5 Essential Qualities of a Thought Leader

Jeremy sitting at a random table in the Salt Lake City airport where this blog began.

It was such an honor to be recognized as a top contact center and customer experience thought leader by ICMI for the seventh year in a row. And I offer my sincerest congratulations to each person on this list. I follow them on Twitter and LinkedIn and so should you.

That being said, I’m reminded of times where people have asked me how they too could become “thought leaders.” I chuckle a little bit as I think about the term because there’s no college major or certification program focused on thought leadership. It’s more or less this squishy title given to people who share information that others find helpful. 

You’ll also undoubtedly run into a fair share of self-proclaimed thought leaders along the way. I’m not going to get hung up on those folks in this post.

I thought it would be fun to talk about my journey over the past several years and share what I’ve learned when it comes to thought leadership. In order to talk about the journey, I must, of course, start at the beginning.

The Beginning

It was August 17, 2012. At the time I had 12 years under my belt as a customer service leader. I was in the Salt Lake City airport headed home after a week of training and working with our outsourced customer support team. After witnessing a truly awful customer experience (you can read about it in my first ever blog post), I had this sort of epiphany. I thought to myself, “I know a little bit about customer service. I should start a blog and share my experiences.” 

I then sat down at a table in the airport, opened my computer, and sent my good friend, colleague, and quite possibly the most gifted customer service professional I know, Jenny Dempsey, an instant message asking if she’d be interested in starting the blog with me. Thankfully, she agreed.

It was then and there that the Customer Service Life blog was born. We were customer service practitioners just trying to inspire our team to take better care of our customers. And we figured we could learn a lot by observing both the good and bad customer experiences happening all around us.

By the way, check out this picture taken in May of 2017 in the Salt Lake City airport. I’m seated at the exact table where I messaged Jenny nearly five years earlier. I’ve been waiting for just the right moment to share that one.

Anyway, fast forward nine years and over a thousand blog posts later, and Jenny and I are both named thought leaders for the seventh year in a row. How did that happen? Well, I’m happy to share some of my thoughts on some of the things we’ve done to make it happen. 

Also, allow me to preface this by saying that being a thought leader isn’t necessarily easy, but what a thrilling and fulfilling journey it has been and continues to be.

If you’re genuinely interested in what it takes to be a thought leader, here are five qualities I strive for in my everyday life.

1. Be Your Unique Self

When I look at this ICMI thought leader list, and the many other similar lists published each year, I see consultants, authors, keynote speakers, marketers, and industry analysts. It’s easy to compare ourselves to others, some of them mentors and heroes, and wonder if my experiences and voice are worth sharing. 

There’s no way my speeches will be as entertaining as Shep Hyken. I’ll never write as many thoughtful, well-researched books as Jeff Toister. As much as I try, I can’t inspire people to write better customer service emails the way Leslie O’Flahavan does. I’ll never be able to replicate Nate Brown’s incredible wardrobe or match the energy of Justin Robbins in front of a room of people. Heck, check out some of the lengths my co-blogger Jenny goes to in the name of caring for customers. Wow! 

Here’s what I’ve come to realize. The countless hours I’ve spent talking to customers, solving their problems, and empowering my teams to do the same means that I have plenty of valuable experience to share with the world. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been able to draw insight from an experience that seemed insignificant at the time, to help another customer service leader who was going through something similar.

Key Takeaway – Thought leadership is a culmination of your unique strengths, abilities, and experiences. Always aim to be yourself and not someone else.

2. Be Generous

As a thought leader, I say yes to others almost to a fault, spending multiple evenings a week working on some of these things. OK, I ignore a good number of salespeople on LinkedIn hoping to meet their monthly quota. But here are some of the things I often say yes to:

  • Marketers asking for 3-4 sentences on a relevant topic for an article or ebook they’re writing.
  • Other thought leaders looking for panelists for a conference or webinar.
  • Interviews for podcasts or blog posts.
  • Companies asking for guest posts.
  • Other customer service and experience professionals who want to pick my brain or collaborate for 30-60 minutes.

Secretly, the last one is my favorite! I love any opportunity to get to know other leaders — and if there’s something in my own experience that can help them solve a problem, even better. 

Key Takeaway – Thought leadership is about being generous with your time, resources, knowledge, and experience.

3. Be Consistent

I’ve definitely met more than one aspiring thought leader who expected results after one presentation or after writing their first blog post. Far be it from me to squash anyone’s dreams but I’ve found that this requires a healthy level of consistency. A few things I aim to do consistently include:

  • Write 1-2 blog posts per week.
  • Post a new #CXQOTD on Twitter every weekday on a relevant customer experience topic.
  • Regularly read and share posts written by other thought leaders in the industry.

Key Takeaway – Thought leadership is a marathon, not a sprint. You will be rewarded for consistent, sustained contributions to the industry.

4. Be a Learner

I mentioned that I consistently share posts written by other thought leaders. The more important point with all of the content out there is to never stop learning. Read books and articles. Attend conferences, webinars, and listen to podcasts. Like any industry, the world of customer service and experience is constantly changing and evolving. Admittedly, before starting this blog, I didn’t spend much time sharpening the saw, as Stephen Covey recommends, but quickly began to realize how much knowledge I was missing out on.

Key Takeaway – Thought leaders recognize that they don’t know it all so they constantly aim to learn something new.

5. Be Connected

Finally, one of the best things about starting the blog that I never would have anticipated was the incredible network of people I would connect with. From the get-go, I’ve been able to regularly interact with some of those consultants, authors, keynote speakers, marketers, analysts, and practitioners I mentioned earlier — and their unique perspectives and backgrounds have helped to make me a better customer service professional, leader, and thought leader. But how do I connect with them? There are a couple of key ways.

  • Social Media – Twitter and LinkedIn are great places to connect with other like-minded professionals. Keep in mind that, while so many in our culture are talking on social media, it’s more important to focus on listening to and collaborating with others. I can’t tell you how many times a short exchange on social media progressed to a 30-minute call or hike and how many of those folks have turned into friends and colleagues.
  • Slack Communities – CXAccelerator is a totally free Slack community that I’m active in and it’s filled with thousands of customer experience professionals. Early in my career, I tried to figure out so many things on my own when there were communities with people out there just like me who were ready and willing to share ideas and solutions.
  • Conferences – It can be challenging to break away from work for multiple days but conferences can be great ways to learn and network. ICMI puts on some great virtual and in-person events worth checking out.

Key Takeaway – Thought leaders belong to, contribute to, and collaborate with communities.

I’m sorry if you clicked on this blog post thinking that being recognized as a thought leader was something you could do in five easy steps — taking only a month or two to master. And I’m extra sorry if you thought I’d share some path to significant glory, fame, and riches.

For me, I’ll always be a customer service professional at heart. You see, when I started a blog, I finally realized that I was good at taking care of customers, making human connections, and solving problems. It became a sort of accountability and purpose for me to be using my life and work to try to make a difference in the lives of others. And if by doing so I gain recognition as a thought leader? Well, that’s just icing on the cake.

If this is the kind of thought leader you want to be, I’d sure love to have a conversation with you. Leave a comment and I’ll share anything I can to help you succeed.

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Jeremy Watkin is Director of Customer Experience and Support at NumberBarn. He has more than 19 years of experience as a customer service and contact center professional leading high performing teams in the contact center. Jeremy has been recognized numerous times as a thought leader for his writing and speaking on a variety of topics including quality management, outsourcing, customer experience, contact center technology, product marketing, social media, and more. When not working you can typically find him spending quality time with his wife Alicia and their three boys, running with his dog, or dreaming of native trout rising for a size 16 elk hair caddis. Be sure to connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

One comment

  • Cheers, Jeremy! I’m pretty sure we met after I discovered your blog and then we somehow connected on Twitter. Thanks for consistently being a voice of learning and curiosity in our industry!

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