Yes and no is my usual answer.

The concepts are often used interchangeably so it’s important to understand the salient differences.

Generally speaking a subject matter expert (SME) is an authority in a specific area. They know their topic inside out, are widely read and can speak knowledgeably on their area of expertise.  Subject matter experts can be all manner of professionals – sales people, marketers, public relations, HR, you name it!

While they may have some of their own ideas and views, these ideas are usually a mix of other people’s points of view, knowledge and know-how.

Subsequently says digital transformation expert, Alana Fisher-Chejoski, SMEs are usually ‘curators of original thought and best practice’.

Their ideas are rarely, if ever, their own.

What is a thought leader?

On the whole, thought leaders have knowledge others don’t have and have the education, know-how or original research to support this knowledge. In many instances they have unique experiences which have shaped who they are and how they perceive their environment, making them one of a kind.

In addition they are capable of thinking outside the box and have the ability to lead and take their audience’s thoughts in a new and ground-breaking direction.

Think Elon Musk. Who would have thought 10 years ago that we would be clamouring to purchase electric cars or heaven forbid, contemplating life on Mars? And yet here we are …

Many thought leaders are innovators, change-makers, crusaders and disruptors – people who are looking at changing the world, be via new practices, new ways of doing business, new thinking or by cleaning up their professions or industries which may be in dire need of an overhaul.

However, these change-makers are usually reliant on their fans, followers and supporters to advance their thinking and ideas and ensure they are not confined to just the one company or community but are spread across an entire industry, niche, or better still, ecosystem.

Can an SME ever become a thought leader?

Yes and yes.

I am totally in agreement with Alana Fisher-Chejoski that to become a thought leader you need to start out as a subject matter expert. Basically you need to be across the detail of your topic, niche or industry before you can even look at progressing through the ranks.

However to achieve thought leadership status, your ideas need to be original and authentic – not a regurgitation of other people’s ideas – and most importantly, they must merit attention.

In addition you need to:

  • Be fearless and willing to take risks and challenge the status quo
  • Accept there will be those who don’t agree with what they say. You will need to take criticism on the chin, not batten down the hatches and go into hiding. In fact you will need to see criticism as an opportunity to carry on the conversation, get more oxygen and continue the debate in an intelligent and constructive way.
  • Be a ‘leader’, says Alana Fisher-Chejoski and inspire your audience or followers to believe in your ideas and become your ‘students’, affecting change by taking on your ideas.

 Is it OK to be just an SME and not a thought leader?

Absolutely! Not everyone has full-blown thought leadership aspirations.

Being a SME is very commendable. In my decades as a public relations practitioner and thought leadership coach, the bulk of my clients and key spokespersons have come from this group.

However, this status has brought with it significant rewards:

  • Recognition and respect for their knowledge and expertise
  • Regular commentary and coverage in the media
  • Opportunities to speak at highly prized gigs
  • Interest from investors
  • Access to people beyond their immediate circles, and
  • Invitations to join corporate boards, serve on government commissions or participate in industry-wide committees, to name but a few.

If you are interested in becoming a subject matter expert or thought leader, Parker Public Relations provides ongoing mentoring and coaching or alternatively you can book in for a three-hour strategy and planning session which will enable you to rapidly kick-start your thought leadership journey.

Let us know if you are interested in coaching or a strategy workshop. To get in touch, contact Wendy at