How to Cultivate Your Thought Leadership Ecosystem: Building Confidence, Influence, and Momentum

What do you do when you believe you have an idea that could change the world, disrupt your industry, or at the very least, constructively influence people’s behavior?

Well, you might decide to start a movement, build a business, or be a motivational speaker. And all of this amounts to becoming a Big Idea Expert.*

However you slice it, becoming a Big Idea Expert means you need to create content. Movements don’t get started by experts keeping their ideas to themselves. Businesses don’t thrive without outlets and platforms to share ideas (and this, by the way, is true whether you choose a relationship marketing strategy or a traffic marketing strategy). And I can’t imagine how one could be a motivational speaker with nothing to say.

But, becoming a Big Idea Expert is not JUST about creating content. Content without a strategy is not thought leadership. For your content to have the impact you want, you have to create it intentionally.

That’s why I love the analogy of cultivating a thought leadership ecosystem. The ecosystem analogy reminds us to think about how each new article, LinkedIn post, email, presentation, video, book, etc. fits into and supports our wider library of content. And this is a great prompt to orient yourself toward thinking strategically about what you’re creating.      

So, let’s talk thought leadership strategy.

What is a Thought Leadership Ecosystem?

To kick us off, here’s a simple definition: A thought leadership ecosystem (TLE) is a strategic and dynamic web of content that, with the right tending, can become your visibility engine. I say more about the key features of a thought leadership ecosystem in this blog article.

Just as an ecosystem in biology is an interrelated and dynamic system of individual bits of nature and animals interacting, influencing, and impacting each other, your thought leadership ecosystem describes the relationship between your different bits of content. In the same way that you need to tend to the ecosystem in your vegetable garden, you need to tend to your thought leadership ecosystem.

Tending your garden or your thought leadership ecosystem means evaluating it according to your goals, making predictions about what it will take to move closer to those goals, and then using that information to shape your actions:

I want more cucumbers, so I will prune my plants :: I want to start conversations around my ideas, so I will create and share substantive content

Additionally, your goals for your ecosystem, whether you’re gardening or writing, will be different given whatever phase in the growth cycle you’re in. Just as it would make no sense to talk about pruning your cucumber plants when they are only tiny seedlings, you also don’t want to prematurely limit yourself to writing and sharing about certain ideas only. There needs to be a method to the madness.

Now, let’s turn to the three phases of thought leadership, figure out how to determine what phase you’re in and the next step you can take to build confidence in your ideas, broaden your sphere of influence, and move down the path toward becoming a Big Idea Expert. 

3 Phases of Thought Leadership

Again, just as your vegetable garden needs a different type of tending depending on whatever phase of the growth cycle it’s in, you need a different strategy for tending to your thought leadership ecosystem at each phase.

Phase 1: Confident Exposure

In this first phase, you’re a subject matter expert, but you don’t yet feel confident in owning your expertise. You’re like a new gardener planting seeds for the first time and hoping for the best. There are many reasons you may not feel ownership of your ideas yet. You may feel like your ideas are untested or that you have “too many” ideas, and you need to figure out what really matters or what you want to be known for.

Planting seeds :: Sharing new ideas

So what are the signs to look for to know that you’re in this first phase?

  • You’ve been in business less than five years
  • You have figured out what you’re selling and to whom, though your messaging and positioning may still be evolving
  • You have several ideas you think could be your Big Idea
  • People say things to you like, “you should write a book,” and creating something big (like a book, an expert article, or a keynote) excites you

If you find yourself in Phase 1, your goal should be to strategically build your confidence.

Your Next Step: Share a Half-Baked Idea

  1. Write a short-form post (300ish words) about ONE half-baked idea
  2. Post it on LinkedIn
  3. Tag me and I will add a comment
  4. Do it TODAY before you lose your nerve!

Phase 2: Broaden Your Sphere of Influence

Phase 2 is all about narrowing down your ideas and doubling-down on what works. Here is where the real tending starts. Your garden of ideas needs to be carefully fertilized, weeded, watered, and pruned back so that the ideas that most resonate with your audience can bloom. You are ready to consider how and where to grow your audience or community. You are also ready to start pitching your ideas to larger audiences.

Fertilizing, weeding, watering, pruning back mature plants :: Focusing on the ideas that really resonate and growing your audience

So what are the signs to look for to know that you’re in this second phase?

  • You’re confident of your ideas, but you may feel torn about which ideas are best
  • You may not know what’s fascinating to others about your ideas
  • You’ve tested your ideas and seen what’s resonating, but maybe you haven’t taken the time to figure out why in a way that you can really capitalize on
  • You want to reach a broader audience

If you find yourself in Phase 2, your goal should be to strategically narrow your focus.

Your Next Step: Narrow your Big Ideas down to 3

  1. Set a timer for 5 minutes and write down every big idea you’ve ever had
  2. Identify the ideas that feel exciting and raise people’s eyebrows
  3. Narrow your list down to 3 Big Ideas
  4. Refocus your thought leadership content around your top 3 Big Ideas (aka your 3 content buckets) and share them often and everywhere

Phase 3: Become a Big Idea Expert

In Phase 3, it’s time to step into the spotlight as a Big Idea Expert and build on the momentum you’ve gained. Many people see writing a book as an end in itself. At The PPhD, we prefer to see writing a book as fuel, adding to your credibility as a BIE. LIke the victorious gardener bringing home a bushel full of cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers, you now have a library full of ideas. You also know what ideas resonate well with your audience, and now you simply need more people to recognize your expertise and spread the word.

Harvesting the literal fruits of your labor, using them to fuel your body :: Spreading your ONE big idea far and wide, using it to fuel your business

So what are the signs to look for to know that you’re in this third phase?

  • You know exactly what ideas resonate with your audience and you know why
  • Your point of view aligns with your audience’s point of view
  • You have at least 10,000 followers on LinkedIn, or an equivalent number of followers on your preferred platform
  • You have had some success in reaching a broader audience

If you find yourself in Phase 3, your goal should be to strategically get known for your ONE Big Idea.

Your Next Step: Double Down on ONE Big Idea

  1. Review and consider all of the writing you’ve been sharing over the last year
  2. Determine what resonates the most, what excites you the most, and what feels foundational to your perspective
  3. Decide on a larger platform for your Big Idea. This might be a keynote, an article you’d like to pitch to a well-known publication (WIRED, HBR, etc.), or a book
  4. Book a FREE 30-minute call with us to get our input and some ideas for next steps

When you cultivate your thought leadership ecosystem, following the steps in each phase, you will see results. There is a halo effect that shows up—as more people start to see your ideas being shared, you will gain PR, podcast guesting, and keynote opportunities. Tend to your thought leadership ecosystem and it will become your visibility engine.

*Big Idea Expert is my preferred term for what some might call a thought leader. To me the term “thought leader” conjures up an image that doesn’t match my vision of someone who is bursting at the seams with big ideas, motivated by a strong desire to change the status quo, doing the work in the trenches, and thrilled to collaborate to get sh*t done. So, I think we need a new term.

Photo credit: Image by bearfotos on Freepik