Posted 12th July 2011.
For me, establishing yourself as one of the leading authorities in your field is the most powerful strategy for those in the advisory professions. As the web and the ability to find pretty much anything or anyone online becomes all pervasive, clients are now able to find the “best person for their needs”, rather than just the “best person they can find locally”.
Being a recognised authority in your field doesn't mean you'll win all the work – or even most of it. But it does put you in line for the most interesting and lucrative work.
It's not a strategy that's for everyone. There's absolutely nothing wrong with being “damn good at what you do” – but not necessarily the leader in the field.
Personally though (and for obviously self-interested reasons) I'm fascinated by what it is that these authorities do to establish their market presence. So I set about interviewing them to find out.
I have more interviews planned, but I wanted to share with you some common themes emerging from the research so far and to see what you thought.
What makes an Authority?
The first common factor is that all the authorities in my study so far have made their name in tight niche.
Charlie Green established himself as the go-to guy for becoming a Trusted Advisor. Tom Searcy focused on “whalehunting” – winning big clients. John Seddon is “the systems thinking guy for service businesses”. And so on.
Now, later on, many of the authorities expanded their reach. Charlie is now a recognised leader in Trust generally – not just for advisors, for example.
But they all started out in a relatively tightly defined niche.
Secondly, they all developed deep expertise in their field.
Now you may have heard people saying that you can “fake it 'til you make it”. That you can claim authority first, then develop the expertise.
– Bullshit –
Each of the authorities in my study dedicated themselves to mastery of their field.
Drayton Bird is well into his 70s – yet he's a lifelong student of direct marketing and continues to invest heavily in his own education. The detailed benchmarking that Greg Alexander and his team do gives them insights into sales performance that no other consultants can match. Jane Mason lives and breathes breadmaking and is constantly looking into new techniques, methods and recipes.
Now you don't have to be seen as the #1 expert globally to be an Authority. You just need an audience who values what you do and sees you as the Authority for them. That's where specialisation can help.
And transparency too. Be honest about what you know and what you don't. If you're just a couple of steps ahead of your audience, tell them. Be the guy (or gal) who's a trailblazer for them. Who shows them what's working and what's not right now to achieve the goals they're aiming at.
All of the Authorities I interviewed are passionate about what they do too.
None of them would have dedicated the time and effort they did into becoming leading experts if they didn't have a true passion for their fields.
Sometimes that passion was born of frustration: John Seddon's grew from anger at how badly the UK government was managing improvements in the public sector.
Sometimes it was part of their upbringing: Jane Mason's parents taught her the importance of natural food, good company and living well.
And sometimes it just grew: Drayton Bird fell into direct marketing accidentally when he was desperate for a job. But he fell in love with it and became one of direct marketing's true evangelists.
All of my authorities developed a clear market positioning: they stand for something.
Drayton and John are famous for being outspoken – fierce critics of poor performance in their fields. Tom is the champion of small businesses – helping them win big deals against giant competitors. Greg is on the side of Chief Sales Officers, having been one himself and been frustrated with the poor support he'd been given. Charlie is an advocate of trust based relationships and long term thinking in a world of short term transactions. And Jane promotes social enterprise and community building through bread-making.
We know who they are and what they stand for. There's no ambiguity. No “we do everything” or “we do whatever you want”. We know who to go to if we want what they've got.
Finally, they all have the courage to speak out about what they believe in.
Not everyone likes them. Not everyone agrees with them. But they don't pander. They don't say what they think people want to hear – they say what they believe in and they say it with power and passion. Listen to a presentation by “Entrepreneur's Guru” Robert Craven, for example – he pulls no punches.
To use social media terminology – they've built fans rather than just friends.
How does this apply to you?
Could you do this in your business? Is there something you're passionate enough about and expert enough about to become an authority on?
Do you have the courage to go down this route with your marketing? To stand for something. To risk annoying or alienating potential clients who don't agree with you?
It's worked for the authorities in my study – could it work for you?
I'd love to hear your views – just drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
And if you want to listen to the interviews, they're all here.