How thought leadership has evolved over the past decade: A Q&A with Allan R. Gold

Allan R. Gold is joining Leff Communications as a senior adviser, working with clients on thought leadership strategy and content development. Gold recently retired from McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm, after 22 years with its editorial and publishing function.

During that time, Gold served as an executive editor, global editor, and editor-in-chief of McKinsey Quarterly, the firm’s flagship publication. He has lived and worked in Europe, Asia, and North America, and, over the years, collaborated on thought leadership with every functional and sector practice at McKinsey, with a focus on emerging markets. In this interview with Scott Leff, the founder of Leff Communications, Gold offers his views on the state of thought leadership in the marketplace. 

Scott Leff: Why should professional service firms and companies produce thought leadership?

Allan Gold: I will be direct. Done properly, it rings the cash register. Well-executed articles and related editorial assets can lead directly to client engagements, contracts, or, at a minimum, client conversations. How do I know? Why else would they keep me around for two decades? But seriously, it’s not that hard for companies to measure the return on investment in thought leadership. When they do, they find it’s well worth the price, and that’s why so many companies are doing it today.

Of course, the big question is what do we mean by “done properly” or “well-executed.” There are two parts to the answer: editorial and distribution. On the editorial side, you must identify your audience and offer it a point of view or proof of experience in the field that it can’t find elsewhere. For distribution, you could have the most distinctive ideas in the world, but they won’t amount to anything if the right people can’t find them.

A successful, long-term thought leadership program can have benefits besides direct client impact. For example, it can help distinguish a brand in the marketplace, build personal reputations, and enhance recruitment efforts. But, as best as I can tell, the main reason to invest in thought leadership is to win business.

Leff: How has thought leadership evolved in the years you’ve been working in the area?

Gold: At the level of the marketplace, the biggest change has been the explosion of published content. Back in the day, there were just a handful of consulting firms circulating articles. Now, all professional service firms are doing it—consulting, law, executive search—as well as many big companies. This has made it much harder to get your message across. One response has been to churn out even more content, but I think many of us in the field would argue that more doesn’t mean better. My advice is to publish when you have something distinctive to say, not because everyone else is doing it.

At the article-development level, I have observed the increasing tendency of authors to ask editors to create drafts from PowerPoint decks, rather than sitting down and writing their own first drafts. When I started, consultants were much more likely to put pen to paper. And I would argue that the results were often better in depth of content and time to market.

We all understand the time constraints under which clients labor. But asking editors to write from slides and a 30-minute phone call can lead to thin articles in which a lot of rich material has been left on the table—the tacit knowledge residing in the authors’ heads. You’ve heard it before—writing is thinking, and the process of writing exposes gaps in logic and content. I also find that an author writing the first draft speeds completion of the piece and thus the time to market. No editor expects a first draft to be the final word, only an advanced starting point.

Leff: How do you view the role of the editor in working with authors?

Gold: McKinsey hired me in 1997 in Paris as an editor with McKinsey Quarterly. That followed a long career in journalism, centered mostly on business, finance, and economics. To be honest, I didn’t really understand the first thing about thought leadership or working with consultants. I had a rocky first year.

I finally gathered that there were two parts to being a successful editor in the world of thought leadership. You need first-rate writing and editing skills. Also, subject-matter expertise is a big advantage, but lacking that you need to be a quick study.

Maybe the most important skill is bedside manner. In other words, learning to deal adroitly with demanding, time-pressed people who are not writers by trade, and often speak English as a second language. You must check your ego at the door, which is not the easiest thing to do if you come from the world of journalism or publishing—I learned that the hard way. Your main job is helping the author team shape often inchoate ideas into coherent arguments. You need to help them identify their most distinctive messages, answering the question “What is the business problem we are trying to solve?” And you must learn to push back in a collegial manner but also know when the well is empty.

Leff: What do you still find interesting or challenging in this work?

Gold: My favorite subjects come from the social sector, sustainability, and, more broadly, emerging markets. I’ve recently done a fair amount of work in agriculture, which often combines sustainability and economic development.

After all this time, I still enjoy helping an author team shape and develop the argument. I like to hear that a piece I worked on got a lot of page views or media attention, but I’m much happier when the team lets me know the article had client impact.

Leff: What are your pet peeves about thought leadership today?

Gold: There’s not much that’s new under the sun in management thinking. But we still see author teams making big claims about their findings or frameworks. You don’t need to do that to have a successful article. For example, it’s perfectly acceptable to offer fresh thinking on a perennial topic or debunk conventional wisdom. Readers appreciate humility, and that adds to the authors’ credibility.

I also frown on articles and interviews that duck discussions of the challenges of carrying out proposed prescriptions, or just add pro forma caveats. This approach doesn’t fool the reader, and it undermines the credibility of the authors.

Finally, no list of pet peeves would be complete without noting the reflex of authors to fall back on jargon or coinages. My colleagues know the words that get me going. For starters: “drive” (as in driving profits rather than cars or cattle); “leveraging” (why not “using”); “architecting” (reach for the air-sickness bag); “deliver” (best reserved for Uber Eats); “granular” (why are we beating this word to a pulp?); “going forward”; “holistic”; and “learnings” (ugh, ugh, and ugh). Recently, we saw “productionalizing” (Have you no sense of decency, sir?). The fight against jargon is worth waging, but, as editors, we’ll never win the war.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of LEFF. He’s spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he’s had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of “lean content creation” as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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