time. Do not blow it off and do not schedule it. We met every two weeks to look for speaking gigs and send in applications because I helped my clients with this, but I don’t do it for me.

If I were to offer a piece of advice to your readers, one of the things that I hear a lot of people, you probably will resonate with this and we can have a conversation is, there’s a concept that I call content insecurity. We’ve heard of imposter syndrome and it tends to be the smarter that you are, the more you know that you don’t know. You have a little bit more humility. Many people have imposter syndrome. Content insecurity is a very close cousin. That focuses on the ideas, not on you. Someone with content insecurity may say, “I know some, but I don’t know enough yet, so I’m going to hold back. I’ll polish my ideas a little bit more. I’ll send in that proposal for the speaking application next year. I’ll write that article next year when I’m a little bit more certain.”

It will never happen. I’ve been there.

The best way around content insecurity is to have accountability and break it down into small low-risk efforts. Some people when they think about creating content and getting out there, they’re thinking about main stage TED, or their large annual conference for the top tier and it’s the global conference and they’re looking to be mainstage on it. The metaphor that I would use is thought leadership as much like if you’re in a band. You start playing in garages, bars, and those things. You don’t start at Wembley Stadium. Whether you’re writing or speaking, start with low-risk opportunities, get something out there, and invite feedback. My advice is, love your critic and invite feedback. If someone responds and says, “I don’t see it quite that way. Did you think about this?” Don’t take it as a sign that you did something wrong, but instead that you’ve got an opportunity to even sharpen your idea more. Don’t try to sharpen on your own, spar with other people.

SWGR 551 | Thought Leader

Thought Leader: The best way around content insecurity is to have accountability and break it down into small low-risk efforts.


This is the thing that you can’t do on your own. You’ve got to have outside eyes. This is why editors exist for books. That’s why speaker trainers exist. You need someone to bounce the ideas off and to be fresh eyes and fresh ears. That’s similar to what about creating a signature speech. If you have the main idea and 2 or 3 talking points, you can use it over and over and it will evolve. As the world evolves, as your situation evolves, and as you evolve, that’s also cool because you can say, “I used to talk about XYZ, but I finding, the more I talk about it, the more feedback I get. I want to go towards ABC.” That’s a little bit more of what I’m interested in.

The way that I think about thought leadership is close to the way that I think about relationships. They are like muscles. The more that you use them, the stronger they become. You’ve got to actively work and develop your thought leadership. You’ve got to put it out into the world and share ideas. Some will be sticky and some will surprise you that you go, “That was an aside thought. I posted it randomly on LinkedIn and then all of a sudden, it blew up and everybody resonated with me.”

The other way around too. It’s like, “I have this brilliant idea,” and people go, “Huh?” The people don’t get it.

The flaw is if you spend years polishing a brilliant idea and everybody says, “Huh,” then you’ve spent a couple of years on something that didn’t get traction. You need that feedback.

For instance my client, Leslie did a speech. She wasn’t nervous. She hadn’t done a speech in a couple of years, and so she hired me to help her polish up an old speech. What she discovered was that she got so much more respect not only in her industry but at the office. She said, “My office manager said, ‘I didn’t know you knew all that.’” She thought, “I take it for granted that I know all this, but I haven’t told anybody that I know this.” She raised her hand and somebody who knew me heard her say that. I’m thinking I have to give a speech now and said, “Call Elizabeth.” That’s how we got connected. She was surprised how much it made a difference within the company in addition to outside the company. It’s a very exciting thing. I want to ask you two more questions. If you’ve got your ideas, how do you get them in front of the right people?

We live in a world where there are a lot of opportunities to reach the right people and you have to be purposeful. Instead of thinking about broadcasting, I focus on the narrowcasting of ideas. Even on a community as large as LinkedIn that has hundreds of millions and billions of people on it. Your message will not be relevant to 99.99% of the world. That’s okay. What you want to do is when you know who those people are, you want to create a conversation with them to share ideas and to talk to them so that it feels like you’re in the room talking to them personally. When you create that and that sense of intimacy, that’s where people listen and they pay attention on a much deeper level.

That’s rule one in marketing is figuring out who’s your audience and then what’s the language will reach them.

It’s about it, especially in the world of ideas, which is different than you’re selling a product or a service. If you’re trying to transmit ideas, you’re looking for the people who will lean in and say, “I agree with that. I see your vision of the future. I share it. I care about it.” That’s a very different marketing effort. That’s a different outreach effort than it is you’re trying to sell a widget.

Although you’re trying to sell the idea. It’s an enrollment conversation as much as sales.

Thought leadership isn't achievable in just a few days. It's a long-term commitment. Click To Tweet

Enrollment conversation, but there’s a greater emotional state and investment. People identify more with the ideas they support than the widgets they buy.

How do you know where to start? You said it often happens by accident, people stumbled into this, but if you’re thinking that maybe this is a direction you want to go or something you want to add to your portfolio, where could you start?

Let’s break down a couple of simple steps. First, you need ideas and those ideas have to be ones that not everyone else is talking about. In thought leadership, for example, you have to be adding to the conversation, either putting a new insight on an existing conversation or creating a new area of focus. One area is to figure out what are you passionate about? Where do you either agree with what’s going on, but have a different perspective? You’ve got to generate those ideas.

Sometimes disagreeing is the hurdle. Often, what I’ll do is I will suggest to a client to sit around with some friends on a bottle of wine and talk about what bugs you for a certain amount of time and then say, “What could we do about it?” Bounce ideas around until you say, “I’ve got something to say about that.”

It has to be something you’re passionate about because thought leadership is not something you commit to for 30 days or 90 days. It’s not a quick weight loss scheme. You don’t get results overnight. He has compounding results. A friend of mine when blogging started said, “You have to be prepared to do something like a blog 100 times before you start seeing the true results of the effort.” That’s true for podcasting for so many things. One of the things that we have to focus on is they’re not going to be short-term events, thought leadership isn’t 30, 60, 90 days. It’s a long-term commitment to do these things. Find something you’re passionate about because it’ll make it a lot easier as you’re going forward. Second, find a way that it will be easy for others to understand what you’re talking about.

SWGR 551 | Thought Leader

Thought Leader: When you create a sense of intimacy, people will listen and pay attention to a much deeper level.


It has been such a delight to have you on the show. How can we learn more? How can we find out more?

You can reach me at our website or I’m on LinkedIn fairly actively. I use a personal hashtag, which is #OrgTL. If you want to hear more of my thoughts about how individuals and organizations are using thought leadership, follow the hashtag or connect with me there on LinkedIn.

Bill Sherman, thank you for joining us. I love your podcast. I love this whole idea and I can’t wait to learn more.

Thank you for what you do and hopefully, with the work that you’re doing, we’ll get more women who say yes to thought leadership opportunities. That’s something I care about deeply and that will make the world a better place.

Don’t forget if you’re curious about your presentation skills and where you are, you can take our quiz at That’s where you can see where you are strong with your presentation skills and where you might need a little bit of support. I’ll see you at the next one.


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About Bill Sherman

SWGR 551 | Thought LeaderBill Sherman helps people take their ideas to scale through thought leadership. He’s spent twenty years in the field: working with world-class business thought leaders and Fortune 500 organizations. Thought leadership helps people see around corners. As the COO of Thought Leadership Leverage, Bill helps clients who want to use thought leadership–whether to fill a sales pipeline or influence how people think and act.
Bill is considered one of the world’s leading voices in the area of organizational thought leadership. That is, the people who create, curate, and deploy thought leadership to help their organization reach its goals. He hosts a weekly podcast–titled “Leveraging Thought Leadership”–where he talks shop with people who are doing thought leadership work inside their organizations.