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How to be a thought leader

Association CEOs reveal the method, and the necessity, of exercising thought leadership in interdependent world with many stakeholders


Sept. 27, 2019
By William Ehart

Earning a reputation as a thought leader is increasingly important for CEOs and the associations they represent.

Thought leaders use their expertise and reputation as a trusted authority to influence a wide variety of stakeholders, including members and potential members in the industry or profession, competitors, decision-makers in other sectors and policymakers. Thought-leading executives and groups may also reach out to the general public as part of their efforts to accomplish goals in an interdependent world.

Thought leadership doesn’t require original ideas, just the surfacing of essential ones, no matter where they originate.

Those essential thoughts can come from scanning the horizon for industry and societal trends that might affect members, or from letting concerns bubble up from your membership.

“The CEO has to be both a provocateur and a facilitator, helping staff and board volunteers maneuver through that thought process so that they themselves can become the thought leaders,” said Sherry Keramidas, executive director of the American Occupational Therapy Association. “The CEO isn’t always the content expert.”

CEO Update asked five association CEOs how—and why—they exercise thought leadership.

The right questions

For Barbara Lopez Kunz, global chief executive of the $23 million-revenue Drug Information Association, positioning DIA as a thought leader advances its mission of helping make innovative medicines available and keeps the association relevant. She enables that by tapping the expertise of membership and stakeholders at large.

“We get the right questions on the table,” Lopez Kunz said. “Sharing information is relatively easy, but asking the right questions and focusing in on the things that people need to know about, that’s the secret sauce.”

Knowledge is exchanged in conferences, webinars, podcasts and in DIA’s peer-reviewed medical journal. It is consolidated online at DIA NOW, a website introduced in the past few years.

“We stimulate a discussion that really can’t happen without an organization like DIA serving as the thought catalyst, the incubator of ideas and then, most importantly, the distributor of that content to the broad community,” Lopez Kunz said.

“We’re not necessarily saying, ‘Join DIA and we’ll help you be the best statistician or regulatory affairs specialist you can be,” she said. “We’re saying that we are working in a broad and dynamic ecosystem where things are changing all the time.

“The old membership model doesn’t deliver the value that people are looking for today,” she said. “We started rethinking what membership means to people in this community a long time ago, and really started emphasizing content and thought leadership because that’s what people wanted an organization like DIA to generate.”

Enlightened self interest

Like many successful association chief executives, CompTIA CEO Todd Thibodeaux has found a way to bring association and member interests together over the target of societal need.

The $75 million-revenue group represents information technology vendors and distributors. One of the things members want from their association: Help finding skilled workers. And professional certifications provide much of CompTIA revenue.

“We try to focus our thought leadership in the workforce development space,” Thibodeaux said. “We think that is a major part of our responsibility and our mission. We have a pretty good following on all the platforms, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

“We’re constantly looking for speaking engagements and trying to write thought-provoking pieces. But I think the big sea change over the last couple years is just being intentionally provocative to get the message out,” Thibodeaux said.

CompTIA also commissioned the book “How to Launch Your Teen’s Career in Technology: A Parent’s Guide to the T in STEM Education.”

“The biggest competitor (for the association’s training tools) right now is people who go to college instead of pursuing a career in technology,” Thibodeax said. “I’m on the record as saying a million times that you don’t have to have a four-year degree (and more than $100,000 in student loans) to work in technology. You don’t need to be a math and science genius to work in technology.”

Peering into the future

A close ear to member concerns is one way Plumbing Manufacturers International CEO Kerry Stackpole thinks about the future. But broader social trends also are reaching the bathroom, and he keeps tabs on those.

You might not realize it, but there is technological disruption in the industry—smart toilets, showers and mirrors—that requires the association to help members navigate new regulatory and legal environments, such as California’s consumer privacy law.

Stackpole saw how technology ravaged the printing industry he used to represent—especially those members who refused to embrace it. That led him to keep a wary, but opportunistic, eye on unanticipated future events.

“I look at what’s happening in the home-building marketplace, the Smart Home marketplace. And I think about how are these things going to get integrated into the products we sell today?” Stackpole said. “The big social trend is your bathroom as a spa.

“We share with our members the scientific and engineering issues that might arise and the regulatory advocacy issues that have to be managed,” Stackpole said. “And then we’re providing them with some detail in terms of the economic picture to be able to say what the marketplace looks like right now, what the adoption rates are.

“Some of these are obviously very large companies with brand names and lots of research going on. But our job is to help them navigate their choices,” he said.

Engaging other groups

Thought leadership is one of the pillars of the $17 million-revenue Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy’s strategic plan.

“Sometimes, the work that our members do is not well understood, and in certain cases might be mischaracterized,” CEO Susan Cantrell said. “We want to make sure that we’re telling our story so that others aren’t telling it in the wrong way.”

AMCP represents pharmacists and others involved in managing prescription-drug benefits for patients with health insurance.

Cantrell takes part in other organizations’ events to help build cross-sector support for AMCP’s advocacy goals. For example, she was on a panel at this year’s annual meeting of the $79 million-revenue Biotechnology Innovation Organization, focused on ensuring patient access to innovative therapies for rare diseases.

Discovering and developing such therapies—the work of BIO’s members—isn’t the only step in the process.

Cantrell’s members need information about the medications so they can be covered by insurance.

“Participating in meetings like BIO’s raises our visibility and helps increase the participation of other stakeholders who will help us make the case to Congress and the administration,” Cantrell said.

AMCP uses social media to amplify its message—Cantrell writes a regular blog—but also leverages the media coverage of the events its staff and members attend.

The media attention also helps position AMCP in the eyes of the public as part of the solution to a national problem.

One of its strategic planning sessions, dubbed “Dynamics of Change,” brought home just how important that was.

“We realized we have more knowledgeable and demanding consumers and patients than we’ve ever had before.

Previously, we hadn’t thought that consumers and patients needed to know so much about managed-care pharmacy, but we’re in a different era. They need to understand the principles of how payment and coverage decisions are made, how therapeutic decisions are made, how formularies work and things like that,” Cantrell said.

No profession alone

For Sherry Keramidas, executive director of the $22 million-revenue American Occupational Therapy Association, thought leadership means placing her profession at the center of efforts to address societal needs.

She sees occupational therapists getting involved in such pursuits as helping design accessible communities that allow children with physical limitations to access playgrounds, and giving the elderly environments where they can age in place.

“But in order to have influence on things like that, (occupational therapists) have to listen to the community planners, the urban planners, the people who are designing autonomous vehicles, to hear about what they’re thinking about, what their challenges are,” Keramidas said. “We also have to go to the communities, the individuals who are going to be using these services, listen to them, and then begin to formulate new ideas for moving forward.”

“No group or profession works alone anymore,” she said. “So in being a thought leader, we have to invite others to the table,” Keramidas said.

Of course, the CEO also needs to create the right internal environment for thought.

“We need to get the staff, the board members and the volunteers in a comfortable space so they can explore new ideas,” Keramidas said.


Executives aspiring to thought leadership must focus not only on building expertise, but also on how they communicate best and can do so consistently.

Leadership is about telling stories that resonate with audiences, said consultant Jen Dalton, founder of BrandMirror.

“Some channels work better for some people than others. For some, video is great, for others, it’s one to one conversation,” Dalton said.

“Some people need to get training on speaking, some people may need to get training in motivational speaking.

How do you stay authentic to who you are as a leader and as a person, but also recognize where there might be gaps that will keep you from being a thought leader?” she said.

“When someone is a thought leader, it’s because they’ve built credibility around a concept, or an idea or behaviors because they live their brand consistently.

“Where I see people drop the ball is (lack of) consistency,” Dalton said. “You need to think through what it means to be a consistent thought leader in your space. It can’t just be one blog, and you’re done.

“You have to think about what the message is going to be over time. How does it evolve to keep pushing forward?” she said.

Perhaps the best social media platform on which to convey that message is LinkedIn, Dalton said.

“The beauty of LinkedIn is that most professionals are on it, and it’s multifaceted. You can leverage your association’s page, you can leverage your personal page to publish blogs or to share content. You can even create an association group,” she said.

Plumbing Manufacturers International CEO Kerry Stackpole said he has published 30 articles on LinkedIn in the past several years. His latest is “The Rise of the CEO,” where he discussed leadership in an era of uncertainty. It originally appeared in a PMI publication.

“LinkedIn is a great platform and an ideal place to share ideas, news, and issues impacting our members with a broader audience,” he said.

Stackpole promotes his personal brand on LinkedIn, where he describes himself as a “strategic thinker and visionary.”

But Stackpole also maintains his own blog for nonprofit executives, Wired4Leadership.