Testing the way to thought leadership

How nonprofit startup Brightline has won with strategic and steady growth.

BY Simona Covel
SVP, Content

Two-year-old think tank The Brightline Initiative has run strategy workshops and supported networking platforms at high-profile events like TED and Davos, published three books and released a set of guiding principles for leaders. It has conducted thought leadership research and published reports with lauded publishers like The Economist Intelligence Unit, Quartz, Forbes and Harvard Business Review Analytic Services.

How does a young nonprofit think tank—you can count its team on the fingers of your hands—accomplish all of that in such a short period?

Brick by brick, says Executive Director Ricardo Viana Vargas. Creating a global movement isn’t a simple undertaking. Brightline Initiative’s goal is to help leaders close the often too costly gap between strategy design and strategy delivery. But it isn’t a consulting firm; it’s a coalition led by the Project Management Institute and global organizations Bristol-Myers Squibb, Saudi Telecom Co., Lee Hecht Harrison, Boston Consulting Group, Agile Alliance, NetEase and the Technical University of Denmark. It targets C-suite executives and senior leaders of large enterprises, no matter the industry or location.

Yup, we’ll say that again: We’re talking about a not-for-profit initiative with an audience of extremely busy global executives and a mission that’s undoubtedly ambitious.

That makes thought leadership content even more important in explaining Brightline’s mission to its audience. When it comes to marketing itself, the potential for impact makes a brick-by-brick build essential. “Global awareness does not come with one big initiative. We started with a promise,” says Vargas—that is, to begin to close the divide between strategic ideas and great results. From that initial promise? “We started delivering—one event, one article, one social media post at a time,” he says. Because the programs were delivered in rolling waves and piece by piece, the team was able to test and learn to find a strategy that would reach the C-suite executives—a tough goal for a brand-new initiative.

The initiative was launched in January 2017 and officially debuted its first major outreach program via an October 2017 event with The Economist in New York City. From that grew research partnerships with globally recognized institutions, native advertising, networking platforms and a stream of education delivered through articles, videos, infographics and, most recently, a massive open online course headlined by a veritable who’s who of corporate strategy.

"When you have the voice of your target audience talking about their challenges, it conveys credibility,” Vargas says. That's true whether it’s a workshop, an infographic or a book. Earning testimonials—from high-level executives, not just faceless references to “company x” or “company y”—and adding them into much of what the young organization produces engenders unmatchable trust. Not everything has worked, and that has meant the team has had to pivot quickly, sometimes midstream. When a Brightline-supported event did not attract the expected senior executives, the team did not hesitate to collaborate with the organizers to change course. When the demand for a workshop ran overcapacity, the team created an instructor’s guide for leaders so they could take the workshop to their own organizations without a Brightline team member present.

When you’re aiming to develop and promote new insights, you have to adapt all the time, Vargas says. That means not getting hung up on the plans you made or the tactics you thought would work. “I flew several hundred thousand miles globally this year just trying to be close” to Brightline’s core audience, Vargas says. Sometimes plans materialized, and sometimes they didn’t. “If you’re building a new movement, you need to take some risks,” he says.

“When you have the voice of your target audience talking about their challenges, it conveys credibility.”

Building trust

The team at The Brightline Initiative spends its days connecting with the C-suite. But when it comes to getting buy-in from its board of directors, building trust is the key. Getting there is all about keeping it simple.

That means explaining every detail as clearly as possible, and making sure the mission and the process are clear, Vargas says. “If people cannot understand, they will not buy in,” he says.

Members of the board must trust you. That trust is critical when a planned initiative takes an unexpected turn. When board members are fully bought in, they are supportive of the kinds of midstream changes that are essential for a young, fast-moving initiative.

“Don’t be afraid,” Vargas advises. Honesty—especially in the face of failure—“will increase your reputation.”

published: March 20, 2019

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