Better Practices & Thought leaders
There are words and phrases that mean something important, but often in business they get over-used and abused until the words become what I call Corpspeak words that sound good but mean nothing at all.
Two such terms are thought leader and best practices. I have spent some time in venues populated by communications and marketing people and these words were tossed around faster and more often than Frisbee on a Sunday afternoon in Golden Gate Park. Frisbees, however have more direction when thrown than does jargon and the hit their marks with far greater frequency.
Back in 2012, I wrote a piece for Forbes where I defined a thought leader as, “someone who looks at the future and sets a course for it that others will follow. [They] look at existing best practices then come up with better practices. They foment change, often causing great disruption.
I cited several thought leaders, including Jack Kennedy, whose thought was that humans would walk on the moon within ten years of his inauguration, which is what happened despite his assassination. Great thoughts do live on as any Aristotle fan will tell you.
Bill Gates whose thoughts led to open software systems and Steve Jobs whose simultaneous thought leadership believed in the elegance that only closed systems would allow were bitter rival who opposing views that have lived on after their tenures. The same with Gordon Moore, who understood that processing power would continue to get more powerful, less expensive and faster.
Each of these people had thoughts that others followed. They each blazed trails long into the tomorrows that have followed.
It is not just the tomorrows that have followed. Business has as well. This includes Kennedy, whose vision for the moon led to the revamping of American education, so that we put a higher emphasis on science and technology than in say history and art. That focus led to the founding of Silicon Valley, which I would argue has improved the world more than anything coming from either American Coast or anything in between.
I know of many thought leaders. I do not know of a single one who began their paths toward world-changing achievement by adopting best practices.
By definition, a best practice is something tried and true. It is not adopted by thought leadership people and companies so much as those who follow them. Someone who adhered to a best practice at about the turn of the 20th century would not have endured by inventing a better carriage or for that matter, breeding a stronger horse that ate less.
Henry Ford was a thought leader. He didn’t even invent the automobile. He invented mass production, which changed global manufacturing, the nature of work and change how people worked and what people bought and how people lived for over a century. His thought leadership changed manufacturing, the nature of work and the affordability of technology for everyday people.
This does not mean that adopting a best practice and following the thinking of a person or competitor is a bad thing. No one can lead if others don’t follow and when they do a good idea becomes a world-changing idea.
In Lethal Generosity, I spotlighted Blake Mycoskie who was touched when he witnessed the suffering caused to children in a remote South American village. So he founded TOMS shoes and for every pair purchased, the company donated a pair to an impoverished child. It made TOMS very successful in a short period of time. It didn’t succeed by traditional marketing so much as customers felt good about helping a kid get shoes. The cause became the company strategy and its marketing program. It shaped a corporate culture that has a very blurry org chart and people join not because they love shoes but the love giving to people in need.
Mycoskie’s thought was a very good thought, but he and TOMS were not quite thought leaders—not until something happened next. Other entrepreneurs came along with great ideas, but the followed Mycoskie’s leadership on building for-profit organizations based on social causes.
- Warby Parker sells eyeglasses, mostly online and mostly to Millennials. For every pair someone buys, the company donates a set to an impoverished person who is vision impaired.
- Soma makes attractive water carafes with biodegradable filter. They give proceeds to charity: water.
- YesTo makes health and beauty products essentially from organic vegetables. It contributes to a variety of poverty-fighting causes including organic community gardens in impoverished areas.
- Yoobi has updated school supply designs and sells off the shelf in stores like Target and Walgreen. It contributes to causes that provide school supplies and lunches in poorer school districts.
And on and on.
TOMS is the thought leadership company. The thought is that people will prefer to buy from companies that support social causes more than companies who invest in expensive marketing campaigns. The rest of the players I’ve mentioned are merely thought followers.
But by following the original thought they are amplifying a new model, one that is generous to the plan, good to customers and their experiences with these brands and absolutely lethal to older competitors who cannot restructure entrenched corporate cultures in rapidly changing times.