Canadian Consulting Engineer

Thought leaders

May 1, 2010
By Carl Friesen

Have you ever sat through a presentation at a conference and thought, "I know more about this topic than this presenter does"? Or have you seen an article written by someone you know and thought, "I r...

Have you ever sat through a presentation at a conference and thought, “I know more about this topic than this presenter does”? Or have you seen an article written by someone you know and thought, “I really should get some articles published to build my professional profile”? Perhaps you’ve seen a colleague’s name listed as the leader of a professional task force and wondered why you don’t seem to get that kind of opportunity.

This may be the next step in your career: being seen as a “thoughtleader” within your engineering specialty.

Some people think of a thoughtleader as a “guru” or general management consultant — someone like Tom Peters. Or they think of someone who has developed a business approach that has popular appeal, but is more style than substance.

But there are many thoughtleaders with tremendous value to add, some of them in tightly specific engineering areas. I have known thoughtleaders who are experts in tailings dam design, soft-soil tunnel project management, and the underground disposal of radioactive waste.

A thoughtleader is someone with the professional qualifications, expertise and experience to develop solutions to difficult challenges. They are the go-to people when these issues come up. They get the work, they can charge good rates, and they get their pick of the most interesting projects. They also have the satisfaction of having left their profession stronger than when they found it and having left the world a better place.

The key is that thoughtleaders are known as experts by people with the ability to send them business.

Set a target audience

This article assumes you have the professional qualifications, body of knowledge and experience to be a thoughtleader. You won’t get far if you can’t demonstrate that you have what it takes.

To become known as such, your first step is to determine the audience you want to reach. You are interested in reaching not the general public, but specific business niches.

Imagine yourself, for example, as a forensic engineer with a specialty in reconstructing automobile collisions. You may be able to narrow your focus to building your profile with insurance carriers, lawyers acting as counsel to the insurance industry, and motor vehicle authorities.

Your next step is to think of the challenges you want to solve, which involves looking at the world from the market’s perspective. In our forensic engineer example, the client’s challenge is around not paying out on fraudulent insurance claims, and you are able to help them manage that.

Articles, public speaking and joining committees

Your third step is implementation. Three tools stand out as being the most effective in building a profile as a thoughtleader.

The first and most accessible tool is publishing informative articles. These can be in your professional journals, but be sure also to get published in magazines read by your market. A forensic engineer dealing in auto collisions must publish articles in engineering journals, but also in magazines published for the insurance industry and for the legal profession. If you are unable to write in magazine style, a freelance writer can help you turn your ideas into words on a page.

Public speaking is a second tool. It gives you a chance to meet potential clients and referral sources in a setting that is powerful for you — they are more likely to listen to what you have to say. While you need to have reasonable speaking skills to convey your ideas, your audience will be more interested in what you have to say than in your speaking style. Moreover, through the audience’s reaction and the questions they ask, you’ll refine your knowledge base.

The third tool is becoming involved in the right business communities. Find out the organizations and associations attended by your potential clients, join those that welcome you — and get involved. Committees are a great place to get to know influential people.

These three steps — publishing, public speaking and professional community involvement — are a multi-year process. But start now and the sooner you will be able to reap the benefits.

Carl Friesen, MBA of Mississauga, Ontario is a senior associate with emerson consulting group, tel. 289.232.4057, e-mail


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