What being a consultant taught me about editing thought leadership

Last summer, I was one of 24 million Americans who quit their jobs since April of that year—part of a Great Attrition or Great Resignation that shows no signs of ending soon.

On paper, it seemed like a big career pivot. I left my job as a consultant to become an editor, trading my Excel shortcuts for the blinking cursor of a Word document. But in many ways, the work feels surprisingly familiar—a natural extension of the skills and mindsets that I developed in the consulting world. Below are a few of the practices from my past life I bring to every new project and that help in creating focused, actionable content.

Define the problem

The first thing I do when a new project comes onto my desk is ask, “What are we trying to solve?” This was the starting point of every engagement that I worked on as a consultant. And the answer to this question is the sole reason that a piece of thought leadership exists.

Defining the problem calls for leading with curiosity (not answers) and acknowledging the uncertainty, the complexity, and what’s at stake—all the things that make a topic worth investigating in the first place. On an engagement, we would often iterate on the problem statement over the course of study. I’ve found the same can happen during the editorial process, where it often takes multiple drafts and a few rounds of tough questions to define (and refine) the problem. A commitment to uncovering this unquestionably leads to a better end product—an article with a sharper perspective that is more useful for the audience.

Push toward the “so what?”

At one point as an early-tenure analyst, I had been poring through the data and noticed something counter-intuitive. At the next meeting, I shared my newfound discovery with the rest of the team. The partner pushed me, “So what does that mean?” I then explained how it threw our initial hypothesis into question. He pushed me further, “So what should we do?”

It was a simple lesson: It’s not enough to state the facts. The audience needs to know what they mean—and more importantly, why they matter and what they should do about them. The job of a consultant, and of thought leadership, is to bring a perspective and push the thinking forward. As an editor, then, I find myself helping author teams work toward the answers to these same questions, pushing them to go beyond sharing their recent data or a new insight to offering practical, actionable steps for readers.

Embrace multiple points of view

As a consultant, I learned that more—and diverse—perspectives generate better insights. On my first day, I was told that if I disagreed with an analysis or problem-solving approach, I had not only the right but the obligation to voice my dissent. In the team room, I saw firsthand how divergent opinions are necessary to challenge the thinking and arrive at the best possible answers.

The same truth applies to content creation. I used to think that writing and editing was a solitary endeavor. As it turns out, it takes a village to publish great thought leadership—authors, editors, designers, copy editors—each with their own background, expertise, and blind spots. The process of understanding and hashing out our creative differences and various perspectives makes the end result better: the narrative sharper and more distinctive, the language more precise, the reading experience more pleasant. Of course, there are limits to the rule; too many conflicting ideas, and you risk watering down or losing the narrative altogether. But done thoughtfully, collaboration is the key to developing thought leadership content that is distinctive and well-balanced and that resonates with a diverse readership.

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