Author, Speaker, Thought Leader Strategist
Denise Brosseau has spent a career influencing, leading, and teaching others how to step up and make a meaningful difference by sharing their ideas. The “meta” way to describe Denise Brosseau’s influence in the world is to say that she is a thought leader about thought leadership. But that understates her impact.
In the late 1990s, she co-founded of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, as well as the first venture capital conference for women, Springboard. She founded the Thought Leadership Lab to nurture and develop leaders through speaking, consulting, and training. She has written a best-selling book on the topic, and more than a hundred thousand people have taken her LinkedIn Learning courses.
She’s truly someone who has made a difference in her career, with her writing and beyond.
As a major advocate for women authors, Denise generously took time from that work and her latest nonprofit healthcare endeavor to chat with me about her experiences, and how writing a book supports thought leadership.
We talked about:
- What she means by thought leadership
- Why she wrote her book
- The “magic” of having a book that makes an impact
- How and why to differentiate and find your niche
- How to make a meaningful impact in a crowded market
It’s a fascinating conversation. If you want more:
- Visit the Thought Leadership Lab to find out more about Denise and her courses
- Find Ready to Be a Thought Leader? on Amazon or Bookshop.
- Find her LinkedIn Learning class on thought leadership here.
Listen to our conversation
Anne: Thank you, Denise for joining me to talk about women and thought leadership and books. You have done so much over the course of your career to support women as entrepreneurs, as thought leaders, and as authors. I’m really honored that you’re taking the time to talk with me.
Denise: I’m happy to be here.
Why she wrote her book
A: I read your book Ready to Be a Thought Leader? I want to talk with you about the story of that book. When you’d written it, you were already doing thought leadership consulting through the Thought Leadership Lab. Then you wrote the book. Let me ask you—and I kind of know the answer because I read your book—what were you hoping to achieve with the book? Writing a book is not an insignificant endeavor.
D: For anybody writing a book, you have to have some driving reason—something that’s going to keep you going, because it does take a while to get a book out.
First, it was the importance of telling a few of the stories that I tell in the book: I begin with one about my client, Van Ton-Quinlivan. There’s another story of a thought leader that I was very impressed with, Zoe Dunning. I wanted to share her story. I think that was the main reason that kept me going—these stories needed to be told.
Second, I was writing a story to my younger self. I was writing a story to that gal that was setting out on a journey, unbeknownst to herself, that she was going to become a thought leader. If I’d only known or had something that could have guided me on my path. It was all hit-or-miss. It was all stumble and pick yourself up and try something different. I had the good fortune to be in a forgiving market space at a time; my voice was needed, and people were ready to hear it. But if I had had the book I was able to finally write a few years later, I would have a) stumbled less, b) been more confident, and c) gone much further, much faster than I did.
That’s what I wrote it for: how could I help others, particularly women executives, entrepreneurs, leaders, and change-makers to have those tools at their fingertips.
A: So, you wrote the book that you needed previously. You had been consulting and speaking on this subject already. You had in many ways “consulted” your way into the deep knowledge and expertise. Did you find that writing the book crystallized it differently?
D: Very much so. I had my own journey of becoming a thought leader, then I got hired to consult with my first client, the one on the first page. That catapulted me into this new conversation on how people can use their expertise to change the conversation. How they can be change agents that are not just making change in one organization but driving change more systemically.
What I thought I knew when I began the book and what I knew by the end of the book were very different.
First, like you, I interviewed people. Second, my consulting practice grew over the time I was working on this book. And third, writing a book forces you to codify frameworks and distill step-by-step—which, honestly, is the journey of a thought leader.
It’s funny because now people call me a thought leader about thought leadership, which is a meta concept. But the idea of being a thought leader is to force yourself to think, “How can others come along behind me? How can others follow in my footsteps?” It was in the process of writing a book that I understood that more deeply and was able to codify what I knew in a way that others could do that.
On becoming a thought leader (or writing a book)
A: What you just said there: the process of becoming a thought leader is analyzing and thinking about what you know. Sometimes people feel that they need to already be a thought leader before they step out and write a book. So it’s like, how do you be one? I don’t know, I didn’t come out of the womb a thought leader.
D: “No one anointed me!”
A: Right, we are waiting for a gatekeeper to tell us it’s okay. And we are our gatekeepers. A lot of the examples you give are women. You started the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs. Do you find it is different getting women to step into the role of thought leadership than it is men?
D: It isn’t so much men vs. women. It’s dominant culture vs. non-dominant culture. For example, if you are looking in the tech industry, where the dominant culture is white male, even men of color will find that honor and respecting and having the confidence to use their voice is a challenge. For women, there are many more places where we are the non-dominant culture. But I don’t want to ever say this is men vs. women. I would say there are certainly men who need to step into their expertise in a broader way, which is why this book has become so popular.
This is not just for those people who are behind or left out. It’s really for any of us—particularly those who are change agents, who need to understand these steps. Who begin the realize that the change they’re making in one organization, one community, one company could have a broader impact. That’s people of every color, race, age, background, and description.
A: That’s such a good way to frame it. Whether or not you feel you’re part of the dominant culture of the industry or area you’re in really affects how you feel about stepping up and saying something.
D: Yes. And trusting that people want to hear you happens more easily if you’re of the dominant culture. “Of course people want to hear me, I’m just like everybody around me,” versus “I’m nothing like everybody around me. Does anyone want to hear me?” That’s part of why this skillset is all the more important for those who are in that type of structure.
The impact of the book on Denise’s life and career
A: Tell me about how the book has been received and the experience of having that book go out into the world.
D: The thing about books that I had no way of knowing is that they’re like magic! It’s a lot of work. It’s a heck of a journey. All of that is true.
Once your book is out in the world, the opportunities that have presented themselves, for me, I couldn’t describe as anything other than magic. Not only have I had the opportunity to feel that I’m making a difference, for people to gain skills that they always wanted or never knew they wanted. I get love letters from people, I get connections on LinkedIn from people around the globe every day. People reach out for speaking. I’ve had the opportunity to do a course on LinkedIn Learning, then a second course on LinkedIn Learning. All the doors that have opened, all the people that have come to tell me their story or how I helped them, or how they underlined every page or have sticky notes, or they have yellow highlights on every page and they had to get another copy… the funny things you hear. What a wonderful thing that is.
I did work hard on this book, and it was several years of my coming to understanding, then iterating and iterating to get a book that I was proud of. There was procrastination and fear and doubt. I don’t want to say this was a smooth show from the day I decided to do a book. No, it was a journey of my own. Seeing that impact makes it all worthwhile.
A: You are someone who wants to instigate change, and here you are doing it with your book. It’s the meta experience of being a thought leader about thought leadership,
D: It’s a huge gift for me as well as for others, and that’s what I love.
A: You speak on this topic as well. There’s a platform of this beyond the book. I know you’re doing other things in healthcare now, too. You are a multi-faceted individual. Tell me about what else you are doing on thought leadership.
D: The book has gone into many places. I had the opportunity to teach at Stanford Business School, a first-of-its-kind course in thought leadership. It was called Introduction to Thought Leadership. It was about communicating for credibility. I co-taught it with a long-time instructor there and had such a great experience. I am a graduate of the business school, so to be on the other side was really fun. The students are really smart, dedicated, gung-ho types. Some were bigger thought leaders in their fields than I will ever be already, before they came to the class. Watching them even go further—that was huge.
I was able to create a course on MentorBox that has gotten a lot of positive feedback. I have a new opportunity with a venture-funded organization that’s creating LinkedIn Learning kinds of courses on audio. I’ll be one of their first instructors.
Plus, I’ve had a lot of articles that were taken from the book. It’s had a broad outreach. I’ve been able to work with different organizations. There’s a group that specializes in consultants, so we did an ebook on thought leadership for consultants.
Creating more thought leaders
D: When my book first came out, I invited a group of women friends who are all powerhouses. I invited them to an afternoon get-together. I provided a lovely setup with wine in a beautiful room. We put white sheets of paper on every wall and had put post-it notes everywhere. I invited them to join me in a conversation about how could I create 10,000 women thought leaders. That was my goal in 2014.
Just this past weekend I was cleaning out my closet and found some of those pages I had saved from all that time ago. Seeing some of the ideas we had … we created this big map. We said, “Here we are at 10,000. What would have had to happen before that, and before that, and before that?” We thought about what would happen for entrepreneurs? For executives? I had all these brilliant women giving me all these great ideas about how to scale my ideas.
I look back now and think I’m well beyond 10,000 women thought leaders now. A hundred thousand people have taken my courses on LinkedIn. The book is a best seller. It’s done very well over many years.
At the time, I thought 10,000 sounded so ambitious! Now I look back and think, hey, where’s the one million?
That’s also what I love. This book has pushed me. It has galvanized me to think even bigger. That’s what I want for my clients, my friends, those I wrote the book for. I love that it’s also for me.
A: What a great story, to come back and find this time capsule. 10,000 seemed like a big number when you first published.
D: Now, it’s like, “I did that a couple years ago.”
A: As a fun thing you had Guy Kawasaki write your foreword, which is a nice start for a book.
D: He’s been a champion of mine in the past. When I started the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, he was just starting one of his organizations and he offered me free office space. For several years I had this beautiful space in downtown Palo Alto. So, when I was writing the book, of course he was the first person I reached out to and asked if he would do the foreword. He was kind enough to do so.
A: He has a book about writing a book, APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, which inspired me to write my first book.
D: I love his book Enchantment, too, because Enchantment ties to what we’re talking about here. You need to have that skill set to be effective as a thought leader. I often tell people to get his book as a good tie-in to mine, because those skill sets are intertwined.
Understanding your niche
A: So the book created this platform, and that has enabled you to reach so many people beyond the book: LinkedIn courses, speaking, all of these things. Was the book a catalyst for that?
D: I was already a professional speaker by the time the book came out. But I’ll tell a story on myself. I was a member of the National Speaker’s Association before the book came out. I remember going to an early event. I was standing at the cocktail table with these women, and they asked me what I speak on. I said, “Leadership.”
They said, “Well, yeah, but what?”
I said, “Women’s leadership.”
They said, “Okay, but what?”
And I had nothing. I didn’t understand the importance of niche. Here it was the first chapter of the book a few years later: the importance of having a niche.
I think to myself, yes, I was a professional speaker. Was I anywhere ready for prime time? Probably not. The fact that people were paying me back then is more of a kindness. Now I have a specialty and an area of expertise, which is what I want for everyone. I want you to have it in a way that your particular perspective and your particular successes in what you have done are codified in a way that is allowing you to galvanize change. That is way better than being a speaker who can get up and talk about general topics. Having something you own? Then the phone rings. Then they want to talk to you, not just because you’re some leadership speaker. This is a journey I needed to be on. The book pushed me much faster.
I always tell other women authors, and anyone trying to create that voice, that you can’t create that voice talking about everything.
You can’t be a generalist and be followed.
It’s more important than ever, with this crowded marketspace, with all these different people and different media, to find a place and at least for a time, stick to it. It doesn’t mean it will be the only thing you ever speak on for the rest of your life.
If you have an area of expertise, now people have a place to put you in their head. Everybody needs to put you in a box, and now you’re in the box of thought leadership. In my case, it was built on a box of women’s entrepreneurship. Now this is my second box, and my more important work for the future is this thought leadership piece.
A: That advice about finding your niche is so problematic to some people, and yet it’s so important. That’s a conversation I keep having with authors, and I’m getting lots of different takes on it. One is, “Don’t’ decide your niche until you’ve been engaging with the market and people kind of tell you.” Sometimes the world tells you what your niche is, if you’re listening.
D: It’s like starting a company. I always tell people, don’t start a company just to start a company. Figure out what people are already calling you for and willing to pay you to do. Then start that company. I’ve started many companies in my career. The only one I ever did that wasn’t like that was a huge failure. Every other one was perfectly successful because people were already willing to pay me for that.
A: Yes, that’s the key. Pay attention to what people are asking for and responding to.
D: And double down. Really be clear that you have a particular way of doing whatever it is.
On writing a book in a crowded field
D: I was just talking with a client last week. She said, “My process is like everybody’s process.”
I said, “You work in a company of how many people?”
She said, “Oh, 100,000.”
“How many people are just in your division?”
“Okay. How many people in your division can do what you do?”
She said, “Two?”
“Okay. What we need to do is not say you’re doing what everybody’s doing. We need to distill what you do, particularly, to be one of those two. What is your secret sauce, and your particular way of approaching things?”
It isn’t generic once you start to peel away: how did you do it, and how did people respond? What were your tactics? Look for the words you’re using, which are not generic. You’re not saying the same thing as others.
That’s what I always try to do with people. Thinking even about how you create a chapter title. It shouldn’t be “The next step is X.” How can you make it something that’s yours?
I interviewed my mentor, Sam Horn, and quoted her in the book because she’s so good at this. How do you codify steps in a way that you can put a trademark on? That’s her sweet spot. I didn’t want to pretend I had learned this on my own. I wanted to go to the expert, and she really is.
A: I’ve met Sam, she’s wonderful. I’m a huge fan as well.
This is something I hear people say: There’s already a book on my topic. What would you say to someone who said that to you: “Denise, there’s a book on my topic.”
D: When I started writing my book I went on Google and Googled how many books there were on leadership. I don’t remember the number, but it was so big that I easily could have crawled under my bed and forgotten the whole thing. I do think it was important for me to differentiate.
Redefining Thought Leadership
The second thing is that the words thought leadership were really mis-used at the time this book came out. People hated that phrase. Many people still do. I had to start the book by saying, “What do I mean by thought leader?” I had to define it in a way that I thought was unique enough that people could say I wasn’t talking about just getting yourself on Twitter, saying how fabulous you area, and talking about what you had for lunch. It’s important to differentiate yourself. Not just that you’re an expert, but that you’re an expert that is going to show the way.
The way I talk about it now is that leaders are one-to-many. Most of the people they lead, they see on a regular basis. Thought leaders are many-to-many. What’s different is that you need to get other people to pick up your ideas and carry them forward to their communities. That’s a different skill set. You can push and pull on the people that report to you, or you have influence over, or that know you and trust you. But to get someone to pick up those ideas and carry them on to someone else—that takes an ability to distill messaging, to craft how-tos, to create blueprints and frameworks. That is a different set of skills.
Once people can see that’s what I meant by thought leader, then they couldn’t just dismiss this anymore as something anyone can do.
The truth is, it is hard to be a thought leader. It doesn’t just happen overnight.
It can happen by accident—for me it was completely by accident—but I think that if you apply yourself and put a number of new tools in your toolkit, you’re going to be all the more effective. When I could get people to see that, they could let go of that old framing of thought leader and adopt and accept and be excited about the new one, which is what I was trying to do.
That’s what everyone needs to do for their niche. Okay, there’s a million books on your topic. How can you differentiate either with the definition or the process you’re using, the way you describe it, the way you message, the way you create community, or the way you amplify the ideas of others? All of those differentiate you and the way you’re approached.
Why your voice matters
D: I’ll add one last piece. Often, my voice is going to be accepted by someone who may not be excited to hear from someone else on that very same topic. An Indian woman senior executive is going to have a different audience than someone who doesn’t look or talk like her and have her background and expertise. I want to encourage her to get her voice out there because there’s a whole bunch of people who have no one speaking to them … or speaking for them.
That’s what thought leaders are about. We are speaking on behalf of others. As you’re figuring out your topic, think for yourself, who are you speaking on behalf of? And what voice do they need to hear?
How come there are a thousand books? There are a thousand audiences.
A: That’s such a great way to frame it. Not just, “Who are you serving,” but “Who are you speaking on behalf of.” That’s a wonderful way to put it. That’s why we need to encourage people to step up, go through this journey and figure it out.
Thank you as you continue to guide and inspire all sorts of people.