Becoming a thought leader, an individual who drives innovation and new ideas in a given industry, is an objectively valuable path for any professional. Thought leaders are popular, well respected and connected enough to drive real value to their respective businesses. They’re charismatic institutions, revered both by customers and workers within the industry.

But getting there is neither easy nor straightforward.

You can’t go to school to become a “thought leader,” nor can you complete a one-off program and earn some kind of certificate or formal recognition as such. Instead, you must implement a series of ongoing personal branding strategies, refine your skill sets and expand your professional connections consistently. On top of all that, you have to introduce new ideas on a near-constant basis, and make sure your name gets recognized by people both in and out of the industry.

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All this might seem overwhelming, but if you break it down into a series of steps, it’s much easier to grasp.

1. Establish a personal brand.

Personal brands rest at the heart of many marketing strategies, and thought leadership is a natural extension of the ability to build a reputation. Start out by enhancing or restructuring your existing social media profiles, especially LinkedIn and Twitter, with detailed descriptions of your credentials and career accomplishments. You’ll be using these as foundations of your strategy and key channels for social networking.

Then, establish your own blog or blog on your company’s site and start writing on a regular basis. You’ll want to establish a nice archive of at least 30 posts before you go any further, and make sure you’re updating your blog at least once a week. Syndicate your blogs on your social networks and get involved in groups and chats as you see fit.

This is a preliminary step, so don’t go over the top at this point. Instead, focus on laying a foundation.

2. Work with mentors and influencers.

Once you’ve established a baseline reputation, start reaching out to potential mentors and other influencers in the industry. They should be relatively easy to find if you’re pushing your content socially, and some of them might find you naturally without you lifting a finger.

Once you find a handful that are willing to work with you, stand back and observe. Talk to them about what’s on their minds. Watch how they operate their own businesses. Read what they push to their blogs. The goal here is to learn from them, and to learn to think how they think. After all, you’re going to be emulating them by step five.

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3. Network like your life depends on it.

Continue working with your influencers and mentors -- that should never fully go away -- but once you’ve become more familiar with the territory and the quality of your blog posts goes up, you can start networking with a heavier hand. Get involved on as many social media platforms as possible, and reach out to new people regularly. Attend in-person networking events and seek out speaking opportunities at live events.

The more people that are in your network, the more authority you’ll have, and the weightier your words will be.

4. Get published -- often.

Your blog is only the beginning. By this time, you should have a steady stream of regular readers who occasionally comment on and share your blogs. It’s time to take things to the next level. Start publishing guest posts on other industry-related blogs, and once you're comfortable, start seeking publication on wider, more authoritative sources.

For example, you could get yourself published in an industry magazine or on one of the leading publication channels online. You’ll want to get work published on a wide range of different sources, and the more often you do it, the bigger your audience will grow.

5. Make bolder claims and drive newer things.

At this point, you’ve established your reputation as an authority in the industry, and there’s only one more step to take: you have to become a leader, and to do that, you have to do new things. Start making bolder claims in your articles, and making bigger predictions about the future of your industry.

Drive change and innovation in your own business, and publicize those efforts. With your authority already established, people will immediately begin to see you as a bona fide thought leader.

Don’t try to follow all these steps in a day. Developing a personal brand and becoming a thought leader is a process that takes years, even if you put your full effort into it. No matter how much it might seem that way, nobody becomes a success overnight. You’ll have to work hard, and consistently, if you want to attain the coveted yet unofficial title of “thought leader.”

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