Top 10 things that bug me about thought leadership (besides that term): A curmudgeonly year-end review

As someone who reads an excessive amount of thought leadership, I feel entitled to air my pet peeves in this festive season. Below, I count down to the practice that irks me most.

10. Oh, the pain: Every year brings a new bit of cringeworthy business jargon. This year’s entry: “pain points.” I particularly like when I see this expression used, without irony, in healthcare articles.

9. Stop me before I kill again: The end of the year has brought a deluge of giant reports and compendia. I am paid to look at these. But what about the time-strapped executive? And why do firms invest heavily in annual reviews when so little changes in most industries from year to year? You can often see the authors stretching to say something new. Good thing we’ve stopped cutting down trees to publish these and now only waste electrons.

8. Author, author: There’s no reason for an article to have more than three or four authors on the byline unless we’re dealing with a giant report (I’m talking 10,000 or more words). A recent standard-length article I read had nine—yes, nine—authors. Does anyone believe nine people wrote this article? While I know everyone wants credit when evaluation time comes, the authors—and their firm—lose credibility with the reader when they pile on.

7. The fallacy of hasty generalizations: From time to time, I will read a published article (or a draft) where the authors assert that their observations about a specific sector could apply to other industries. They do so because they think that will expand the readership of the article. The problem is, many go down this path with absolutely no evidence that what works in one sector will do so in another.

6. In the beginning . . . :  I like a good anecdotal lede as much as the next guy. But spare me the ones that are made up—especially those that are a composite of experiences. Business readers want and deserve real-world examples, even sanitized ones. Anyone can write a fictional anecdote; real thought leaders will have client experience that they can draw on to illustrate their perspective.

5. Ask me no questions: Why do so many pieces of thought leadership contain extensive lists of “questions executives should ask themselves”? The job of thought leadership is to offer answers to questions that executives are asking. If a piece asks readers to do the work, I don’t see why executives should read it in the first place.

4. Do you want to know a secret? a) Surveys form the basis of too many long-form articles from professional services firms. Yes, a smart survey can help inform an article. But so many are just readouts of the results with some throwaway recommendations at the end. This approach can never take the place of a thoughtful article based on client work and the intellectual firepower of the authors.

b) I’m no expert on survey methodology, but I do know that few surveys conducted by professional services firms meet basic hygiene requirements. For example, how many include margins of error? (The honest ones say the results are just “directional.”) How many look like this? Readers may rightfully wonder whether these surveys offer valid results and support for the authors’ point of view.

3. All the news unfit to print: We can all acknowledge that consultants and executives are busy people. So busy, it seems, that many fail to keep up with what’s going on in the world. Worse, in some cases, it would seem the authors conveniently ignore what’s going on. As potential authors, obliviousness and tone deafness can be risky to personal and company reputations. Take, for example, the recent draft that cited Sears, the struggling US retailer, for an exemplary management practice. Or a published article that highlighted a superior management approach of the scandal-ridden Deutsche Bank. Or a report that encouraged foreign financial institutions to invest in China with no reference to current geopolitical issues.

2. To boldly go . . . : No, this is not a complaint about split infinitives. It’s a groan about what passes for prescriptions in many thought leadership articles. Far too many prescriptive sections contain some version of the boilerplate “define a bold vision,” “craft an entry strategy,” “secure CEO support,” or “identify talent needs.” Companies don’t need high-priced advice for those kinds of recycled recommendations. Best to tip your hat to them in a sentence or two and focus on your distinctive findings.  

1. Blurred lines: And the winner is . . . the overt sales pitch. As we all know, thought leadership is high-level marketing. But there’s a trick: the well-executed article calls attention to the expertise of the authors (and their associated firm) without the slightest hint of marketing. If you show you have the goods, the phone will ring. Nonetheless, too many authors feel they have to slip in a transparent plug for a tool or service line, such as one I recently saw in a list of prescriptions: “use a strategy consultant.” If you want to do that, publish a brochure or credentials pack.

Allan R. Gold

Before joining Leff as a senior adviser, Allan was a longtime executive editor at McKinsey & Company, collaborating on content with every function and sector practice, with a concentration on emerging markets. Over the years he also served on the board of editors and as editor-in-chief of the McKinsey Quarterly. He holds an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and an MSJ and BA from Northwestern University.

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