The path to innovation is often littered with many obstacles, but thankfully there are proven ways to overcome entrenched ways of doing business and bring out tangible advantages, as we learned from our two expert panelists. Chairing this session was Yi Ling Huang, Chief Innovation Editor at iResearch Services.
“One thing I’m always struck by,” said our panel chair, “is how innovation means different things to different people. It can be an abstraction or it can be a technical process. It can be strategic or it can be tactical. It can be that little kernel of idea, an idea at the back of your mind that’s just relentlessly plaguing you, making you ask ‘what if?’”
From this intriguing introduction, Yi Ling welcomed our first panelist to the stage, Kevin Lyman. He’s the Global Head of Thought Leadership for asset management firm Invesco Ltd.
Beginning with the ‘origin story’ of Invesco’s Global Thought Leadership program, Kevin underlined the importance of alignment. He believes that should be the first step of such a program, followed by defining a reputation-building methodology.
On that first step, Kevin concedes that aligning with strategic priorities is tricky when there are lots of them.
He said, “At one point I remember, this was years ago, thankfully, but we were told by the senior management folks, they came out and said, ‘here you go, we’re laser-focused on our global strategic priorities, here are all nine of them!”
“Er, nine strategic priorities is ZERO strategic priorities, okay!”
Kevin stated that you have to work with the business to find where true strategic priorities lie, and then you should align your thinking and content there.
Other key considerations Kevin advocated for beginning an innovation journey include:
- Establish credibility internally. Sit down with leaders, earn trust and persuade them you’re capable of reaching their goals.
- Discover where your global leadership function sits. In Kevin’s situation, it sits with investments alongside CIOs and financial leaders.
- Identify all your experts. Look at technology teams in particular and tap into HR’s capabilities for thought leadership based on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, for example.
Kevin then moved on to how you can galvanize credibility and gain trust by reaching out to a potential academic partner. For Invesco, they’ve been in a collaborative relationship with the University of Cambridge for the past five years. He stated how the partnership gives them access to cutting-edge views, and how it adds gravitas and objectivity when the company has conversations with regulators. He shared tips for how to approach academic resources.
Everyone thinks their strategy is the best
The thorny issue of content prioritization was brought up in the next slide, with the rather provocative headline: ‘The Fine Art of Telling People Their Baby is Ugly’. The point behind it is that a leader faced with copious amounts of content from multiple people in a large organization will have to diplomatically criticize ideas and writing that falls short of the business imperative or a quality threshold. It’s a bold line, although intended to illustrate the right path to create meaningful thought leadership that resonates with its target audience.
What do clients care about?
Crucially, Kevin told us that you need to tell colleagues their content goals should be set on what clients care about. He advised that when someone approaches you with an idea, you should take it over to client-facing staff to check if there’s genuine interest in it.
“Be as global as possible, and as local as necessary” is a phrase that Invesco’s Chief Marketing Officer likes to use. In Kevin’s line of work, he deals with many markets on a country-by-country basis. He summarized that an 80/20 rule applies, where 80% of countries are roughly the same as each other, then there’s around 20% differentiation, such as the UK’s unique pension regulations, as one example.
Kevin concluded his presentation with the advice to always reorientate your campaigns around your audience.
The human touch and the art of thought leadership
We were greeted with the image of The Great Wave off Kanagawa, the famous 1831 Japanese woodblock print. The Global Head of TCS’s Thought Leadership Institute, Serge Perignon, took to the stage to explain the presence of this striking artwork.
“A tsunami of content” is how Serge summed up the image. He pointed out that thought leaders are in competition with any kind of content creator out there. At his company, he explained, the content focuses on the impact that technology trends have on business. He’s noticed that Generative AI is accelerating content creation at an “insane” rate.
Serge observed how stakeholder roles have “blurred” at the C-Suite level. Strategy, he stressed, will be crucial. A subject can appeal to, say, a CFO and CIO, but each of them will want a different angle. He focused on ways to target decision-makers and pick out the subjects they want.
He said, “I think the new approach is, as much as we create great content, it can’t be great unless you’re about to connect it to the stakeholders – and that requires the human side of it.”
“We all are very focused on the mechanics of making great content, but I think it’s time, well it is for me, for stepping back and saying ‘what’s the human side of it?’ At the end of the day, there is a huge human component, it’s about communication between people and still trying to sell to a person.”
He then called for there to be less evangelism of the final product. His presentation concluded with his advice to focus more on research-based human-to-human interactions and to think of the ‘art’ of thought leadership.
Definitions of success
With the presentations over, Yi Ling presented some challenging questions to the panelists. Kevin and Serge were quizzed on what success looks like in their roles.
Kevin stated that he thinks of success in two terms – internally and externally. When he doesn’t have to make the case for thought leadership to the firm or when his colleagues approach him to help them impress a client, that is an internal success for him.
As for external success, Kevin defined it as having made his client appear as a thought leader to their boss.
“They know and I know,” said Kevin, “that I am the one who made them ‘smart.’ And then we’re going to be indispensable to that client.”
For Serge, getting funded for the work he and his colleagues do, is seen as internal success. He also recognized demand as a success, such as account managers approaching him and his colleagues for insights and ideas.
He felt external success was being viewed as “an idea company”, like a primary advisor.
Turning to the audience, the panelists were asked if they paid for academic partnerships.
Kevin confirmed that across several relationships, his company does pay, but pointed out there are some, where no payment is made. He referenced an example where no money changed hands – an academic at one university where the company contributed to his research.
Another question was raised by the audience: What action should you take if a client is interested in a new area but doesn’t understand its meaning?
“People will come to you,” responded Kevin, “and say ‘We’re hearing about this, what is this going to do to my business?’” He outlined the situation of the COVID pandemic when investors wanted to know what the future held for them.
“By going in and saying ‘look, we don’t know, this is our best guess, we’re giving you our best guess and we’ll continue to update you’ and all of that, and engaging the client in that, by the way when you do that you’re keeping them involved with the conversation because they may be more bullish or bearish than you are, or have a different view from you, but if you’re giving multiple viewpoints, they still have a way to engage as opposed to saying like ‘It’s going to be like this’ and then they just kind of tune you out because they said ‘well I disagree!’”
Serge agreed with Kevin’s explanation, describing it as “a great relationship builder” and enthused about embracing that kind of moment as a thought leadership advocate.
Closing the session, Yi Ling praised the panelists for identifying the ‘personal connection’ as a component to make Thought Leadership campaigns truly compelling.
“I think if there’s one thing that the panel and I would like you to go away and think about today,” said Yi Ling, “it would be to reassess how you think about innovation, how you do it, despite budget constraints, buy-in from senior management, and risk-averse cultures.”
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