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The Visible Expert®: How Ordinary Professionals Become Thought Leaders

In the professional services, there is no shortage of experts. After all, expertise is what drives our businesses. It’s why people seek us out and are willing to pay good money for our advice and services. Firms like yours are practically bursting with experts.

But some experts stand a little taller. And a few tower like sequoias above the rest. You probably think of these individuals as industry stars or thought leaders. But we’ve given them a special name: Visible Experts®.

Until recently, the path from unknown expert to prominence was poorly understood. Over the past few years, however, we’ve studied hundreds of Visible Experts, and we’ve learned a great deal about their professional journey. We’ve paid special attention to the strategies and techniques they used to raise their profile.

We also learned that these stars are not always gods among women and men. More often than not, they are regular folks like you and me. When they speak to a crowd of their peers, they are not necessarily the brightest minds in the room — which they freely admit. Most are ordinary people, albeit people who have taken their reputations to extraordinary heights.

So what’s their secret?

In this post, we’ll explain what Visible Experts are, what they do differently from ordinary experts and, most importantly, how any competent expert — even you — can retrace their path up the mountain until you reach your peak.

 

What Is a Visible Expert?

Visible Experts are professionals who have achieved prominence in their industries. They are quoted in the media and invited to speak at conferences. They are admired by their peers and sought out by clients. Their celebrity status allows them to command higher fees. And in rare circumstances, they may even become household names. Visible Experts are exactly what their name implies: individuals whose expertise and exposure rise above the rest.

At the very highest echelons, Visible Experts are often trend setters, innovators and leaders. But those aren’t essential traits. Most of them are mere mortals whose big idea was their conscious decision to build a personal brand. In fact, there are only three things you need to become a Visible Expert (other than actual expertise, of course — that’s a prerequisite):

  1. A willingness to teach
  2. Good communication skills
  3. Commitment

Visible Experts are teachers. That’s how they build their reputations. They willingly and openly share their expert knowledge without any jealousy or fear of revealing their secrets. In today’s Internet-fueled world, information on virtually any topic is a few keystrokes away. If you aren’t sharing your knowledge, then someone else will.

When you share your knowledge and teach people in your target audience how you solve the kinds of problems they have, something magical happens. You position yourself as a special kind of expert — one who not only demonstrates a mastery of the material but is unselfish, approachable and utterly helpful. The kind of person you can trust. It doesn’t take long before that trust develops into preference. So when your followers are in a position to buy services like yours, guess who goes straight to the top of their list? That’s right, you!

Of course, you can’t be a good teacher if you aren’t a strong communicator. Visible Experts are usually very good at translating complex ideas into easy-to-understand concepts. When you are writing or speaking, leave your technical jargon at home. Instead, communicate at the level of a non-specialist. For some people, this comes easily. Others have to work at it. If you are in the latter camp, don’t fret. Nobody is good at everything, and to a large degree, clear communication skills can be learned.

All aspiring Visible Experts have to acquire new skills and develop new habits in the course of their ascent. And that requires a sustained commitment. Whether you are learning SEO techniques or trying to write a blog post every week (or both), you have to set aside the time and summon the energy to make the steady, incremental progress it takes to climb the mountain. Visible Experts aren’t made in a day or a week or even a few months. You’ve got to maintain your new mindset for the foreseeable future. The good news is that it gets easier the longer you stay on the path.

 

The 5 Levels of Visible Expertise

In our research, we identified five levels of visible expertise. To extend our alpine metaphor, think of these levels as outposts positioned increasingly higher on the mountain. Most climbers are content to reach one of these lofty stages, while a few determined souls feel compelled to push through the thinning air to the summit.

Level 1: Resident Experts. This is where most experts begin their careers, and the vast majority of them never leave its ranks. These individuals are appreciated within their firms, and clients respect and rely on them. But beyond those boundaries they are virtual unknowns.

Level 2: Local Heroes. When experts get active in their local business communities, their horizons expand, especially if they use their outreach as an opportunity to educate their audience. They may speak at business events, write blog posts or conduct webinars. And they may even attract a few new clients.

Level 3: Rising Stars. Frequent writers and speakers on their area of expertise, these individuals are relatively well known among peers in their region. They can bring in excellent clients who are willing to pay more for their perceived expertise.

Level 4: Industry Rock Stars. Every industry has a small cadre of these. They are the experts who keynote major conferences across the country and are quoted in top media publications. Because they attract the best clients and can charge top fees, these high-profile stars are key players in their firms.

Level 5: Global Superstars. These are the elite experts, and their reputations often extend around the globe. No longer niche players, they are broadly associated with their industries — and some are even recognized by ordinary people. These superstars command ultra-premium fees and are in high demand.

 

Figure 1.Relative hourly rates buyers will pay, by Visible Expert level

Solo vs. Team Ascent

When you hear “Visible Expert” or “thought leader”, you probably think of individuals who have climbed to prominence of their own volition. And in fact, most high-profile experts make their way up the mountainside solo.

But there is another, less lonely way to reach the summit (or whatever level you aspire to achieve). And that is to make the journey in concert with others in your organization. Some firms put groups of professionals through a program designed to raise their expert profiles. The benefits to the firm should be obvious — increased visibility and higher fees. But the individual experts get the benefit of working through their challenges and skills training together. They can lean on each other for answers, insights and motivation when the going gets tough.

One firm that has done this is Nishith Desai Associates, an international law firm. They recently put seventeen of their attorneys through a year-long Visible Expert program. While a handful of participants failed to complete the program, the vast majority not only finished but made saw tangible results that were directly attributed to their new-gained visibility. For instance, many of the participants, some of whom had never spoken publicly before, were invited to speak at events around the globe. One of their practice areas was recognized by a major law journal as a leader in its field. A government agency reached out to one of their experts to help develop new regulations. And they attracted multiple new clients because of their enhanced market exposure.

 

A Map to the Mountaintops

In another post, my colleague Liz Harr provides a detailed roadmap you can follow to build your personal brand. I will briefly summarize it here.

Phase I: Set Your Strategy

  1. Determine where you are today. Are you at Level 1, or are you starting from a more elevated position? Use the five levels described above to find out.
  2. Identify your specialized area of expertise. Define your expertise as narrowly as possible so that people will easily be able to associate you with the expertise you will become known for.
  3. Define your audience. When you start writing and speaking, you’ll want to know exactly who’s reading, watching and listening to you.
  4. Find your angle. Try to find a single issue or point of view that you can become known for. If it is counterintuitive or controversial, so much the better.
  5. Decide which tools you will use. From social media and web-based platforms to public speaking and podcasts, you have a bewildering array of tools to choose from. I suggest you start with the tools most often used by Visible Experts.
  6. Assess your skills. Determine what you are good at and where you need help. You will need to assess your skill and experience levels in the following areas:
  • Writing
  • Public speaking
  • Blogging
  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Finding outside speaking and writing opportunities
  • Email marketing
  • Social media
  1. Determine who is going to help you. Chances are you will need some help in one or more of these areas. Line up your resources early.

Phase II: Set Up Your Infrastructure

  1. Create your media kit. You are going to be a public persona, so you’ll need an appropriate kit to promote yourself.
  2. Enhance your bio/build your website. Don’t be shy about promoting yourself on your website.
  3. Get set to blog. Blogging, combined with SEO, is one of the easiest ways to build visibility. Learn how to do blogging right and make sure you have a great platform available to get your voice out there.
  4. Set up your conversion tools. Conversion mechanisms are an important way to turn blog readers and web visitors into prospects. Get these set up as soon as you start your new writing push.
  5. Set up your social media profiles. Start with LinkedIn, and make sure your profile is complete. Later you may want add Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
  6. Select and prepare your email platform. You’ll need a platform that is designed for sending emails in quantity. Whether it’s Salesforce, Infusionsoft, Constant Contact, MailChimp or a similar service, make sure it has robust reporting features so that you can see how successful your email is.

Phase III: Develop Your Skills

  1. Set aside time each day to work on new skills. Make learning something new every day a habit.

 

How to Get Started

If you want to become the next Visible Expert in your industry, the first step is to commit to it. If you are part of a firm, talk to your colleagues and explain what you are trying to do and how it will help the business achieve its goals. If you can get the support of the people around you, you will find it easier to carve out time during the day to do many of the tasks it takes to build your profile.

Then start working through the 14-step Visible Expert process. Download and read our free book, The Visible Expert: How to create industry stars. And why every professional services firm should care. It contains much more detail about the process, as well as the research behind it. And if you need training along the way, find a robust online resource that can answer your questions and teach you the skills to overcome any obstacles.

While not everyone is cut out to be a Visible Expert, it is a perfectly achievable goal for most professionals. But you have to wantit. And you need to know that there is a proven, repeatable process you can follow to identify your strengths and weaknesses, set your strategy and develop the skills and infrastructure it takes to climb to the peak of your ability. Now start climbing!

Where to Learn More

  • Ready to dive into the details and get started? Download and read book that started it all — The Visible Expert. You’ll explore the underlying research, read inspiring stories of real-world Visible Experts and get the proven, step-by-step program that has helped countless experts rise to greater prominence in their fields. Best of all, it’s free!
  • If you’d like a shorter but still fairly detailed overview of the program, check out Becoming a Visible Expert: A Guide for Professional Services Executives. In 24 pages it delivers the key ingredients of a Visible Expert strategy and implementation plan.
  • If you want an instructor-led, learn-at-your-own-pace experience, take our online course, The Visible Expert Course. Over 7 class units, Hinge partner and Visible Expert Liz Harr walks you through the entire program and offers a wealth of helpful tips and advice. The course also includes useful worksheets, which are available nowhere else.
  • For step-by-step instructions to learn the key strategies and skills you’ll need on your journey to Visible Expertise, join Hinge University.

 

Visible Expert Consulting

Are you looking for a seasoned guide to lead you or your team through every step of the Visible Expert journey — with mentoring and implementation support along the way? Hinge’s Visible Expert Programis for you! Working with individuals or groups, we can tailor a program that suits your situation and budget. For more information, contact us today.

Aaron Taylor, Partner

Aaron Taylor A partner and co-founder of Hinge, Aaron brings over 20 years of marketing strategy experience to every client engagement. In his career, he’s conceived and implemented engaging brand strategies for scores of professional services firms. In his role as Creative Director, Aaron oversees Hinge's award-winning creative team.

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