[quote]We’re turning 'leader' into a self-appointed accolade that runs counter to everything leadership is supposed to mean.[/quote] By Joshua Reynolds One of the most overused clichés in all of tech marketing is around leadership. All too often, companies claim to be “the leading provider of” their category or “a leader in” the latest trend without giving much thought to what that leadership actually means or why their audience ought to care. [caption id="attachment_2295" align="alignright" width="150"]Joshua Reynolds Joshua Reynolds[/caption] The prevalence of “leader” as a buzzword has an unfortunate side effect: the bastardization of leadership as a concept. Market leadership, thought leadership, and technology leadership need to mean something in order for the tech sector to thrive. The dilution of their meaning ultimately hinders growth and perpetuates a view of PR as less strategic, less valuable and less honest than it really is. What’s worse, we’re turning “leader” into a self-appointed accolade that runs counter to everything leadership is supposed to mean. Real leaders derive their strength and influence from being in service of something greater than themselves. Market leaders act in service of their customers. Thought leaders act in service of deeper understanding. Technology leaders act in service of innovation and expanding the boundaries of human potential. And team leaders act in service of the shared vision that inspires and guides their tribe. When a company loses sight of what leadership is really about, they begin the journey into obsolescence. With that in mind, here are some ideas for bringing meaning and impact back into the leadership discussion. Market Leadership. It’s easy enough for anybody to claim leadership in any given space. What’s not so easy, but absolutely vital, is to quantify and validate leadership using evidence your audience will value without a lot of extra explanation. That’s why things like Gartner Magic Quadrants and Forrester Waves work—the criteria for leadership are grounded in customer wants and needs and published transparently. As a result, positive placement on one of their graphs means something specific. Without that specificity, those reports would lose their impact—and the same goes for those of us who use the term “market leader” in our marketing. So here are a few options for quantifying the terms of market leadership:
  • Revenue. Most who can use this option, do. But being biggest or richest doesn’t always mean being best. The story needs to be about what revenue leadership lets companies do for their customers, not just what their customers’ money has done for them.
  • Customers. Having the most customers overall, the highest caliber of customers, or even a high success rate with a particular kind of customer is useful validation. But again, what matters more is why those customers chose the vendor and solution they did. Context matters.
  • Reputation and ranking. Winning awards and securing the validation of industry analysts carries a lot of weight. To turn ratings into revenues, companies must be ready to explain how the criteria and assumptions behind the accolades apply to their specific needs.
5217160895_95786a5c59 Thought Leadership. Tech companies often need to make the leap from being seen as a vendor to being seen as a trusted advisor. One way to do this is to be the voice of reason around an emerging technology and help people distinguish hype from reality. But thought leadership backfires when it’s reduced to jumping on the latest buzzword bandwagon and substituting a product pitch for meaningful discussion. That’s why B&O applies the following litmus test for thought leadership:
  • Relevant. It addresses a technology or topic that’s already top of mind.
  • Useful. It deepens people’s understanding of that technology or topic, not just your own specific offering.
  • Provocative. It changes the way people think of that topic and challenges unhelpful assumptions that inhibit the creative use of the technology.
  • Inclusive. Rather than dominating the discussion as the lone voice, it invites constructive dialogue from the industry
Technology Leadership. For smaller companies, challenger brands and companies in a new or emerging category, claiming to be the most innovative is a common technique. It attracts talent, boosts valuation ahead of an IPO or acquisition, and can even help convince marquis sales prospects to make a bet on an unproven company. But claims of technology leadership need to based on provable data points. A few useful ones include:
  • Intellectual property portfolio. How many patents and copyrights does the company hold? And who else in the industry is benefiting from them?
  • Investment in R&D. What industry challenges is the company tackling, and where is it investing money, time and resource to address them?
  • Ingredient plays. Where and how does this technology enable other technologies? How does it help customers increase ROI from technology bets they’ve already made?
  • Benefit to the ecosystem. Where and how does the company’s technology help adjacent players in its market add value? What win-win scenarios does it create? And why should the industry want to see this technology succeed?
Team Leadership Sadly, many of us have a knee-jerk skeptical reaction when we hear things like “we need a vision statement” or “don't’ we need a value statement?” And to a degree, that skepticism is warranted. All too often an exercise around creating a vision or values statement is reduced to a group grope in which everybody’s opinion is sandwiched into the world’s longest and least meaningful sentence. In short, it reads like a buzzword wordle coughed up by a corporate life coach and does everything but what it was meant to do, namely create focus and purpose. After all, a strategy is not a strategy until it tells you what you’re not going to do. And being in service of something greater than yourself requires you to know—and articulate—what that is, and what that is not. That’s why the vision statement matters so much: it tells your group of highly talented by likely overworked people what they don’t need to spend their precious time doing. So here are a few practical pointers for engaging in team leadership as a tech PR professional:
  • Start with “why”. As Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so worried about whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think whether or not they should.” Purpose matters. It attracts talent, engenders patience, and gives people a reason to want to see you succeed. Most of all, it calls forth the best in your team. So be clear about why your company does what it does, what win-win scenarios it creates, and what impact you’ll have.
  • Be clear about what you’re not. Especially for early stage companies, it’s hard to close the door on future opportunity if you’re not quite sure with how your market is going to take shape. But unless you’re clear with what opportunities you’re not going to pursue, you’re going to end up with a loose confederacy of distantly related teams and tactics.
  • Coach, don't dictate. This is tricky for those of us trained in client service who think we’re suppose to have all the right answers. But for team leaders, having all the right questions matters more. Choose to believe in your people and their ability to make the right call. See their full potential before they do, and ask the questions that wake them up. In short, coach.
  • Remember who works for whom. As a leader you work for your company. The cult of personality is a short-term strategy. True, many people enjoy working for a charismatic visionary who knows exactly what to do and say at all times. But too often that dominating figure casts a long shadow and inhibits talent development. So don’t try to be an Iron Man superhero, where yours is the only opinion that counts. Lead a league of X-Men, each with their own mutant power. See that power within them, nurture it, and remember that you work for them even more than they work for you.
These are the questions that matter most when it comes to leadership in tech PR. How can tech PR as a discipline revive the meaning of leadership? And what becomes possible for our profession when we’re seen more as drivers of beneficial dialogue rather than masters of spin? Joshua Reynolds is CEO of Blanc & Otus based in San Francisco. Featured image credit: Scott Maxwell