The Journey To Thought Leadership With Denise Brosseau

by | Sep 9, 2021 | Podcasts

SWGR 579 Denise | Thought Leadership


What makes the difference between a leader and a thought leader? Denise Brosseau is the CEO and Founder of the Thought Leadership Lab and the Founding CEO of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, now called Watermark. She has used her expertise to lead women into leadership and, even beyond that, into thought leadership with programs she developed. In this episode, she explains the vital difference between the two and the steps you can and should take to take yourself to the next level. Learn more about what it takes to extend ideas to the community and help bring about change by tuning in to this episode.

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The Journey To Thought Leadership With Denise Brosseau

I’m excited to have my friend Denise Brosseau of the Thought Leadership Lab to talk to us about how you can become more visible and valued through thought leadership. Before we get started, I’d like to invite you to take our free assessment at In only four minutes, you can see where your presentation skills are strong and where you might get a little bit of support in order to get better results and the recognition you deserve.

Now, I get to tell you about Denise Brosseau. I have known her and have been following her ever since I started in the speaking business. She’s one of the founders of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, which has now become Watermark, which is a group that I am fond of. She is an expert in thought leadership. She is the person I go to when I have a question and is worth following. Speaker, author, and CEO of Thought Leadership Lab, Denise Brosseau works with leaders and their teams to accelerate their journey from leader to thought leader. She believes that thought-leadership is not marketing nor sales but instead is building a following for your ideas. Thus, building trust and credibility, amplifying influence, and catalyzing the strategic connections that lead to a seat at the table for the conversations that matter.

She loves to work with social entrepreneurs, startup CEOs, heads of trade associations and foundations, as well as executives from Fortune 1000 companies. What her clients have in common is that they are all change agents in their field, and are interested in building a platform so they can affect social, industry, community or organizational change. Denise is the author of several books, including the seminal, Ready To Be A Thought Leader? Denise shares her ideas about why thought leadership matters and what it takes to be a thought leader. She’s a lecturer at Stanford Business School on topics of credibility, influence and thought leadership. Her ideas have been featured in Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Forbes,,, the UK Daily Telegraph Business Reporter and many others.

Committed to developing women leaders, Denise has created and led women’s leadership programs for Liberty Global, Nimble Storage, Gracenote, KPMG and many others. She also enjoys facilitating strategy sessions, retreats, and thought leadership development sessions for many clients, including the Packard Foundation, Planned Parenthood, PG&E and other small companies like that. She’s been honored by the Silicon Valley Business Journal among their Top 100 Women of Influence. She’s been named the Champion of Change by the White House and now we have her on the show. Let’s go to the interview.

Denise Brosseau, welcome to the show.

I’m happy to be here with you, Elizabeth.

I’m saving you up as one of my favorite people that I wanted to have on the program. I wanted to grow a little bigger. I thought, “I’ve got to get to Denise on here to talk about thought leadership.”

It’s always a great topic for the community that you’ve brought together.

Before we get into all the many things I want to pick your brain on, let me ask about your dream interview. If you had a chance to interview somebody on stage, who would it be? What would you ask them? Who should be listening? By the way, you gave me a whole list of people. You could have a panel too.

SWGR 579 Denise | Thought Leadership

Thought Leadership: There are so many women with brilliant ideas, and it’s tiring to see them being overlooked.


There are many incredible and amazing women that we stand on the shoulders of, but let me just pick one. I’m sure I’m not unique in that. To me, one of my heroines has always been Eleanor Roosevelt. Part of that is she lived very near where I grew up. Many times in my childhood, I visited her home. One of my mother’s friends worked at that beautiful place and at the library there. I’ve read many biographies of her. I’ve admired her and what I’d love to ask her about is, what it was truly like behind the scenes? She was often behind the scenes on such important issues for women’s rights, social justice and civil rights.

It became an interest for me in how she brought these coalitions together. How she kept her grace under pressure and her femininity in the midst of the attacks that she regularly undertook? How much it was difficult to have a husband who was in a wheelchair and yet is revered as this amazing president? He’s having affairs and she’s dealing with all of that. There was much that she went through and yet, so much she accomplished at the same time.

The whole thing about having a pulpit, a place where you can speak and a position for a way to speak leads me to my next question. We were talking about how you were one of the founders of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, which has now become Watermark, which among other things, hosts a huge conference in California every year. I was there once where there were 7,000 people. I was helping out at the Watermark booth. Sitting at the back table for the volunteers when there are 7,000 people there shows you the scope of that thing. Talk a little bit about how Forum for Women Entrepreneurs began and why?

This began many years ago because women faced an issue that we still face nowadays, which is such a dearth of access to venture capital funding. At the time, it was 1993. I want to say I was only 12, but I was a little older than that. The statistic was trumpeted in the news and one of my Business School classmates at the time was doing a research report on why were women not getting any money? She spent $0.25 or $0.50 looking at the data and the research behind what were the facts on the ground. At the end of that, she approached me and a few others to say, “We need to do something about this.” She could have gone and tried to start a venture fund for women entrepreneurs. There were a lot of other options, but we realized that the three things that were holding women back were understanding the venture capital process like, how does this work?

Having a community of connected other women who work in venture capital, who could be those role models and then finally, resource providers. How can we get to the lawyers, the bankers, and the accountants, all the people that it takes to raise venture capital funding, do it well and build that kind of business? We started the organization back then in order to address that number. My goal at the time was 51%, but in all the ensuing years, I don’t think we’ve ever gotten past 7% of the venture funding in the United States, going to women entrepreneurs. Now we’re at 2.7%.

Women are accessing more money overall and yet still a small percentage of the large pie. Share on X

It’s still completely pathetic, but it’s 2.7% of a larger number. We should take credit for that, and there is more capital than it is used to be. Back then, we didn’t have crowdfunding. There weren’t family offices and other things that don’t get counted into those numbers. Women are accessing significantly more money overall and yet, still a small percentage of the large pie. I continue to be committed to that cause in many different ways.

How does that combine with your work with thought leadership now?

What was wonderful about having a role, I became the Founding CEO of the organization after a few years, is we grew it to a couple of hundred members and finally realized, “You can’t run a nonprofit organization on the side while you have a full-time job in technology.” I quit my day job. I ran the organization for five years full-time. In that time, I had this wonderful journey of becoming what I call an accidental thought leader. I had this bully pulpit. I had this opportunity to travel around the United States, speak to the press, get on television and radio, and all these opportunities to be speaking about this cause of women and access to capital. We’ve built an enormous network of people also working on that same issue.

We found another CEO and the organization continues many years later now, but when I look back at that journey, I think of it as someone who had no strategy and had no plan. I had no idea what she was doing. As a thought leader, I didn’t even know what that term meant at the time. Fast forward a few years later, I got a call from a friend who said to me, “Denise, do you know how you became that thought leader in Women’s Entrepreneurship? I want to do that.” That was the first time it had ever occurred to me that that was the journey that I’d been on. What was wonderful then was to have an opportunity to be her coach, guide, advisor and consultant over the next couple of years, to take her from being completely invisible to being a recognized expert, to testifying in front of the US Senate, recognized by the White House, and head-funded by the governor.

In three years to go from invisible to that level, I realized that there is a strategy. There is a plan that can take thought leadership to an effective goal, and a journey that is building on itself in a way that isn’t an accident like it had been for me. After that, I dedicated my career to that. That is the work I do. I work with other leaders, primarily women, on that journey for how can they get their voice heard? How can they move forward with big ideas? How can they get in the spotlight and find a following for the things that matters to them?

This leads me to another question. As you’re talking about having your pulpit and making the transition, what’s the difference between personal brand thought leadership recognized expert? Can you call yourself a thought leader? How does that work?

SWGR 579 Denise | Thought Leadership

Thought Leadership: Thought leadership is to pick up our ideas and carry them to their communities outwards to people that we don’t know.


I don’t think you can call yourself a thought leader. It’s that term that somebody applies to you after a certain point, but here’s where it begins. It begins in anybody’s career with thinking about your personal brand. What is it? What are the values you stand for? What are the skills you want to be known for? Creating that perspective of someone as a unique individual. It’s about your beautiful colors and things like this, but it is more about how you take a perspective in the world and stand out as someone unique. That’s the first step. The second step is to be recognized for your expertise, and that isn’t going to happen overnight. That is somebody who is building knowledge and sharing knowledge over time. That’s the second stage in our journey.

The third piece is this idea of thought leadership. The way I described the difference is a leader to me is one to many. It’s somebody who is pushing their ideas to people that they’re regularly connected to, but thought leadership is what I call many to many. How do we get people that we know to pick up our ideas and carry them to their communities, outwards to people that we don’t know? How can we be that pebble in the pond that brings out a circle of ideas sharing in a way that communicates effective change? That is the harder work. I don’t think that is something that we all know intuitively how to do. I don’t think that it’s something that until you’ve done it for a while, you can even be that anointed thought leader, but it is about being of service.

It is thinking about the greater change that you want in the world, whether it’s technological change, societal change, whether you have something that you’re trying to push forward in your community. Whatever it is that you’re working towards and being of service about, if you’re thinking about creating a movement and working towards that effort, you may never ever create a movement. Moving towards that thinking and thinking about how we affect change, that to me is the journey. Starts with personal branding, move to recognize expert, move to this goal of bringing about societal or technological change.

This journey is what I wanted to ask you about. Let me phrase this a slightly different way. There’s a journey to becoming a thought leader, and one reaps all benefits on the way. It’s a lot of work though because you’ve got to sit down and write those speeches, which is what I help people with. I help them create the speeches that establish them as thought leaders. Why does it matter? Why should executive women take the time and the effort to develop that thought leadership piece?

There are a couple of reasons. One of them is what I consider career insurance. I believe that this is the way in which we get taken more seriously. We get the credibility, the influence and the impact that we want. We live more of our purpose, which is often what we are doing here. We have a chance to leave a legacy that matters. Often, we get paid better because we are well-known as a thought leader, but there’s also this one little hidden piece that I see with my clients. If they’re in an executive position and they end up facing some internal winds of change or someone is trying to push them out. If they have a broad following and they do have a broad public reputation as a thought leader or as a recognized expert, it becomes a little more difficult to push someone aside. It creates that reputational branding that is going to mean that people should take you seriously.

Thank you for saying that. The core of what I do in my training is to help women stop being ignored and to be heard. In order to be heard, you have to have something to say. You might as well start developing what your thought leadership piece is. Even if you get to the point of a recognized expert, maybe your ideas don’t take off. This is still going to make you more valuable and visible. You get to keep your job, you get promoted, or maybe helps you get the better next job.

How many opportunities are you leaving on the side because you aren’t willing to step into your own power and spotlight? Share on X

On top of that, people want to come and work for you. People want to affiliate with you. You might get invited to be on a board or an advisory board, a counselor or a community leadership role. There are a lot of ways that once you step out of that comfort zone of doing your to-do list every day, that allows you to now have that broader impact because people know that you’re out there. I can’t tell you how frustrating it’s been. I’m sure you’ve had this experience too. People will call me up and they’ll say, “We want to recognize somebody or we want to invite somebody into a leadership role in the community” When I go and Google them, I don’t find anything about them. I hear they’re great.

I am asking myself, “How much time does it take to do a great LinkedIn profile, a few hours? How many things are you leaving? How many opportunities are you leaving on the side because you aren’t willing to step into your own power and your own spotlight?” I want to help people get over that like you do because it is frustrating to me. There are many women with many brilliant ideas and I’m tired of them being overlooked.

Often, it’s the women who are not generating the drama so they get taken for granted, which is the huge part. I tend to be working with problem-solvers because they’re the people whose department runs fine. They then see that the promotions are going to the louder and flashier people as opposed to the competent ones. Some of it has to do with Western business being set up to value loud and flashy. There’s a line between being visible for all the right reasons, and rising above the level of competence to recognized expert. That is the difference. That’s where the glass ceiling comes in. People bump into glass ceilings because they’re competent, but they aren’t seen as leaders and strategic thinkers.

It’s this idea of moving from success to significance. There’s a program that I participated in a few years ago called High Power, which is a women’s leadership program started here in the Bay Area. The woman who runs it, that was her line, “Moving from success to significance.” I’ve always thought that is a very powerful phrase and way to think about ourselves. We do want to be significant. We want this career we’ve worked so hard to move forward to matter.

I always say to those who are the problem-solvers, “Let’s get them to write the tool kit, share the best practices, create the lessons and learn blogs. Do a talk on all of what it takes to run a successful division that is full of problem solvers. Its people are putting things together and getting things done.” Why not? If you have those skills, teach others how to do that. In my mind, thought leadership is also about being of service to others, and being that guide from the side who helps people to see the way forward, and see what they’ve already accomplished, so we don’t keep reinventing the wheel.

Where’s a good place to start? I’m going to ask you this in two parts. Where’s a place to start if you haven’t started yet? If you are partway along, what would be the next? How would you amplify this? You have four phases that you recommend. Let’s talk about beginners and then amplification.

One of the things that you do is helping on one of those pieces brilliantly. It is this piece about being a spokesperson. What are the issues that you care most about? How can you get your voice heard? Being that spokesperson is a great place, but it isn’t often the first place because it can be more challenging, “Do I have anything to say?” I often say that maybe there’s a step before that, which is what I call being that amplifier or that curator of information. Thinking about any leader and all the information that comes into them in a typical day through the people they meet, the newsletters they read, the things that they’ve been exposed to in a conference, the people that they’re communicating with. How can they curate the best of the best and share and amplify those ideas, people, books and resources to others?

SWGR 579 Denise | Thought Leadership

Thought Leadership: Thought leadership is about being of service to others, being that guide from the side who helps people see the way forward and what they’ve already accomplished so that we don’t keep reinventing the wheel.


That’s a great way. I often get my clients their first blog post. It is the five things you need to know about this field that I care most about. Here are five ways you could get the best information. Curate and amplify is a great first step. Another great step is to be a convener or bringing people together to the table to create a shared message around something that needs to move forward. That could be something in your community. It could be a technological shift. It could be something that your division or department has moved forward. It could be an internal group or an external group. I think about one of my clients. She was a senior-level executive in the utility industry. She was in workforce development. She brought together workforce development leaders from across the entire utility industry in order to start propagating change in workforce development.

Another client who is the head of people at a major company brought together other chief people officers from other tech companies. They’re working on the workforce’s future issues together. This idea of convening in order to collaborate around how can we together bring about better change? That’s a great second step. The third is being that spokesperson, stepping into that role, and finding our voice. The last one is what happens over time as we’re beginning to build that followership. That’s what I call sharing the microphone. How can you use your platform for the good of others whose voices are getting overlooked, the diverse voices, the folks who are underappreciated and undervalued? Those are great places for people who are just beginning. I do want to answer that second question you asked which is, What if you made some progress? What can you do?

Any of those first four strategies you can keep doing and keep building on, but the final one is what I call building your framework. One of the major lessons that I learned in writing my book is the difference between a leader and a thought leader is the person who has distilled those lessons learned. Can you build a literal framework, a visual framework that others can use to understand what you’ve done and what you believe needs to happen? I think about back in the day when I was in fourth grade. I learned that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We all had that visual. That’s the first visual framework I ever saw, but how could you create whatever you’re doing into a visual framework?

Is there a blueprint, a tool kit, a franchise manual or whatever? Is there some way to document how people can get to the change that’s underway in your organization, in your community, in your field so that others can learn from us? To me, that is the advanced technique that differentiates. Can you write the book? Can you write the guidebook, the workbook or something that allows others to follow in your footsteps? That’s the real differentiator in leaders to thought leaders. Now, if you want to create a movement, people need a guide. They don’t know what to do. That’s how you’re telling people what to do.

Here’s where it’s useful to be working with somebody who can help you. Most of us are way too close to our own process. You’ve got to have somebody with fresh eyes who can help you see what you’re doing and say. How did you get from 5 to 7? You go, “It’s number six,” but you know it so well. There are a lot of people I pay a lot of money to help me see where I am assuming things and where I was like, “You have to spell that part out and unpack it.”

It’s the same work. That’s what I love about what you’re doing. We both are on this same journey to help people find their genius. How can they bring that genius out in the world in a way that feels authentic to them, and distilling what they’ve learned and what they know into a usable framework and methodology for others?

The difference between a leader and a thought leader is the person who has distilled those lessons learned. Share on X

It’s satisfying to be the person to help them do that. My mother was a potter. I remember at one point realizing, especially when I moved from it with the opera singers, it’s always never good enough to be a singer. When I realized that I didn’t have to be the clay, I could be the potter as a director and then later, as a producer. It is where I found my artistic home, creating the whole process and running the company. I didn’t have to be the one who was out on stage singing. I could be the one that set it all up so that the person who is the face that the audience sees has a structure behind them, the producer, which is incredibly satisfying. I’m sure that like me, you have the clients where after you hang up from a session, you jump up and dance around your office going, “I’m so smart. I love this. They’re so smart. I love working with smart people.”

It is a joy and it is particularly a joy for me when it is senior women leaders that are finding their voice for the first time, getting that followership, and getting people to pay attention after being overlooked for too long. For so long, they thought that was for other people or “I don’t have anything to say,” or whatever those messages are. I call it the itty-bitty shitty committee in their brain. For so long, that committee has been what’s running things versus, “No, let’s instead own our truth and our expertise, and be that guide from the side for others to help them along on their journeys.”

It must be helpful to have that association with Stanford and the Thought Leadership Lab in your resume. Can you talk a little bit about that and what that is? If people want to look you up, an easy way to look you up is Stanford.

SWGR 579 Denise | Thought Leadership

Thought Leadership: Ready to Be a Thought Leader? How to Increase Your Influence, Impact, and Success

I am an alum of the Business School at Stanford, which was quite a journey in its own way, but then I also came over to the other side and became an instructor. I taught there for several years. The first course I’d ever had was on thought leadership. I co-taught with a wonderful communications instructor, JD Schramm. We collaborated on creating and launching that course and running it for a couple of years. is my home where my world lives, all of my services and my content. I’m also very active on LinkedIn. I have a couple of great courses on thought leadership on LinkedIn Learning. Those are the two places where you can best find me. I love it when I get more people that come on, read my newsletter, comment and ask questions. This is a collaborative journey, learning about thought leadership and getting better with it as it is with what you do. We want to have that conversation with the people that engage with us.

Thank you, Denise. It’s such a joy to have you. I feel like we’re launching the season. All those years of launching fall seasons in the arts are to be able to launch the season with you to be talking about this. I’ve been following you for some time and I’m so delighted to have you as a friend. What is one thing that someone can do if they’re thinking about how they could become a thought leader? What would be the very first thing?

Without sounding too self-aggrandizing, I would say my book. I wrote a book called Ready To Be A Thought Leader? a couple of years ago. I wrote it to my younger self. I wrote it to the girl who was starting out at the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs in this great role with no plan and no strategy. I wrote the book to her as all of what I wish I’d known then. People who buy it tell me that it’s yellow, underlined, dog-eared, stickered and whatever because it is designed as a guidebook.

It does give you any way you land in the book. You don’t have to start at the beginning and limit. Any way you land, there’s a resource and a next step. There’s something to motivate you and energize you. It was such a joy to write this, and it’s even more of a joy when somebody gets some value. I’m regularly getting notes from people who’ve either taken one of my courses based on the book or read the book. That’s all I want to do. I want to share these ideas of how people can get started and how the rewards will flow as a result.

You are a thought leader. It is a wonderful book and I highly recommend it. Denise, thank you so much for being on the show. It’s been a delight to have you. Let me remind you that if you’re curious how you can get better results from your speaking and your presenting, you can take our free four-minute quiz at and there, in four minutes, you can see where your skills are strong, and where perhaps a little support might help you get the recognition and the results that you need and deserve. Thank you very much, Denise Brosseau. I will see you all at the next one.


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About Denise Brosseau

SWGR 579 Denise | Thought LeadershipAs the CEO of Thought Leadership Lab, I work with leaders and their teams to accelerate their journey from leader to thought leader. I believe that thought leadership is not marketing nor sales but instead is building a following for your ideas, thus building trust and credibility, amplifying influence and catalyzing the strategic connections that lead to a seat at the table for the conversations that matter. I love to work with social entrepreneurs, start-up CEOs, heads of trade associations and foundations, as well as executives at Fortune 1000 companies. What my clients have in common is that they are all change agents in their field and are interested in building a platform so they can affect social, industry, community or organizational change.

In 2014, I wrote Ready to Be a Thought Leader?, (Wiley) to begin to share my ideas about why thought leadership matters and what it really takes to be a thought leader. I also became a lecturer at Stanford Business School on topics of credibility, influence, and thought leadership. My ideas have been featured in Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Forbes,,, and the UK Daily Telegraph Business Reporter.

Over the last twenty years, I have had the privilege of speaking before tens of thousands of people worldwide, at companies like Roche, Microsoft, and Google; leadership conferences, including the California, Indiana, and Arizona Governor’s Conferences and the Grace Hopper Conference for Women in Computing; and organizations like Coro and the Association of California Nurse Leaders. I have also guest lectured at Wellesley, Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton, University of Winchester, and MIT.

I have a commitment to developing women leaders and I have created and led women’s leadership programs for Liberty Global, Nimble Storage, Gracenote, Carole Emmott Fellowship, WiLPower, and KPMG. As part of my work, I also enjoy facilitating strategy sessions, retreats and thought leadership development sessions. My clients have included the Biocom LA, Fuse Fellowship, Packard Foundation, Aspira Women’s Health, AICCU, the California Community College Chancellor’s Office, Barstow College, Planned Parenthood, and PG&E.

Over the last few years, my work has been recognized in a variety of forums. The Silicon Valley Business Journal honored me among their Top 100 Women of Influence, I was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House and I received a Forever Green Award by the Girl Scouts. I was also recognized as one of six Women Who Have Made Their Mark by Watermark. I also received the Stanford STARS Award for my volunteer work encouraging entrepreneurship among women students at Stanford Business School.

A Wellesley graduate with a Stanford MBA, I began my career in the technology industry at companies like Motorola and Broderbund Software. In 1993, I co-founded and was CEO of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (FWE). I grew FWE (now Watermark) into the country’s leading organization for women-led start-ups. In 1999, I co-founded Springboard, the prestigious women’s startup launchpad that has led to over $9 billion in funding for women entrepreneurs. I also co-founded and served as President of Invent Your Future Enterprises and co-created the Invent Your Future Conference.

Community and Board Service
I serve on the board of TheatreWorks, the Tony award winning Bay Area theater. I am a member and past board member of the Northern California Chapter of the International Women’s Forum and a member and past Chair of the Wellesley Business Leadership Council. I am a long-time advocate for choice. I served as Chair of the Leadership Council of NARAL Pro-Choice America and previously served as Chair of the Advocates Board of Planned Parenthood Mar Monte and as a Board Member of 416 Holdings, a for-profit company formed to increase the financial self-sufficiency of Planned Parenthood affiliates. I also served on the advisory board of several start-ups including Kokko, Inc., The GUILD, and Aspira Women’s Health and as an advisor to Watermark, Invent Your Future Enterprises, and Springboard.

Learn more about our services. Contact me.

Dream Interview: Eleanor Roosevelt