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Business leaders are recognizing that thought leadership has become a key brand and sales differentiator. But anyone who thinks that thought leadership is purely an external function aimed at influencing clients and new business prospects is seriously limiting its potential.

The unsung benefit of thought leadership is how it can inspire and motivate employees and act as a talent retention and attraction magnet.

Thought leadership is not and should not be seen purely as a marketing or PR tactic – rather it should be part of the culture of an organization the same way that sales, training or innovation are.

The really deep-seated, effective thought-leadership campaigns – take DuPont’s focus on sustainability or IBM’s Smarter Planet platform – are closely aligned with the values of the brand.  Typically, they have the buy-in and support of senior management and they permeate the rest of the business.

These days potential employees scan their industries for the leading thinkers and innovators, the linchpins of their organizations. They want to work where these people work. And you want them to work for your brand.

Creating brand ambassadors

Brands that strategically involve their employees in the thought-leadership journey – from marketing and sales through to operations and finance ­– will find a number of happy consequences.

Investing in thought leadership gives employees something to talk about over and above the products or services they sell, empowering them to have deeper conversations and foster more meaningful relationships with clients.

When a brand stakes its claim as an industry thought leader, whether through a great company blog, a dynamic front man on the speaker circuit or by hosting an event, it gives employees a deep sense of pride about where they work, what they do and the difference the brand makes in people’s lives.

The positivity this generates rubs off on their enjoyment of being at work and the way they talk about the brand to friends, family and prospects.

The virtuous cycle of thought leadership

Through a process of osmosis, thought-leadership campaigns that run over a period of years result in all employees becoming thought leaders on a given topic.

For example, after years of publishing books, articles and videos about everything from content monetization to social media to retail trends, global consulting firm Booz & Company has given its employees the tools to have discussions with clients on innovation that no other firm can.

Brand representatives are invited to speak at innovation seminars and conferences around the world because they are perceived as experts in the field and have the data to back it up.

The other great example is IBM. To provide the backbone for its Smarter Planet campaign, IBM spent nearly $30 billion in R&D as well as $20 billion acquiring the relevant companies to deliver on it.

In other words, IBM wholly immersed itself and its employees in the campaign, to the extent that the campaign is now the business and vice versa.

That’s the beauty of thought leadership. It’s a virtuous cycle in which the brand and its employees make each other better. And their clients aren’t complaining either.