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Interview | Rona Birenbaum on thought leadership

 December 4, 2012
by Paul Heron

This is one in a series of interviews with successful thought leaders.

Rona Birenbaum is one of just 150 for-fee financial planners in Canada. Her focus on client satisfaction and thought leadership has built Caring For Clients into a thriving business. Today, about half of Rona’s new clients come via referrals; the other half contact her as a result of her blog, newsletter and media coverage. This year alone, she has appeared more than 25 times in mainstream media interviews. We interviewed Rona on November 13, 2012.

What’s the big idea behind Caring For Clients?
It’s really about getting your financial advice from a team of people who really care about you. We’re client advocates, not sellers of products. So we routinely provide personal as well as financial advice, and make connections for our clients to others who think the way we do. We call it holistic financial planning.

Tell us about your thought leadership strategy
We look for opportunities to offer ideas and advice in all areas of personal finance. Everything we say and write is geared towards educating and empowering with no sales angle. Our goal is to see people become more strategic and less tactical in their financial decision-making.

Because of our approach, our message is sometimes at odds with the mainstream. We often find ourselves uncovering the myths and misconceptions that are floating around. Sometimes offering a different view takes courage—but that’s part of leadership.

How do you generate ideas/content and interview opportunities?
Ideas come to me every day in my business life. Clients present new issues, challenges and frustrations, and these situations and our approach to them inspire us with new insights to share.

I really think this is the key to effective thought leadership. Instead of talking or writing about abstract concepts, deal with stuff that’s really happening, that’s important in people’s lives. If one person is facing a particular dilemma, chances are it’s an issue for many more. That kind of material really resonates with an audience.

In terms of media connections, for two or three years now, whenever I see a published article in my area, I freely share my perspective if I have something to add to the conversation. I’ll track down the writer’s email address and get in touch, acknowledge the article and offer an insight or idea. I just do it in the spirit of generosity. So I’ve become better known in the media community.

Also, I understand deadlines. When a journalist calls, I make sure to get right back to them. So I’m easy to reach for an interview. Finally, I think journalists like the fact that we’re independent, not aligned with a bank or fund company.

How has thought leadership has benefitted you?
It’s really been remarkable. We launched Caring for Clients 12 years ago and, until about 2 years ago, we really didn’t think about thought leadership. For those first 10 years, we were getting business through our professional network and client referrals.

That all changed soon after we started actively sharing. Today, we see a very strong correlation between being out there in the media and on the Web and our growth. About 50 percent of new clients approach us and say, “I’ve read what you had to say and I’d like to talk with you.”

What advice do you have for someone starting a thought leadership effort?
Well first, it works where traditional approaches don’t. Just the other day, a friend with a property and casualty insurance brokerage was talking about the way his business is changing. People are buying insurance directly and he’s not even part of the conversation. He has all this expertise and it’s hidden from view.

Like most service providers, he needs to find a way to get out there. I don’t think it makes sense to invest in advertising. He needs to share his knowledge in the marketplace via a blog, newsletters and the media. Use as many channels as possible.

Idea generation isn’t as hard as it looks. If you brainstorm the client problems you’ve solved in the past month, chances are you’ve got material for 10 articles or posts.

And if writing isn’t your thing, get help. I happen to enjoy writing. Not everyone does, or can carve out the time to do it. But don’t make that your excuse. Find someone to work with and make it happen.

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




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