Champion of Change Shares "Thought Leader" Strategy

By Amy-Willard Cross

Denise Brosseau realized she was a thought leader when the media kept calling 15 years ago. And they haven't stopped since.

Brosseau helped found two organizations that help direct women entrepreneurs toward investment: first Watermark, then Springboard — which can claim to have brought $6 billion to women’s businesses. The White House recently named her a Champion of Change.

Now she’s written a book: "Ready to Be a Thought Leader?: How to Increase Your Influence, Impact, and Success."

"When we were building Springboard, we had the Women’s Entrepreneurs Forum, angel investing groups, and we mapped out the whole country trying to bring in more organizations, Brosseau recalls. "Once you join in that national conversation, it changes the way you behave, and you become part of an ecosystem in what you’re doing — whether it’s cloud computing, working in poverty, working in education reform; once you raise your head and get involved, that’s when you can be powerful."

Being a thought leader doesn’t mean you have to give a TEDtalk, but learning how to lead can help you harness your well-earned expertise and make the maximum impact in your field. Utlimately, it’s about making change and enlisting a community to work along with you. We spoke with Denise about her book. 

Q&A

VITAMINW: What can we learn from your book? 

Brosseau: You can be discoverable for what you’re doing now, which means speaking up for yourself and showcasing your expertise. Most women, minorities, or many men don’t create good LinkedIn profiles with their skills and expertise. Or they don’t speak up for themselves — or they don’t speak up, period. I use the phrase, "being discoverable."  If we don’t know people and can’t find them, how can they make a difference in the world?

It’s not just a woman’s thing, I have male clients who believe if they do a good job, keep going, and they will be recognized. But that is old model. It’s a very competitive world and one where people ask you, "What is your followership?"

VITAMINW: Is this all about getting a lot of attention for oneself?

Brosseau: A real thought leader wants to make real positive sustainable change — and not just call attention to herself. It’s about engaging community, whatever that may be. We’re seeing that same shift at that corporate level. It’s not okay for a company to toot its own horn for its product features and benefits; people expect corporations to have a strategy about building knowledge and empowering other people.

VITAMINW:  What do you hope people can learn from you?

Brosseau: I’d like to see more people claiming their expertise and speaking up for the change they want to see in the world. If I can move those two needles, I’ll be a happy girl. Of course, there are risks and rewards involved. I’ve learned how many risks people perceive. I have spoken to an amazing woman rabbi who was raised in a culture where women’s voices should always be softer than men's; extremely competent women raised by nuns, who are told, "don’t ask so many questions"; and women whose fathers told them, "you’re getting too big for your britches."

I was nominated for an award, the top 100 women in Silicon Valley. I filled out the form and returned it immediately. Apparently, 50-60 percent of people ignore the email. I realized many of us are not claiming our expertise. We’re hiding.

VITAMINW:  What’s an unlikely example of a thought leader?

Brosseau: In the book, I wrote about a girl who, at eight years old, started a reading program that is now global, I really admire people like that. She didn’t just think of an idea, but in her community, she caused the change needed to happen; she created a plan and got out, talked about it, and did it.

VITAMINW:  Is there a way to do this with other people?  

Brosseau: When we were founding Springboard, there were four of us across the country, and we were all the mouthpieces of the initiative. We had a shared message, a well-crafted set of stories, and we amplified each other’s voices. We’re actually more powerful personally when we’re part of an ecosystem.

I’m seeing some echoes of that; for example, with TED Women and Lean in. They’re not working directly together, but they’re amplifying the same message on a global scale and speaking the same language. It would be even more powerful if they were actually working together.

VITAMINW:  Why is it so important to speak up?

Brosseau: If you look at any initiative that has caused a big impact, it didn’t stay small or quiet. Whether you’re trying to change the face of women’s economic empowerment as I was, or trying to get more women into Congress, or if you’re just trying to engage to improve an industry, you don’t make significant change in a community without speaking up. Katie Orenstein of the OpEd Project teaches this in her seminars — that we need to share what we know.

VITAMINW:  Why would anyone sign up for this, it sounds like more work?

Brosseau: We have a responsibility to be role models and to pay forward all the help we got in our careers. It’s part of what’s required of leaders. We want to encourage and reward and invite others. You can actually invite more women to be more discoverable and reward those stepping forward to take their seat at the table.

This interview was condensed and edited. 

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