The concept of thought leadership is viewed by many as applicable only in a business setting. It is often dismissed as “business jargon” and on the occasions it is used in an academic setting, it can be viewed as cliche. Yet, in industries outside of higher education, thought leadership is what differentiates an organization that simply sells a product from one that inspires change. For some, it can be the key to surviving in the competitive and often unforgiving world of business.
How does this concept translate to a campus? In prevention and health promotion work, as in business, our success is dependent on our ability to influence others, especially students. But for all the challenges that we encounter in getting students to buy into our vision, it can often be easier than getting campus leadership on board. It has been understood for years that if we want to see significant progress made on these challenges, buy-in from leadership is key. The unfortunate reality is that the process of gaining such buy in often falls to an individual who tends to be closer to the bottom of the organizational chart than to those whose attention and vision are crucial to their success. This isn’t dissimilar to the competitive environment in which businesses must find a way to stand out in the market; in a campus setting, individuals are instead vying for limited dollars and resources. This is where thought leadership comes in.
Following are three common measures that many businesses use to define and identify the impact of their thought leadership. In addition to being useful measures, they can also provide a helpful blueprint for laying the groundwork or cultivating your already existing influence on campus.
Very simply, a thought leader has the ability to influence decisions. That ability is tied to reputation. Are you recognized in your field? Do you hold leadership or committee roles with national professional organizations? Have you received awards or recognition for your work? If so, find ways to ensure that others on your campus know it as well. Most of us do not come into this work having received a primer on the art of self-promotion, nor should we. The ultimate goal of those doing prevention and health promotion work is to support the success and wellbeing of students, not to build up our own reputation. In general, the field is comprised of individuals who would rather avoid the spotlight than be placed directly in it. But it may be that we need to move beyond our discomfort to view self-promotion not as boastful, but as a means to achieve our goals. Self-promotion creates influence and influence can enable us to achieve the goals that will ultimately benefit the students that have been placed in our charge. This can also be done through more subtle approaches like posting on a campus blog site or writing opinion pieces for campus-wide communications. You might consider regular distribution to faculty and staff of materials such as white papers or research summaries. Keep in mind that these don’t necessarily have to be authored by you specifically, as long as you are positioning yourself as an expert and one who has access to timely, beneficial information. If necessary, work with someone on your marketing team to identify how to best promote and build your reputation in ways that you are most comfortable.
It isn’t just about who you know, but the quality of the relationships. Have you taken the time to carefully build and cultivate strategic relationships on campus? Investing the time and energy to build useful rapport with a few key influencers on campus will be one of the best uses of your limited time if it helps to achieve your desired outcomes. Don’t know where to start? Identify a critical stakeholder and think of one action step—however small—that you can take to begin fostering that relationship (e.g., introduce yourself via email, share important data, have lunch, etc.). Most of the individuals you want to connect with will have limited time, and if you do get on their calendar, it will be tempting to spend that time trying to build a case for whatever you have identified as your critical need. But the most productive conversation you can have is one that is focused on uncovering their values, needs, fears, and concerns. The goal isn’t to make sure they know who you are, but to begin identifying opportunities to assist them in addressing their most critical challenges. It’s easy, and often quicker, to make assumptions about what others’ needs are, but a thought leader relies on insights revealed through meaningful relationships to inform their strategy.
In business, revenue can be a key indicator of how well an organization is performing as a thought leader. The same holds true for higher ed, in that your ability to garner additional resources can be a key indicator of your influence on the people who hold the purse strings. But it isn’t likely that an increased budget is the result of presenting a compelling argument about how additional resources will be used to create more programs. There aren’t many examples of that approach resulting in success. Instead, put your thought leadership to work to illustrate how your strategies can potentially save the institution money; money that can be invested in students. The reality is that while prevention professionals are focused on ensuring the health and safety of students, senior leaders are equally focused on ensuring the financial health of the institution. Essentially, we care about the same things, but in different ways. Effective thought leaders have the ability to demonstrate the impact of student health and safety on key institutional priorities such as enrollment and retention, graduation rate, student success, reputation and brand, donor relations, and liability and risk management, all of which ultimately impact an institution’s bottom line.
As cliche as the idea of thought leadership may seem, it can also be one of the best opportunities to ensure that student wellbeing is prioritized on your campus. The consensus of the multitude of articles, blogs, and books on this topic is that thought leaders are innovative, trusted, and inspiring. They have the ability to transform their ideas into action by influencing others to create meaningful change. In Ready to Become a Thought Leader?, author Denise Brosseau writes “Thought Leadership is not about being known. It’s about being known for making a difference.” That is perhaps the most important reason for doing all we can as prevention and health promotion professionals to ensure that we are considered thought leaders on our campuses.
Prevention education is one of the most sound investments an institution can make, and new data show that issues of safety and well-being impact all stages of the student lifecycle.