How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Your Bio: How Does Your Insight Lead the World?

Yesterday I outlined the first of two subtle ways the bio of Jessica Hellmann, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, inverts the normal research bio to position her as a strong leader.

The first inversion: for leaders, research achievement is about impact, not journals. About what your research has seen first. The paradigm shifts it has led. And what else your research has created (in Hellmann’s case, a company).

The second inversion: for leaders, it’s critical to show how you’ve applied your research-based expertise to guide the world.

Inversion #2: Leaders’ bios clearly show how and where these leaders are guiding the world, especially through their insights.

For a model, here’s the fifth paragraph of Hellmann’s bio:

  • “Hellmann counsels state and national governments on natural resource management so that future generations can enjoy the beauty and function of nature as we do today.” I love the way this sentence works. She “counsels,” an active verb that encapsulates an expert helping through insight. The sentence doesn’t name the governments she’s counseling — normally you’d see that list in a researcher’s bio. But this “omission” connotes confidence: she doesn’t have to drop names, and some of these arrangements might be confidential. (It’s also clearly part of her identity as a leader, which works to open the door to other governments that might be interested in her advice.) The sentence also conveys that Hellmann has a sense of mission in this work — it’s about legacy. We come away from a single sentence thinking: 1) this is a recognized expert at a government leadership level, and 2) her work results in a clear, consistent and positive legacy.
  • “She also works with governments and corporations to build investment in climate change adaptation, and she has co-authored several climate assessment and adaptation planning efforts, including the biodiversity and ecosystem portions of the Chicago Climate Action Plan and the 2014 National Climate Assessment.” If you’ve read this far in her bio, you know that Hellmann’s research has focused on climate change impacts and adaptation. But it’s critical for leaders to convey how they’re actively extending that research into real-world initiatives (such as the climate action plan for a major city). The first sentence also signals a specific approach with a POV: we need more investment from both governments and corporations in adaptation.
  • “She sits on the board of directors of the Great Plains Institute and the Science Museum of Minnesota, and the External Advisory Board of the University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability.” Here’s what I find interesting about this list of external service: it comes many paragraphs before the list of prestige journals she’s published in. Again: confidence and a much wider sense of impact beyond research achievements. Of course she publishes in Nature, Science and PNAS — we’d expect that from someone running a university-based research institute, and that track record is key. But foregrounding her service sends a strong signal that Hellmann has a broader sense of priorities.

Again: in leadership bios, research achievement is about broad impact, not name-plate journals or citations. And those bios clearly show how and where the leaders are guiding the world — especially through their insights (not just their published research).

We could also conduct a reverse test of leadership: Are you able to convincingly demonstrate the broad impact of your research beyond citations? Are you able to demonstrate where you’re guiding the world through your insights?

Then you have claim to leadership.