The Thought Leaders Practice: The best business book I've ever read - Kathleen Celmins

The Thought Leaders Practice: The best business book I’ve ever read

Earlier this year, my friend and colleague Caelan Huntress told me about a new book he’d read that changed his world. It was [earnist_link ref=”9702″ id=”9702″]The Thought Leaders Practice[/earnist_link].

He asked if I wanted to read it.

I did. And what I read blew me out of the water and changed the direction of my business and my life.

I know that’s a bold statement to make, but honestly, it felt like someone wrote the blueprint I want to follow in my business. So, I filled my notebook with notes. Pages and pages of notes. Then, I transcribed those notes to a Google doc, which I have shared now numerous times with friends and people who have expressed even a tiny amount of interest in this new-to-me paradigm.

If it’s not abundantly clear, I highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking to make money working for themselves.

Online or offline.

What follows are my notes. They’ll make a little sense as written, but they’ll make much more sense as a companion to the book.

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Contents show


6 methods/modes of delivery:

  1. Speaker
  2. Author
  3. Trainer
  4. Mentor
  5. Facilitator
  6. Coach

TELL stories

SHOW ideas

ASK questions

Message — market — method

Ideas first, market second.


  1. That someone is happy to express publicly
  2. When admitting a deeper fear
  3. As you, the expert, sees it

Create your message first.

Create once, use often.

What do I know?

  • What have people asked me before?
  • What have they paid me to answer?

Ideas should be:

  • Relevant
  • Thorough
  • Elegant
  • Unique

Time spent thinking is time spent developing intellectual property

Come up with 52 well-thought-out ideas.

The full spectrum:

Anatomy of an idea

CONTEXT: models + metaphors

CONCEPT: make the point

CONTENT: the stuff

Create folders full of ideas around various domains of expertise. These can be as broad as “authenticity” and “leadership” and “service.”

  • Start logical, then go emotional
  • Set context before getting into the weeds
  • Write down all the ideas you have rolling around in your head
  • Read books and blog posts and white papers. Ask yourself, “what do I think of this?” Instead of recapping what the author said, ask, “what do I think of what they’re saying?” Keep two notebooks going:
    • Yes, and here’s what I’d add
    • I don’t agree with this and here’s why





  • Productive adaptation!
  • Narrow vs wide productivity
  • Work smarter, not harder!
  • Support how you work best
  • Lists
  • of
  • stuff
  • How do you read a book?
  • My process

How to find ideas

  1. Write a list (numbered) of everything you know, talk on, or like to share with others.
    1. Categorize this list based on field of expertise
  2. Identify area clusters. If your idea has more than three points, it’s a cluster. Break it down until it has at most three central points.
  3. Have a point. Summarize the idea with 1-2 simple sentences that explain the whole point. Then, think of several different ways of saying it.
  4. Make it a big idea. Broad. Nonspecific. Relatable by as many people as possible. This is context. The big picture representation of the idea. diagram/model/metaphor/quote.
  5. Support your point with content.
  6. Create a folder system that contains all your great ideas.
  7. Customize content, not context. Ideas can be reused for different audiences.
  • You gain experience and expertise before you find out who will benefit from them.

  • Instead of looking for gaps in the market, explore what you know and care about.

  • Rather than asking, “what does a specific market need?” ask, “how does what I know serve a specific market?”

  • When you separate the technical and specific content of your expertise, you can leverage that into different markets.

  • Think like an inventor who finds multiple uses for her invention

Do work you love

With people you like

The way you want

At first, if someone offers you money for something you do, TAKE IT. there will be time later to refine and say no, but that’s not now.

Market narrowly, deliver broadly


  • Marketing: 2X
  • Sales: 3X
  • Relationships: 4X
  • Referral: 6X
  • Recommendation: 8X
  • Positioning: 10X

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An expert knows something, an authority is known for knowing something




Known spokenValueInvite
Known unspokenIP snapshotCommit

How to build a problem bridge

  1. Establish their known, spoken, problems. What would 100 people in your target market say was their biggest challenge? Primary concern? What keeps them up at night?
  2. Identify the known, unspoken, problems. What are their unvoiced concerns? What haven’t they admitted, even to themselves?
  3. Draw a value model. This will explain your ideas in the context of all of their problems.
    3 key elements of a value model:
    • Currency: money/time/energy
    • Aspiration: some compelling future
    • Location: see where you are on the journey
    • Where am I?
    • Where do I want to go next?
    • What do I value most?
  4. Tell them their unknown, unspoken, problems. Put form around something they know to be true but haven’t been able to identify. If you can be the person who does this for someone, you become a trusted advisor + partner for life.

Once you have your value model drawn, invite them to work with you and secure a commitment.

IP Snapshot = how people go about getting the currency of worth shown in the value model.

  1. Make a clear invitation. Lay it on the table. Make clear what’s involved. Communicate what it’s like to work together.
    • “I’ll run a workshop on ___, costing $___.”
    • “I’ll deliver a coaching session that runs ___ weeks, starts _____, and you pay this way”

They need to understand exactly what you’re offering and be given the chance to say yes.

  1. Follow through on the answer.
    • Yes —> payment/deposit/invoice. Next steps.
    • No —> ok, not attached to the result. Maybe offer a referral.

Selling thought leadership

  • You can’t outsource selling with a thought leadership practice
  • Your job is to think, sell, and deliver

You can’t hire a salesperson when you’re the thing that’s being sold. BUT you can make it feel like service instead of sales.

BeforeDuringDecision point
MindsetCool / it’s a numbers gameSelective / choose clientsReverent / this is a sacred moment
EnergySold / you’ll be convincedDance / be present and joyousSurrendered / don’t be attached
ConversationClean / be upfrontClicking / know the worldInvitation / put it out there

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6 modes

  1. Speaker
  2. Author
  3. Trainer
  4. Facilitator
  5. Mentor
  6. Coach

These are clusters. Come up with 52 clusters, then find the four that you think are the easiest to get to $10K/mo in revenue. That’s your business plan for the year.

A weak sales strategy comes from a fear of rejection.

Remember, prospects are rejecting the cluster, not you.

“Some will, some won’t, so what.” -Amway

The first sale is always to yourself. By that they mean if you’re not sold, 100%, on your offer, the prospect will know and you will lose the sale. Make sure you’re only pitching things you’re sold on.

Format for selling

  • This is what I know
  • I help these sorts of people
  • Who are experiencing these problems
  • To get these results

If that’s of interest to you, it would be an honor to work together.

  • Idea: Practice determinism when you’re in sales meetings, regardless of where you personally stand on the idea of fate and destiny. Realize that the outcome is already set and your job is simply to go find out what that outcome is.
  • Also… don’t forget to ask for the sale (or the next step) in the sales meeting.

You need an elevator pitch, even though you’re unlikely to ever do business in an elevator.

Quote post: when was the last time you did business in an elevator?

Delivery methods

  • TELL —> stories, examples. Author / Speaker
  • SHOW —> learning process. Mentor / Trainer
  • ASK —> questions that lead to ideas. Coach / Facilitator

Get on with it. Then, when you’re up + running, get good at it.

Coaching is the art of asking great questions in a one-on-one setting

  • You don’t need to be an expert
  • You just have to ask powerful questions that inspire a higher level of thinking and understanding in your student
  • Great coaches ask questions that plant a seed

Don’t get stuck in one delivery mode. You’re not a “coach” or an “author” — you’re a thought leader.

If you have to pick one mode to try first, go with coaching.

This of course depends on where you are when you’re starting out, but if you’re far from being a white belt, this is where you can begin.

Go lower than the low-hanging fruit.

Go for the jam fruit. The fruit that has already fallen from the tree.

They call it making money for jam. It’s the network you already have, the people who already know you, the money that’s already coming your way. Use that to gain momentum, then you can focus on different clusters.

The 8 combinations of methods that work best

  1. speaker/author/mentor
  2. trainer/speaker/author
  3. speaker/trainer/mentor
  4. trainer/mentor/author
  5. facilitator/trainer/mentor
  6. trainer/mentor/coach
  7. facilitator/coach/mentor
  8. trainer/facilitator/coach

Speaker-author-mentor is where most black belts land.

Each mode has different needs.

  • TELL —> you need a platform. Author / Speaker
  • SHOW —> you need deep knowledge and contacts. Mentor / Trainer
  • ASK —> you need deep relationship skills and presence. Coach / Facilitator

Don’t be lured by mastery early on. Remember, get on with it, then later, get good at it.

Do not use mastery as a form of procrastination.

5 actions for SPEAKERS

  1. Find your “big word” (authenticity was the example in the book). If you don’t know one, just choose one.
  2. Write and rehearse a presentation. Turn one of your IP snapshots into a speech.
  3. Deliver it to an audience
  4. Offer a low-investment deal session to prospective clients (host your own brown-bag lunch meeting)
  5. Collect testimonials. “What did you love? What’s going to change in your life as a result of what I said?”

5 actions for AUTHORS

  1. Pick a topic and do a PhD-level literature review. This is deep research. Take two notebooks as you’re reviewing the literature.
    1. Points you can add to
    2. Points you disagree with
  2. Scope out message uniqueness. If your message is not unique, go back to step 1.
  3. Come up with 6 titles/bylines of the book you’d write. These come from your IP snapshots.
  4. Write 1500 words on one title with the idea of publishing in print or digital media.
  5. Record an interview on each topic and deliver those to your network.

5 actions for TRAINERS

  1. Review “solutions audit” for market/message. Survey target market about biggest challenges, then use IP to solve it. Deliver solution to the people who filled out your survey.
  2. Write 300 words on each component of the audit. Basically, create a proposal before you have a client. “In your industry, here are the major problems. Here’s how I can help.”
  3. Test the report on a prospect.
  4. Design a mini-training program and pick a price.
  5. Run a pilot program.

5 actions for MENTORS

  1. Evaluate your experience. On which topics have you been there/done that?
  2. Find ten people to help promote your mentoring — the people who have bought your offer
  3. Write a one-page background piece on what you’ve done and how others can benefit from sharing that experience. Make it look good. Put your face on it.
  4. Send the ten people from action #2 the background piece. Ask them to forward.
  5. Invite the people who responded to the forward to meet with you.

5 actions for FACILITATORS

  1. Find 6-12 situations where your message applies
  2. Design a loose process that works over 1, 2, or 3 days
  3. Prep with the appropriate IP beforehand
  4. Review 20 questions your process solves, select the key ones
  5. Run a low-cost pilot program for a target market

5 actions for COACHES

  1. Identify 20 people you could coach. Start with people you know.
  2. Select 12 IP snapshots that meet their needs. Each coaching session is based on one IP snapshot and you need to create 20 questions you could ask for each IP.
  3. Create a package of coaching sessions and scope the offer. 12 IP snapshots make up the coaching program. Organize them. Price this.
  4. Invite those 20 people to meet one-on-one. Ask questions around your sales model. Provide value during the session, then sell a coaching program if appropriate.
  5. Invite them to join the coaching program.

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There are no shortcuts to mastery.

Revenue ladder (belts)

5th Dan1.2MDistribution
4th Dan1.08MCapacity
3rd Dan960KProductivity
2nd Dan840KEngagement
Black belt720KInvestment
Red belt600KLeverage
Blue belt480KPositioning
Green belt360KActivity
Yellow belt240KValue
White belt120KDecision

It takes three years of working like this to create a black belt practice.

So, Q2 2022.

Common pitfalls

  • Failure to clarify message + market. Without a clear message around your thought leadership, people can’t see what sets you apart. Narrow your market to attract the best prospects.
  • Attempting to move up the revenue ladder too quickly. This is akin to fighting a black belt martial artist when you don’t have the training.
  • Conversely, over-investing too soon in things like a splashy office, staff, and overhead.
  • Doubting your ability to generate a black belt practice. Decide that in three years’ time, you’ll be earning $720,000 a year in your thought leader practice.

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  • Decide to build a thought leader practice. Kill off the alternatives.
  • Decide on a market and a message. Kill off the others (for now).
  • Maintain focus in the right direction.
  • Decide to stay disciplined.
  • Focus on foundation-building activities. You are a white belt, after all.
  • Decide to become a black belt.

5 things to do at white belt

  1. Commit to black belt. Re: a breakfast of eggs and bacon. “The chicken is interested, the pig is committed.” Be the pig. Commit to the whole journey. #WWABBD?
  2. Choose one message, market, and method. Goal is $10,000/mo from one cluster. Clusters must have sustainable revenue.
    • Pick one message and deliver it to one market. Think about what you know and whose problem that solves.
    • Don’t make your message about what you want to say. Make it about the problem it solves. The problem should be one that keeps your target up at night.
    • Pick a market where you have some connection. Not CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
    • Start with a delivery method you’re comfortable with.
    • When in doubt, start coaching.
    • Narrow your niche as much as possible. Most white belts go too broad, but if you’re helping everyone, you’re helping no one.
  3. Enhance your contact base. Get a group of at least 150 people who know you and value what you do.
  4. Hire your first VA.
  5. Measure the right things.
    • Your thinking —> how many IP snapshots did you start? Complete?
    • What you sell
    • What you deliver
    • Cash that comes in. goal here is $2500/week sold and delivered

After you reach white belt, choose your next cluster.

Tweak: method, market, message, IP.

Advice for those at the white belt stage

  • Don’t try to be someone else. Be yourself in a new market. Work in the area of expertise you own.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself! Get used to saying, “it’s probably normal that I failed” when you’re starting out.
  • Understand that this is a hard path, but it is absolutely possible to build a black belt practice. See the possibility. Commit to the black belt.


  • It’s important to shift your thinking at this stage in terms of effort, knowledge, and content.
  • “How much of my blood, sweat, and tears goes into this program?”
  • “For my client, how much will they save/make/create by implementing the information I share with them?”

5 things to do at yellow belt

  1. Value your expertise. Put yourself in the shoes of your client to remind yourself of the value you provide. Think like a surgeon who has trained for a very long time to make this look easy. You’ve trained for this too.
  2. Value your time. Yellow belt means selling and delivering $5K per week. If your time is worth $1,000 a day, stop doing $25/hr tasks. Turn your VA into a full-blown business manager and hire an assistant for that person.
  3. Re-evaluate and raise your prices. Might be better to have a new, higher rate with a new cluster instead of making a huge jump in the cluster you’re already in. start getting comfortable charging prices that some will find outrageous.
  4. Build a communication platform. Newsletter, weekly blog post, social media, video.
  5. Foster your network of like-minded thought leaders. Bring people together.


  • The green belt level is the ceiling of exhaustion. Your busiest time in the journey to black belt. 3 spinning plates.
  • Do more. Think more. Sell more. Deliver more. Push through.
  • Work harder. Realize that this is the point where so many people stop pushing and drop back down to yellow belt.
  • But just like in a fitness journey, business gets harder just before it gets easier.
  • Maintain your activity and don’t fall apart.

5 things to do at green belt

  1. Cancel all fun until you reach blue belt. Dedicate yourself to this season and ask the people around you to help.
  2. Maintain your energy platforms. Look after your body.
  3. Speak more. Create a new distribution channel. Speak for a fee. Speak for free (and sell something in the back of the room).
  4. Write more. Books, blog posts, white papers, special reports, magazine articles, anything. Don’t try to make money from your writing. That’s not the goal at this stage.
  5. Fail quickly and cheaply. Test before developing something for six months.

Advice for those at the green belt stage

  • Think big, start small, invest wisely
  • Have a black belt mindset from the start. But take activities, focus, and actions appropriate to the level you’re actually in.
  • Understand that success breeds success. The more successful you feel, the more successful you become. The bigger you are, the more in demand you’ll be. The more that’s going on, the more people will want you to be involved in their business and life.
  • Flip the adage, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” —> it’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.


  • This is the point at which business starts getting easier
  • Focus on activities that position you as the authority
  • “You have to talk to Kathleen before you go any further!”
  • Who knows about your expertise?
  • Positioning is what differentiates you from everyone else

5 things to do at blue belt

  1. Brand you. What are you going to be famous for? In ten years’ time, what do you want your name to be synonymous with? What is the contribution you’re making with your thought leadership?
  2. Get your book published. Instant credibility. But wait until you’re a blue belt to self-publish because now you can afford to spend that kind of money.
  3. Collaborate with other experts. Who already has a position in the market you want? Reach out. Collaborate with them. Invite them to your events.
  4. Take a leadership position within your community or method
  5. Get media coverage. Traditional. Social. Podcasts. Interviews. Summits. Whatever.

Advice for those at the blue belt stage

  • Concentrate on what you’re good at. Don’t chase greener pastures or shiny objects.
  • Speak, but don’t join the networking groups. You have a higher position as an outsider coming to an event. You’re the star, not just a member people see all the time.
  • Up your rate. In sales conversations, use this language:
    • “If cost is your primary concern, I can refer you to some really good people because that’s not me.”
    • “Well, you can’t really afford not to do this but I don’t know what’s more important to you and whether you prefer low cost or not, and I charge a lot of money.”


  • Dollars up, days down

5 things to do at red belt

  1. Get others to deliver your IP. franchise? Maybe. But they recommend licensing (white-labeling) or getting people to deliver your message under your brand (like Storybrand).
  2. Leverage other people’s markets. You’ll give up a percentage when you approach a new network, but that’s leverage.
  3. Use your network and leverage other people’s IP. Become a certified something. Don’t do this before you’ve made it to red belt on your own IP, otherwise you run the risk of being seen as a hired gun and not a thought leader in your own right.
  4. Create products.
  5. Hire your third team member.

Advice for those at the red belt stage

  • Know — really know — what it is you have to offer.
  • Also really know your market.
  • Love what you do and remember that it’s a rollercoaster, always. For every low there’s a corresponding high, and everytime you’re up on a high point, know that the low is just around the corner. How you deal with the highs and lows is what will make you most effective.
  • Embrace the beginner’s mind. Once you start thinking you know how to approach a problem… try to take a step back and see it fresh. Stay humble. Keep learning.


  • You’re not “done” once you reach black belt. In martial arts, they say you’re just getting started when you reach the black belt stage. In your practice, take a moment to celebrate, then commit to staying here for the next ten years.

5 things to do at black belt

  1. Invest in practice efficiency. Review and re-invest in systems. Your practice looks a lot different than it did at white belt, so update the systems that haven’t changed since those days.
  2. Train your competition. This makes you the master.
  3. Invest in professional development. Attend the “university of me” and decide what you want to learn, what courses you want to take, what books you want to read.
  4. Do more work you love with people you enjoy.
  5. Crank up your clusters. Ask, “if I made $500K each from only three clusters, what would I be doing, and for whom?”

Advice for those at the black belt stage

  • The idea that good work and good income are polar opposites does not serve us well
  • Your success will help many people. Your failure is likely to help no one, including yourself.

Thought leader definition of success

Making $500,000 to $1.5M per year

Doing work you love

With people you like

The way you want

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Beyond black belt

After you reach black belt you have four options:

  1. Grow. more of the same. Work harder.
  2. Shift. Change gears. Work smarter.
  3. Flip. take your name off the door. Build a business.
  4. Live. use your practice to create rich life experiences.

5 things to do beyond black belt

  1. Engage your tribe. Get people together.
  2. Get productivity obsessed.
  3. Look at building more capacity.
  4. Obsess about distribution.
  5. Focus on your legacy work.

Thought leaders profiled in the book — useful when building out a personal domain

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