Using thought leadership to display your firm’s depth of expertise and grow your reputation.
An interview with Louis Montgomery JR. about thought leadership in human resources and search firms.
How do you best showcase your organization’s depth of expertise?
Have you ever thought about the way thought leadership intersects with the executive search? Many organizations encourage broad diversity, and during executive search periods, they want to showcase and bolster that practice. But how do you demonstrate it to your target audience?
Today, I’ve invited Louis Montgomery Jr., Partner, Practice Leader Human Resources and Diversity Officers at JM Search, a firm that (through rigorous assessment) provides the right candidates for open positions to private equity firms, venture capital firms, and select corporate clients.
Louis understands what it takes to be successful in demanding fields. He discusses his path as an HR leader and Diversity Officer, and how he assists candidates seeking opportunity and growth. When he changed course during his career, he quickly realized, as many others do, that his reputation as an expert in HR didn’t follow him to his new position. He discusses his experiences with networking and creating thought leadership, and explains how he established himself as an expert in the new field — and how others can do the same.
Having worked with both large and small firms, Louis understands what it takes to get thought leadership into the world. He’s built an established thought leadership engine that carries his name and reputation forward. In our discussion, he shares tips for building your firm’s reputation (and your own!) by leveraging established thought leadership or marketing roles.
Developing smart thought leadership content is about providing answers to your audience’s questions, and as Louis says, a listening ear is the best tool. Learn how to tune into what others are saying, and to notice the questions that come up time and time again. These are prime topics for thought leadership!
If you are considering starting a journey into thought leadership, start now! The sooner you delve into the field, the more rapidly you will master it.
Three Key Takeaways:
- Networking provides an advantage in the job search, when the time comes to seek a new role.
- Thought Leadership allows you to share your expertise and establish credibility, and differentiate yourself from others in the market.
- Being a thought leader and active practitioner of your field of expertise can give you a greater credibility with clients. That makes you stand out!
Join the Organizational Thought Leadership Newsletter to learn more about expanding thought leadership within your organization! This monthly newsletter is full of practical information, advice, and ideas to help you reach your organization’s thought leadership goals.
Bill Sherman Today, we explore thought leadership through a case study in diversity officer executive search. How can you better showcase your organization’s depth of expertise? We’ll look at how thought leadership intersects with executive search, and will use that conversation to talk about how you can build a team within your organization to showcase your knowledge. In this episode, I speak with Louis Montgomery Jr. He’s the leader of JM Search’s Human Resources and Diversity Officer, Executive Search Practice. And Lewis has been practicing thought leadership himself during his career in executive search. He’s worked at both global search firms that have resources in depth as well as at smaller firms that have to be savvy with every hour and every dollar invested in thought leadership. In this episode, we’ll talk about how you demonstrate public expertise to your target audiences.
Bill Sherman I’m Bill Sherman and you’re listening to Leveraging Thought Leadership. Ready? Let’s begin. Louis, you have a number of people who come to you as candidates. They’re looking for their next opportunity or where their career could go and grow. What advice do you wind up giving them when they come to you?
Louis Montgomery Jr. Sure, Bill, you’re right. I do get lots of people being referred to me because I’ve been in the search business and they believe that I have some insights on what kinds of things employers are looking for, and I give people two bits of advice. The first is around networking and really own their own job search. The second piece of advice that I give people that that many of them hadn’t thought of previously is around creating thought leadership. So, you know, everyone is an expert in something that people that come to me have been doing whatever they’ve been doing for 15, 20, in some cases, even longer years. And they have insights that other people may not have, and they have insights that could enhance their ability to be candidates for roles. And so that’s one of the things that I recommend people do, is think about some things that they understand deeper than other people and consider publishing. And then I recommend they consider publishing on LinkedIn because it’s an easy place to do it and it reinforces their potential candidacy for positions.
Bill Sherman So what I hear from you, and I want to give you a chance to sort of. Dig deeper on this would be your definition of thought. Leadership is publicly displaying what you know and demonstrating expertise. Or would you? How would you define it?
Louis Montgomery Jr. Yeah, it’s that it’s as simple as writing an article about some topic that you have some unique insight or endorse, something that you may know better than that than other people. It doesn’t involve necessarily doing deep research, but it’s really around something that, you know, that you can easily put together and share with, with others.
Bill Sherman So how did you get into the world of thought leadership?
Louis Montgomery Jr. Yeah, thanks for the question. Well, for me, it was once I got into executive search, I had a long career as a human resources practitioner, and I decided about ten years ago to get into search because I wanted to do something a lot more entrepreneurial and really very, very focused. And one of the things I realized that as a executive search person, that I didn’t have credibility yet. I had credibility as a human resources person, but I didn’t have credibility as a as an executive search consultant. And so I needed to demonstrate that by winning, by getting some work under my belt. And then later, the idea came to me to begin to publish some things as a way to, again, demonstrate my expertise. And frankly, when I was in a in a larger organization that I’m in now, a way to frankly differentiate myself from my colleagues who did similar kinds of work.
Bill Sherman So you said you started to leadership a little bit later rather than when you were in the process of making transition. Was that a year? Was that two years in? When did that light bulb come on and say, Hey, I could differentiate myself this way?
Louis Montgomery Jr. It was only a couple of years because my initial entree into search, I was in a very, very small firm and I was frankly focused on just building the work and surviving, making the transition from being inside a larger organization to doing something a lot more entrepreneurial. The light bulb really went off for me, Bill, once I joined another organization that was much larger. And one of the things that they had as a as a firm was a a very, very robust thought leadership engine. And I thought, here’s a way for me to leverage what this organization has. And at the same time demonstrate my own expertise in a particular area, as well as differentiate myself from my colleagues.
Bill Sherman Well, and you talk about differentiating yourself, it sounds like in the larger firm, it gave you a way to differentiate yourself internally, let alone externally for other search firms. Is that correct?
Louis Montgomery Jr. That was that was exactly right. It was it was it was really a bit of both. It was to create a use a different analogy to create a swim lane. For myself, I decided more specifically, I decided I wanted to focus on placing diversity officers in addition to placing H.R. leaders in as a and I had been a diversity officer, so I had his back.
Bill Sherman What sort of time frame? Because I know.
Louis Montgomery Jr. This is this is the 2017 is 2017 2018 timeframe.
Bill Sherman So before the role exploded in visibility.
Louis Montgomery Jr. Yes, absolutely.
Bill Sherman Right.
Louis Montgomery Jr. Absolutely. Before that. And it was and it was really about leveraging the own that my own expertise to really create more of a of a practice around this area to differentiate myself and my colleagues, as I mentioned, within also to be able to credibly pursue work from clients. And that was so those are really the things that that that I was interested in doing. And then the thought leadership piece that that act that I published and it was called Leadership Competencies of Next Generation Diversity Officers. So it was a bit of a mouthful, but it was really around what if, what if things that that differentiate the most successful diversity officers from others. And it was a collaboration that I did with two other colleagues. And we actually did some research as well to back it up.
Bill Sherman So given the title of that, my guess is also you were putting some stakes into the ground in areas that may not have had much surveying done. So you were looking into the future and saying, okay, what is possible? What should we be thinking about from that forward looking perspective?
Louis Montgomery Jr. Right. Yes, absolutely. That and then also leveraging. Relationships they had with the of I was doing some work in this space and it became clear to me that there were some folks that were very, very successful in this space and other people that were struggling. And so the question for me became, why is it that some folks are again or are being wildly successful in a very challenging area, and why are other people struggling? And so that was sort of the nexus of the idea, along with how then can I turn this this this insight where to test this theory, first of all. And then how can I turn this insight into something that that I could market, frankly, to prospective clients as well as give to the candidates.
Bill Sherman It sounds like that the answer that you gave early on in terms of candidates looking for placement where you said network and thought leadership were the two areas that you came to in your career. Is that correct?
Louis Montgomery Jr. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, very true. So it was really it was very it was a very practical thing. It’s like, you know, how do I get better? You know, how do I get know? And what are the things that candidates can do, frankly, to differentiate themselves from other people that they’re competing with?
Bill Sherman And you mentioned something that we should pause on. You mentioned when you were of a larger search firm. You said they had a thought leadership engine.
Louis Montgomery Jr. Yes.
Bill Sherman Many people work within organizations now where there is a thought leadership function. If you look down through the org chart, you’ll find someone who is responsible for thought, leadership and maybe ahead of thought leadership title. That might be something else. There are opportunities for you to get support or skills and get some practice and help from the organization to develop this. You don’t have to be sitting alone on evenings or weekends in front of a blank LinkedIn screen going, What the heck do I write about? Right.
Louis Montgomery Jr. No, you’re absolutely right. And even with our own organization, while I say we don’t within jam search, but we don’t have a thought leadership engine. We do have a very effective marketing department that can work with us around the creation and the dissemination of the thought leadership. So you’re right, almost every organization has some sort of a marketing function. And I think it’s around how do you leverage that engine to, you know, if you’re if you’re in the consulting world, how do you do that? Now, obviously, if you’re a person who’s a who doesn’t have that that available to them per se, but you still can do a lot on your own. It’s a public and again, it’s not necessarily very, very difficult. But you’re right, there are a lot of resources that are that are available. And even if you’re in an organization and you’re not actively seeking other kinds of opportunities, you still could leverage the marketing organization and or a thought leadership engine within your firm because again, you will be promoting the firm because the work that I was doing and still do, I’m promoting obviously my expertise and I’m also promoting my organization.
Bill Sherman And you have the opportunity. Even if you’re working on a piece, you can say, Hey, this is something that I’m working on. I’m writing or I’m going to put out. How can we collaborate on this so that it’s a win win for the firm as well as for what I’m working on? Right. So whether you’re raising your hand to volunteer and say, hey, you’re looking for someone to speak more at conferences or to do some brand building work or reputation work, or if you’ve got a project you’re passionate about, involve your organization. At worst, they’re going to say no. Mm hmm. Okay.
Louis Montgomery Jr. Yeah.
Bill Sherman So you mentioned JM Search. How do you use thought leadership at JM Search, which is a smaller, more focused placement firm.
Louis Montgomery Jr. Yeah. And one of the things that I’ve been very, very pleased since joining the firm is that that there are a number of colleagues that are actively involved in creating thought leadership. And we’ve got a very effective marketing department that helps us to package and disseminate them. So it’s something that’s very, very active that we have as a firm. And like I said, a lot of colleagues are involved in it, I think in part because again, we are a smaller organization and we’re a really top 20 firm globally. But again, there’s a big difference between the largest five organizations and others, and we’re considered a very, very large boutique. But it’s a it’s been a very effective way for us to demonstrate expertise in particular areas that we’re in. So, for instance, as a firm, most of our work is in supporting private equity backed organizations. We place the sea level folks within those organizations, the CEOs, Chief Financial Officers, Heads of HR, Chief Revenue Officer. Chief Technology Officer. And so it’s a very, very broad industry and there’s lots of competition in the industry. And so, again, what we have done is it’s really carved out different areas, either around our functional expertise or more general information about how to make sure you don’t lose a finalist, which is, again, not sector specific, but obviously very, very useful across any number of different sectors. But again, it’s been a very, very active program that an ongoing program that we have within our organization.
Bill Sherman So with that, would you say it’s fair that thought leadership is helping the firm punch above its weight?
Louis Montgomery Jr. Oh, absolutely. And again, I contrast what we do at JM Search versus some of the larger firms is that within our firm, the thought leadership folks who are publishing are also practitioners. What I saw in the larger firm that I was in is that many of the people who were publishing thought leadership weren’t necessarily search practitioners. And so this gives us, as search practitioners, to me, extra credibility because again, not only are we doing that, the search for, but we’re also publishing the thought leadership versus doing the search work and being able to refer to, you know, our other colleagues within, within the firm as specialized area of the firm that are doing this kind of thought leadership. So in a way, use a different analogy. We’re player coaches here, and I think it gives us a lot more credibility with our clients and has enabled our firm to grow really pretty dramatically over the last several years.
Bill Sherman So how is it impacting your work at JM Search, in terms of maybe there’s a project you’ve been working on or a piece that you’ve put out recently?
Louis Montgomery Jr. Yeah. I’ll give you I’ll give you a real-life example. I’ve recently published a piece called Culture Fit. Hiring for Culture Fit versus I’m sorry, Culture Ad versus Culture Fit. So really contrasting the two and how this came about was I was given an opportunity through our firm to moderate a panel through Scanlon media back in March on this very topic. And so I was a moderator and there were several other search consultants and we were talking about this very topic around culture. How does culture impact placement? And one of the things that we’ve talked about is that organizations that are interested in growth and that are interested in increasing their footprint around diversity and inclusion, need to focus more on how can people be additive to the organization’s culture versus fitting into the to the existing culture. It’s a bit of the thing of, you know, if you want different results, you have to do things in a different kind of way and you want to reach different markets that you’re not currently in. You need to look at people who have knowledge of those kinds of markets. And so I you know, I moderated this this panel came back and there was some insights that that that we gained. And then I worked again with our marketing department to produce a piece on this, which we’ve published through, through the Forbes HR Council. And so it’s out there in the, in the ecosystem. And then what we’ve done as well as a follow up is we have set that that article to a wide number of people, many of whom attended the seminar or the conference a few months ago. So we’ve used it as a, you know, as well as a marketing document, as well as to provide some insight around a really important area. And that’s something that we’ve done just very, very recently. And I’ve gotten at least one call thus far from a from a potential client because of having them having received this this material.
Bill Sherman Sounds like you made them think. And that’s always a good thing when you’re trying to engage it, put it idle out there because they’re more likely to come back and say, What else are you thinking? Yes, they need to help us.
Louis Montgomery Jr. That’s exactly right. Because, you know, part of what we’re hired for is obviously it’s about how do we find great candidates for our clients, but they’re also hiring us for our insights. You know, our clients are experts on their business. They are not necessarily experts on what is the HR Landscape look like at this point in time or what is the landscape look like for diversity officers or for any other. And we have that kind of that kind of expertise. And so thought leadership, along with obviously our insights from working with candidates in the market on an ongoing basis, is very, very valuable to our clients because we know the market, they know what they’re looking for in work. And so we’re able to translate their needs into what the market looks like and then to find the right kind of candidates.
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Bill Sherman So, I can imagine a listener who’s thinking and saying, Yeah, this is great. I wish I had time to write an article or, you know, to speak at a conference. What I’d love to hear is how does this integrate into sort of your scope of work and how much time has it taken you to start? You know, and I know you said this is a journey you’ve been on a while much time. Did you spend at the beginning and how much time do you spend these days?
Louis Montgomery Jr. Yeah, yeah. I actually believe it or not, that actually increased the amount that that I’ve done. When I started, you know, I published a couple of things and one was also did a speaking engagement as well. And it gave me sort of the impetus to do it. But again, I was in a larger firm at that time and they had more of an engine that I could that I could leverage. You know, I joined James Search and in March of last year to establish our human resources and diversity officers practice. And we’re also doing some work in the in the nonprofit space. And so what I needed to do was to really ramp up our efforts. We didn’t have this function within the organization. So I have published more in the last year and a half than I published over the prior seven years because of, again, a necessity to do so, to do a lot more marketing, to help build the build the practice. And I envision that I will continue to do that. And I’m also going to encourage other colleagues within the practice to do the same.
Bill Sherman But is it undoing more? Is it eating into evenings and weekends, or have you gotten quicker at it? And give me a sense of for the people who are going, how do I fit this into my day? Right. Right. How do you.
Louis Montgomery Jr. It is it is a it is an evening and weekend kind of thing. So you have to sacrifice something if you want to do something different than what you’ve already been in, which has been doing. You’ve got to you got to decide what are you going to give up? So I don’t necessarily watch a lot of TV. So that’s one of things that I do. But I do have an active household. I’ve got we’ve got two boys that are that are 16 and 11 that are very active in doing things. So it’s a trade off. And so there’s other things that I don’t do. But again, it’s the kind of thing that that I believe when something’s important to you, you’ll find a way to do it, you know, and or something. Some pieces are easy to write. Sometimes you get inspired. I’ll give you an example. Several years ago when I was at another firm, I had a colleague who I was working with on a project, reached out to me to say he wanted some insight from me on this topic of diversity, but more specifically, what’s appropriate nomenclature? You know, what’s appropriate to say? You call a person of quoted diversity candidate. You say person of color. What do you say? And we had a great conversation about him. And I told him that, in my opinion, that that diversity candidate was one. It was it was very, very inaccurate, nebulous and somewhat offensive, frankly, because, again, we are diversity means difference and all of us represent dimensions of diversity. However, many of our clients who are interested in improving the representation of their workforces are interested in hiring more individuals of color. And so I described that that to him. And then I specifically talked about the evolution of the term black, how years ago it was perfectly okay to refer to a black person as mulatto who later became colored and later became Negro. We went through a period of Afro-American and then more recently, the term black. And what I did as a result of that conversation, Bill, I said, this is a topic that a lot of people might be interested in knowing more about. So I wrote a piece. I sat down and just banged it out over the course of a few days and published it on my on my LinkedIn. And then I used the heading of Now what would you call me? So sort of a little bit of a of a provocative title and it just talked about, again, nomenclature. So the point is, you know, that was something that I hadn’t planned to write, but because of a conversation that I had with a colleague and a need that that I saw to educate other colleagues and people more broadly on a topic that a lot of people might be confused about. You know, I wrote a piece.
Bill Sherman That’s a fantastic example, Louis, and I want to build on it for a moment. So one of the things that you didn’t mention but is a skill which is worth building, is that you’re right to notice. Oh, this is a question that other people will have. Or if you’ve been in three calls or three meetings and you’re like, I answer that question the same way you jotted down you take a note whether it’s in a Moleskine or on a Post-it or something, and then it becomes easy to come back to when you say, I need to create a piece, you go, Oh yeah, I had this good turn of phrase or this idea it’s worth developing. You don’t start with that blank sheet, right? But developing that ear so that, you know, this is something other people will be interested in is one of the best skills for leadership.
Louis Montgomery Jr. Yeah, I agree.
Bill Sherman Just listen to yourself.
Louis Montgomery Jr. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Just to be being aware. I’ll give you another example of that. Bill. Last year I worked on a project with a colleague on a board search and ultimately the client chose a person who had an HR Background, and that’s not where they were going initially, but they said based on what they wanted to do with this board, they wanted to, one, diversify the board to get more women as well as individuals of color on the board. The board was pretty heavily weighted with people with financial and or banking backgrounds, and they didn’t necessarily want that. They wanted another perspective. And we ended up presenting a number of individuals, most of whom had backgrounds that at all, but had backgrounds in human resources. And the person that they ultimately chose added human resources background. And they did have some financial services as well. Well, guess what I said, this is another insight. And so I decided to publish a piece and it’s called The Four Challenges Your Boardroom Will Handle Better with an H.R. leader on it. And so again, it was a similar what you just described. It was like based upon actual work experience conversations I had with the client and insights that we develop as a result of that. And so you’re right. So it wasn’t like I had to think of something. It was right there. It was really a matter of how do I take this, this experience and write it in such a way that it’s going to be useful for clients?
Bill Sherman And I think one of the things that I’ve learned over the years is through consulting the questions that I get asked. Are often ones that many people have. There are very few questions which are truly unique. Sure. Right. Yeah.
Louis Montgomery Jr. Yeah, you’re absolutely right. There’s always there’s always nuance. But you’re right there. There are questions that if one person has it, a thousand people may have it. And I think, again, as a consultant trying to market yourself, the market, your expertise, it’s a matter of, as you said, it’s a matter of listening to what questions are being asked and then providing an answer to those questions.
Bill Sherman So do you find joy in practicing thought leadership? And if so, where does it come?
Louis Montgomery Jr. Yeah, I do. I do. One of the things that I realized and the reason that I made the transition into executive search is that I really wanted to go deep. I really wanted to develop a real expertise. And I wanted to be, frankly, viewed as an expert in a space. And again, as I’ve talked about before, one of the things I realized is that I wasn’t new that way. And but one of the ways in which I could demonstrate it was by creating and publishing thought leadership. And so it has been a it has been something of interest to me. How do your listeners can’t see the background, but you and I are both surrounded by books. So I’ve been a bookworm for quite some time. I’ve published one book. I’ve got another book or two in my head that that I’ll write eventually. And for me, it’s been both a creative outlook or a creative pursuit, as well as something that’s been very practical based upon the work that that I do. So you write it is it is something I enjoy doing. It’s challenging at times. If I just if I’m stuck with thinking about something that I want to write, it can be challenging. But what I have found more often than not, Bill, is that there’s inspiration all around. And it’s just a matter of listening for the for the inspiration and then taking the time to capture it.
Bill Sherman So as we begin to wrap up this. I want you to think back to when you started out on the journey as a thought leadership practitioner. And, you know, that first article, that first page. What advice would you give the younger version of yourself?
Louis Montgomery Jr. Yeah, I would say great question. I’d say, you know, don’t be afraid. You know, don’t be afraid. Start sooner. You know, there’s things that I probably could have written long ago that I that I didn’t that the opportunity came and went. But I think, you know, be very, very I would I don’t say be creative, but be courageous. There are. There’s opportunities to demonstrate leadership, thought leadership in any number of different areas. And I think it’s a like any other muscle or skill is one that can be developed over time. So the sooner one begins to develop this, the better a person is going to be at doing this. So that’s the one bit of advice I’d give my, my younger self is, is do it sooner and especially when I made it. And I think in particular when I made the transition, I made the transition from being a HR Practitioner to being and a executive search consultant. That would have been a sort of a great time to do it. But again, I didn’t see it at the time. You know, that came later. But again, I tell jobseekers all the time the best time to find another job is when you already have one. And so and one of and one of the ways in which to do that is by, again, creating thought leadership, demonstrating your expertise. And again, there’s no reason why people can’t do that at any time long before they’re even thinking about the next opportunity. This is a way to get some get some publicity some and to get some additional looks that they might not have gotten otherwise.
Bill Sherman It can attract a little bit of attention. It can be a tie breaker. And one of the things about thought leadership is that has a compounding effect.
Louis Montgomery Jr. Mm hmm.
Bill Sherman The longer that tail is and the more work you’ve done on it, the greater the impact you can have.
Louis Montgomery Jr. Oh, absolutely. I agree more. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve over the last almost year and a half, I think I’ve published a half dozen pieces. I’ve done a couple of webinars, and so I’ve got a nice body of work. If you go to our website and you click on me, you’ll see all this work that I that I published in the space. And obviously that’s a that’s a differentiator. The fact that that not only do I do the work, but I’ve got this this other expertise that folks that they might be comparing me to don’t have that could be a tiebreaker.
Bill Sherman Do you wind up getting people who have listened to one or more of the webinars or read a piece and they reach out almost to you and then start quoting you back to you and it’s like, oh, you were listening in. Do you get that?
Louis Montgomery Jr. I have. I have gotten it. And I hope to get even more. I had a call last week with a potential client who had listened to a webinar that that I had done and reached out to me on the basis of that. And so, yeah, that’s a that’s a big opportunity. So I mean, that’s just, you know, that’s just one and there’s many, many more people that are out there that have heard it. So part of what my challenge is, is, is to connect with them and get conversations with them proactively as opposed to waiting for them. Because, again. Right. I don’t know when they may have a need.
Bill Sherman Exactly. Louis, thank you for taking time today. This has been a delightful conversation.
Louis Montgomery Jr. Bill. I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I appreciate the opportunity to be on the show.
Bill Sherman If you’re interested in organizational thought leadership, then I invite you to subscribe to the OrgTL newsletter. Each month we talk about the people who create, curate and deploy thought leadership on behalf of their organizations. Go to the website OrgTL.com and choose join our newsletter. I’ll leave a link to the website as well as my LinkedIn profile in the show notes. Thanks for listening and I look forward to hearing what you thought of the show.