[Postblog on Tweet #47: “Will your thought leadership motivate your target audience to act or change the paradigms of your industry or market sector?”]
Motivating stakeholders to act or change the paradigms of an industry (or society!) requires the power to influence, backed by strong credibility and it can’t be done alone.
In our e-book “Thought Leadership: how to differentiate your company and stand out from the crowd”, we define thought leadership as “the action of promoting novel points of view (NPOV) that reframe the way stakeholders (employees, customers and other crucial stakeholders) think about their key issues, helping them toward new insights and solutions”. Novel viewpoints crack stakeholders’ engrained schemas of how the world looks and works, or ought to work. A strong NPOV is a solid starting point in motivating your target audience to act or change the paradigms of the industry or society in question.
To successfully change paradigms, however, industries – or societies for that matter – must be conducive to such schema-cracking messages. Many companies are operating in mature, long-established fields that are tightly coupled with diverse and often conflicting (resource-powerful) stakeholders. In these contexts, changing the status-quo is not something that you do overnight.
Think of the oil and gas company BP, with its “Beyond Petroleum” campaign starting in the beginning of 2000. The company took a brave step in pursuing a novel viewpoint on the issue of global warming and the future role of alternative energy. The goal was to transform engrained logics in the oil industry and to become a leading player in alternative energy. Yet, over time, it appeared that BP was failing to live up to its ambitions. The oil giant simply couldn’t juggle the opposing interests of shareholders, employees and the environment, leading to severe environmental crises and uncovering the realities of a novel viewpoint too far-removed from the reality of its industry.
Another challenge facing companies attempting to change paradigms lies within the struggle between the ‘old guards’, keen on preserving the status-quo, and the ‘new guards’ interested in transforming the field. The battle between the two often leads to a state of internal resistance, preventing organizations from promoting new ways of thinking and acting.
So, if changing paradigms is not so easy, what kind of actions can companies take to be confident in facing such a challenging endeavor? I believe that there are three key aspects to facing the challenge: 1) consistently showing persuasive power, 2) building credibility and 3) building coalitions and partnerships.
#1 Consistently showing persuasive power: Changing paradigms entails working hard to tear down old logics and replacing them with new ones. To do so, companies need to have the persuasive power to influence the discourse that is going on in the industry or society. There is a wealth of management literature on how organizations have done so in the past. For instance, one way in which organizations seek to transform traditional frames into new ones is by categorizing the old situation as ‘under threat’ and persuasively arguing the need for change – a rhetorical strategy labeled as ‘theorizing’. In a compelling case study, Suddaby and Greenwood found how proponents of radical change in the accounting field used forms of ‘theological’ (e.g., “change is necessary as part of a grand vision or divine purpose”) and ‘cosmologic’ rhetoric (e.g., “change is inevitable, since it is part of the “natural unfolding” of the market or social environment) in order to persuade people of the need for change. Donnellon and colleagues have pointed to the use of metaphors. When organizations are characterized by strongly ingrained frames that are difficult to change, metaphors are an effective way of promoting transformation, helping to make sense of future situations by asking the audience to see the new situation in terms of something that is more familiar to them.
#2 Building credibility: Companies that are keen on changing paradigms in their environment work hard to translate their viewpoints into innovative actions and positive results. As such, they build up credibility around their novel viewpoints. When stakeholders are initially skeptical or even vigilant about the organization’s intentions, building proof-points is critical for gaining stakeholder support. This is not done overnight, requiring time and steadfastness. The fast-moving consumer goods company Unilever has been well on its way to becoming a leading sustainability thinker with its Unilever Sustainable Living plan. Its sustainability actions cut through the company’s entire value-chain, meaning that they also take responsibility for the operations of their own suppliers, distributors and even their consumers. Unilever is committed to a ten-year journey, setting transparent targets and objective measures for each target. Now three years into the journey, the progress made on certain targets is visible. Unilever is earning credibility, stakeholder support and driving engagement!
#3 Building coalitions and partnerships: Changing paradigms in an industry or society is a collective phenomenon rather than an individual one. Companies who seek to transform logics in an industry or society have to develop stable coalitions with stakeholders by building partnerships, negotiating mutually beneficial relationships and making compromises (or even lobbying) where possible. In some cases, it even means that a company needs to untie itself from long-established coalitions or partnerships if these ‘old friends’ represent the old thinking that the company wants to overturn. One of the guest speakers during our thought leadership course at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, once explained how his company had to make the difficult decision to cut old partners loose. This wasn’t an easy decision and the old partners were certainly not amused, but they did not see another choice – the old partners’ interests were to preserve the status quo in the industry, which proved incompatible with the company’s new course. Although it was a hard decision, it also gave the company room for building new relationships with parties sharing similar ideas on how the future should look.
Overturning paradigms is a long-term process. It’s a game of argumentation, persuasion, give-and-take, leaps of faith, commitment and showing how you practice what you preach. That’s what real thought leadership is about. Real thought leaders are recognized as such because they walk the talk.
By: Dr. Mignon van Halderen, founder Leading Thoughts (not to be confused with this website and business Leading Thought) Mignon is the owner of Leading Thoughts, a company that offers (research-based) advice on corporate communication and thought leadership strategies. She also teaches thought leadership strategies for the Executive International Master of Science in Corporate Communication at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. She has earned her PhD in Corporate Communication from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, in 2008. Mignon lives in The Hague, The Netherlands.