How to Be a Thought Leader in Your Online Community

Adapted from my talk at the May 6 Microsoft MVP Community Connection event.

Ever wonder how people get to be “thought leaders“? Becoming a go-to, trusted expert in your niche or community is a good thing to be, both professionally and personally.

In a talk I gave recently, I addressed the often-elusive How To as someone who watches thought leaders appear and grow. Here’s a synopsis, and feel free to discuss in the comments!

How I Pick Out The Thought Leaders

In the global Yammer External Network I manage for my company’s customers, I don’t know these customers personally. But I can pick out the thought leaders.

Here’s what they use this External Network for:

  • First-time training jitters & veteran reassurances.
  • Sharing challenge-to-success moments that end up as amazing stories they don’t even know they’re telling, because to them, it’s just what they do.
  • Networking is a byproduct and happens naturally simply through conversation.

I know who the thought leaders are because:

  • Simply through these customers sharing their experiences, I know exactly who I’d go to if I see a question about X type of training, or Y type of setting.
  • I also know who to go to when I want to get a public blog post for our website, or an audio clip or podcast, or even a video.
  • And this is done simply through them being present, prolific, and helpful.

Remember, I don’t know these people personally and I may never know them. But because they’re active and sharing, I know their names. I can see whose words and stories should be brought out for others to learn from.

How you can do it, too

  • Somebody out there DOES need your knowledge. You may just not know who it is. You may never know. But what you do know is important.
  • “What I do all day isn’t interesting. It’s not a story.” Cease this line of thought! Think about this: When you Google a question, someone else has always had that question too, no matter what it is.
  • Through sharing your experience, you’re telling a story that resonates with others.
  • As you keep sharing, people start thinking of you as a Person To Go To even if they don’t know you personally. They’ll tag you in conversations. They’ll make sure you see something pertinent to you. They’ll ASK for your input!


  • Finding a community is, of course, key. It may take a few trials to find one that really suits you, and you may find yourself moving on periodically.
    • Examples of communities: A Yammer network, the Microsoft Tech Community, a Facebook group, LinkedIn (posts or in general), Medium, cultivating a Twitter presence, building up your own blog, etc.
  • You do need to find the “why” for yourself. What’s in it for you? You have to stay interested, too!
  • Build in time to post like it’s a regular appointment. Set an Outlook reminder, a sticky note on your monitor, an alarm on your watch. Over time, it’ll become like clockwork where you don’t need these reminders anymore.

What questions do you have? What’s worked for you?

3 LinkedIn Networking Fails

Okay, I’m going to try not to be ranty because it is nice to have a LinkedIn profile that draws attention.


I’ve recently received a spate of interesting inbox messages on LinkedIn, and as I was evaluating them, they made me think of:

  • My value as perceived by others
  • What happens to networking when it’s used as currency
  • Actions and agendas and asks, oh my!

This value is perceived by both guinea pigs, but to a sad end.

In an earlier incarnation of this blog (and my career), I talked a lot about career resources. So for today, enjoy the career resource resurrection!

3 Ways Not to Network on LinkedIn (Or Anywhere Else, Really)

1. “Congratulations on <insert achievement here>! Is <job position> still open in your company?”

Congratulations lose their appearance of sincerity when you combine them with an ask for yourself in the next breath.

You’ll do yourself more favors by cultivating and nurturing an even-handed dialogue versus throwing an immediate “Let’s talk about me” bid for attention.

Sure, you still have an agenda, but it’ll be accepted far more easily if you leave off the pouncing.

Or just, you know, do a straight inquiry about the job. It’s okay!


This cub learned through example.


2. “Thanks for accepting my invitation to connect! <Cue far too many paragraphs about why I should use your product/support your agenda/just click this link already>.”


“After viewing your profile, do you use LinkedIn for <something that has nothing to do with what I do>?  <link>  

I get that we’re all mostly on LinkedIn to sell something.

Will we catch the eye of an employer, acquire information, make sales, make connections? Where does our value rank? How do we get our voice heard?

Even these seemingly guileless posts are heavily calculated bids for your attention and support.

But there’s something majorly off-putting about being hit right after connecting with a form letter and a link. Even if you take the time to personalize it with my name and a few details, to me, that’s not building a relationship. That’s not a dialogue.

But it is pushing your agenda on me.

And if you seemingly viewed my profile but try to sell me something that has little or nothing to do with me? Fail.

What you could do instead: Just ask me what I do or what I’m looking for. If it’s something you provide, THEN share your link.


See this? This is what this kangaroo values. You’d do well to heed it.


3. Forgetting that oops, you didn’t treat the person very well in the past.

There’s that old saying, or there should be, that you never know who’s going to help you get your next job, so it pays to be respectful.

There’s another saying I think I made up that I use when talking about Yammer networks: “What happens offline is reflected online.”

I have an acquaintance who has done a great job of ignoring me–to my face!–over the years.

But now we’ve got a job opening in my department.

Suddenly this person wants to connect and talk about it.

I’m a benefit-of-the-doubt person, but I’d say “Hello,” and this person would cut me dead a la the Victorian era, so much as I find the Victorian era fascinating, there was not much doubt left to have.

You know how word gets around. I quickly found out that this person will ignore anyone until they decide you’re someone to use, and then, well…“Oozing charm from every pore, he oiled his way around the floor.” – Henry Higgins.

And now I was someone to use.

Is this the kind of person you’d want to work with?

There are worse things, sure. But had this person treated me better in my personal life, I may have given more thought to helping them in their professional life. As it was, they self-selected themselves out of the running.


We all make mistakes. That’s one of the sure things of life, so we’ve got that going for us. But if you find yourself doing any of the above, cease and desist. And if you see me doing it, please tell me!

What’s your take? Do you find that people are skipping over the usual conversational steps when they’re on LinkedIn? Does it bug you–or not?



How I Went From English Major to Yammer Community Manager

“What are you going to do with an English major?” my friends would tease.

“What are you going to do with ANY major?” my adviser would flash back, all beetled brow and bespectacled.

He was, of course, an English professor, but he was still correct: What you do with your studies is up to you. For I really have found that as an English major, I can do anything.


Looking for work after college, my career actually started out in finance: Processing repossession paperwork, handling checks, talking with customers, and data entry.

But I made it known high and low that I was available to do any writing or editing necessary. So I also wrote technical manuals, policies, internal newsletters, and other documents. None of this was in my job description.


Finance Part 2: Moving On Up 

Due to a split in job functionality that I won’t go into now because it is exceedingly dry, a position opened up where I would be doing some of what I was already doing, but in a different department.

I said, “Give me your words, your phrases, your jumbled sentences, yearning to be free.”

I didn’t really say it like that, but they gave it to me nonetheless. Policies, manuals, other documents—and now customer correspondence. Ah ha, the outside world!

This department also had an e-commerce website. So…


I looked up “finance guinea pig” to one-up the cat, and got this. I guess that says it all.

Marketing & IT-ish

In a promotional move I found very lucrative, they created a marketing position where I’d write the copy—and design the graphics to go with it—to populate on the website. That meant I also had to learn some HTML and what exactly goes into making a .gif do its giffiness.

HTML is comfort coding. I do give a retroactive wince to the quality of some of those .gifs (I was particularly proud of a black and white image morphing into color), but with the purpose being to catch customer attention, they kept me doing it.

I still wrote offline manuals and policies and customer letters, of course.


Marketing & IT-ish Part 2: Consolidation

The director of the actual Marketing department got sick of all the marketeers scattered around in other departments, writing our own stuff, no oversight. Oops!

So he brought everyone into his department, and there I was in Marketing for real.

My dowry was that e-commerce website. In essence, I was assigned to work with my own department almost exclusively, both in print and online. Oh, the projects we had!

And then came a new website to add to my repertoire, with a new platform: IBM WebSphere.

We had an hour’s worth of “Click here, then here” training that was highly inadequate. So I wrote the manual for that too, because I knew it was up to me.

I still remember the flurry of wireframes and copy, of key stakeholders and meetings, of global conference calls and design.

Full circle: That new website was dedicated to the financial branch of the company.


Global IT

Massive layoffs at old company! Hello, new company!

My IBM WebSphere expertise got me in to the Global IT department (I brought my manual to the interview), because the position was primarily to help build websites for teams around the world, and then train them how to manage their sites through this platform.

But this position was a contract position, so I knew that a time would come when I’d be rolled off…


Marketing & Social Media

…and rolled off I was, but now I was in a good position to decide what, exactly, I wanted to do next.

During the massive layoffs mentioned previously, Old Company bought everyone a month’s worth of outplacement services. This really dug deep. I’ve mentioned before on my blog about how being unemployed can make a person start to doubt their self-worth. It’s important to remember that the only thing you actually lost was a job. You did not lose one iota of your skills, knowledge, or experience.

So when I really sat down and looked at all that I had accomplished, I also looked at what I enjoyed doing. It was clear to me: I loved that mix of Marketing and IT. I wanted websites. I also wanted creativity. How could I get both?

I attended every free webinar about social media that I could. I checked out books from the library. I read articles. I also used LinkedIn to post what I was doing.

The head of that company’s online career resources website saw my posts on LinkedIn and got intrigued.

So there I was, back in that company, only now on the business side in Marketing. I had a website to maintain and copy to write. But I also added on the corporate social media accounts, and learned all about engaging with the public as if they’re *gasp* people and as if we were people, too!

It was a beautiful mix.


Marketing, Social Media…and Yammer!

Current company!

After the social media contract ended (the website got axed, so one thing led to another), I knew without a doubt that I wanted to continue with social media. I loved interacting with people, and giving them what they needed to get them where they wanted to go.

I rode in to the Marketing department with the intent to help fire up external social media outlets and start engaging with the audiences that were there.

As well, I had a community to play with for customers. That was the other half of my job. Mind you, we had a false start: We were using the wrong platform for our organizational culture and audience base. I can say we learned a lot about what not to do.

Then I looked into Yammer and realized that we could use this both for internal and external customers. I liked the platform and look and feel. And we were already a Microsoft shop, so why not try it?Yammer Holidays

Two thriving communities later, I’m a manager now and have been moving more fully into strategic campaigns, data, and analytics, while my direct report handles the daily social media posts and interaction.

I remain directly involved with my Yammer communities; I’d say that’s more than 50% of my job, but so are the campaigns, data, and analytics! (Being an English major, my percentages make up more than 100%.)

What I Discovered During All Of This

Looking back, I see an almost linear line from English major to Yammer Community Manager. Yet I never thought I’d end up in a position like this while I was in college or early in my career. Being in a world where I can be creative and analytical, that combines the business and IT sides of an organization, is super fun.

I also apologize to anyone I’ve ever inflicted scope-creep on.

How did you get to where you are today?

(This post is part of the Share Your Career Story summit on the Microsoft Tech Community.)