As work moves from deep inside organizations to their edges and beyond, executives are called upon to establish a leadership presence that reaches out into the ecosystem. This requires a different set of skills as the ecosystem operates by rules far afield from those inside the corporation.
Familiar structures such as internal objectives, roles, company culture and policies provide little cachet in the ecosystem. In fact there are no rules, just norms. The ecosystem thrives on broader participation and highly variable commitment levels. In successful open source collaborations such as Linux, most of the work is still done by a minority and moves at the speed of contribution; not schedules. The so-called long tail exists but it’s often quiet until stepped upon.
Leadership in the ecosystem is informal, fluid and based on reputation rather than titles or roles. Contribution is defined relative to broader needs and the payback is enhanced reputation through attribution. This is how the academic world has worked for centuries. Intellectual leadership is defined by peers who in turn honor the academic’s contribution through citation, with few monetary rewards.
We look to leaders to move others. Creating movement in the ecosystem comes from identifying, attracting and weaving together common interests from disparate sources. Providing insightful thought leadership is a proven strategy leaders can use . Thought leadership is a form of conceptual innovation that empowers others by explaining the complexities of the present and painting the path to the future.
The best example I’ve seen is Cisco Systems. Starting with John Chambers but extending far beyond, Cisco thought leadership provides conceptual constructs that frame choices, requirements and actionable next steps that go well beyond their internal company vision such as “The Promise of Videoconferencing in Telemedicine”. Cisco is as quick to use outside experts as their own people.
Cisco thought leadership speaks to more than customers. They include opportunities relevant to all ecosystem stakeholders (e.g. suppliers, vendors, governments, etc.) as they describe where they see the world heading. They do this for major networking trends as well as specific implications tailored to industry verticals. For example, in video conferencing, they have quickly established their presence despite being relative newcomers to more experienced competitors such as Polycom.
In doing so, they adhere to four key principles:
- Ground thought leadership in differentiated and valuable expertise
- Reach beyond today’s dialogue to illuminate opportunity and provide new ways to solve old problems
- Offer what you have as a gift; don’t pimp your firm.
- Address the “what” and the “how” with integrative models and examples