5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry, With Alison Keane, Esq

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Speaking Opportunities: A thought leader should be top of mind when conference organizers are scheduling speakers. Through tailored and targeted presentations, you can further establish your credibility and communicate with large numbers of industry members at once. Presentations give you the opportunity to directly deliver a consistent message. For instance, I share State of the Flexible Packaging Industry presentations and FPA’s research efforts every year at various conferences.

As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alison Keane, Esq., IOM, CAE.

Alison is an environmental attorney with over 25 years of experience in both the private and governmental sectors. She is currently the President and CEO of the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), which represents U.S. converters of film, foil, paper and other materials into packages for food, medical devices and industrial products. Prior to joining the FPA in 2016, she was with the American Coatings Association (ACA) for 16 years and served first as Counsel and then as Vice President for Government Affairs. She was also the Executive Director, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary for the ACA’s product stewardship organization, PaintCare. Alison has also been employed at the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, the Maryland State Senate and private legal practice. Alison earned a BA in Biology from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and a JD from Golden Gate University in San Francisco. She is admitted to the practice of law in both Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland with a Bachelor of Arts in Marine Biology and was convinced I could swim with dolphins as a career. I quickly learned that those jobs are few and far between. While working for an environmental laboratory, I became involved with Superfund clean-ups in the 90s to address contaminated sites due to hazardous waste. This sparked an interest for me in clean-ups, and the legal process and implications.

I went on to pursue a Doctor of Law in Environmental Science from Golden Gate University. After graduating and passing the bar, I started my career with legislative and policy work for the Maryland State Senate and have stayed in that space for both the public and private sectors ever since. Now, I serve as the President and CEO of the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA).

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

As an association executive, you have to become a thought leader to not only do the best job you can in your day-to-day representation, but also to strategically steer the association and its members toward the future. My role as President and CEO of FPA positions me as a thought leader in the packaging industry. Over the past three years, I have led FPA’s increased federal and state-level advocacy efforts and delivered industry research and networking opportunities to members, manufacturers and suppliers of bags, pouches, wraps, labels and other flexible products. In an industry facing increased environmental criticism, I prioritize educating consumers on the true sustainability benefits of flexible plastics, which are often left out of the plastics debate unfolding in the media.

I travel frequently around the world to partake in speaking engagements on behalf of our industry and serve as an advocate to ensure we are represented in legislative and NGO discussions on solid waste management, material composition transparency, sustainability, the role of packaging in reducing food waste and food safety issues. I also have enhanced my credibility as a leader by receiving my Certified Association Executive credential and the Institute of Organizational Management graduate recognition.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

While working for the paint industry, I had the opportunity to tour the FedEx distribution center in Memphis, Tennessee. At that point, it was one of the biggest and most sophisticated facility of its kind, moving various goods across the country and internationally at speeds never before thought to be possible (think pre-Amazon). I was not only able to witness the complex processes for receiving and then shipping packages — as small as earrings and as big as livestock — to their final destinations, I had the opportunity to fly one of the simulator planes. Thankfully, it was just a simulation as I crashed upon landing, but I never forgot how FedEx made the then impossible, possible and with my career in packaging today, it resonates even more.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I interviewed for my current position, there was a representative of a very well-known company on the panel. I casually said, “Oh yes, I’m very familiar with your company.” Turns out, it was a completely different company; one that sounded the same and was spelled only slightly differently from what I had in mind. Luckily, I found humor in the situation and was not called out on it. Lesson learned — do your homework when it comes to the membership or individuals you work with.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is? How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

A thought leader is someone with industry influence that is respected and sought out for their expertise. They are a trusted resource that can speak on behalf of their field and accurately contribute commentary for internal and external audiences. There are certainly many qualities that overlap with thought leadership, leaders and influencers, but I think the main difference in thought leadership is the forward-thinking aspect of it. You can lead and influence on any given topic if you know enough about it, but to be a thought leader, you have to think ahead of current events and provide input and direction on what may impact your industry in the future.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

The benefits of thought leadership increase as your efforts do. It is worthwhile to position yourself as a thought leader to establish trust with various partners and elevate your expertise. Once you become someone who has the credibility to comment on the overall industry, you will be viewed as the “go-to” authority for a collective industry response rather than an individual company response, which is helpful to your membership. I also find it rewarding to give back to others in my industry to make them more successful through the content I produce, the comments I make and what I communicate about our industry.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

Since our association is not for profit, the most important business opportunities we create are those we provide to our members. Any credibility I can generate for our association ultimately trickles down to our manufacturers and suppliers, who can leverage their membership status for lucrative opportunities.

While flexible packaging is the fastest growing segment of the packaging industry in the U.S. and worldwide, thought leadership is necessary to guide our growth when addressing end-of-life aspects of packaging such as composting, recycling or municipal solid waste. I use my platform to promote the sustainability benefits that are not as well-known to consumers. Flexible packaging is lightweight and uses the least amount of resources needed to protect the product. This means that less energy is used, less greenhouse emissions are produced and the packages can be transported more efficiently. If I can successfully communicate these ideas to consumers and brand owners through thought leadership, I can create lucrative opportunities for our members.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry? Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

Speaking Opportunities: A thought leader should be top of mind when conference organizers are scheduling speakers. Through tailored and targeted presentations, you can further establish your credibility and communicate with large numbers of industry members at once. Presentations give you the opportunity to directly deliver a consistent message. For instance, I share State of the Flexible Packaging Industry presentations and FPA’s research efforts every year at various conferences.

Trade Shows: If FPA is involved with a trade show, I make sure I can attend. I may be greeting visitors at our booth, interacting with other exhibitors or speaking on stage. Wherever I am, I aim to become a recognizable face and have meaningful interactions with my industry peers. If you want to become a thought leader, consider what trade shows you can attend and establish yourself as an engaged industry member.

Leadership Programs and Certification: Leadership programs and events are a great touch point on your journey to become a thought leader. Some programs offer opportunities to gain credentials, further highlighting your qualifications and expertise as a thought leader. I knew that it was important for me to understand the differences in leadership for associations and organizations to cater our benefits to the member organizations we serve. Therefore, I recently obtained my Institute of Organizational Management and Certified Association Executive designations.

Advocacy: I think it is essential for thought leaders to be advocates for their industry. You have a voice and a platform to make concerns heard while someone just starting off in the industry may not. In the packaging industry, we are facing many legislative challenges. As plastic bans gain momentum and trade tariffs are in flux, I make sure my industry’s perceptions are taken into account with policymakers. Our program includes legislative monitoring, intelligence gathering, coalition building and advocacy engagement to identify and stop threats and gain support from national, state and municipal policy makers. We are currently working on a campaign to get federal funding for recycling infrastructure to help address recovery and recycling of flexibles, including plastics, as a goal towards a truly circular economy.

Industry Engagement: Thought leaders should always be engaged within their industry so they can embody its core mission. This may take the form of shadowing colleagues and partners to fully understand all aspects and perspectives within the field. You may find having or being a mentor is another essential direct engagement to learn how others are upscaling their skills. Coordinating on-site member facility visits for myself, members of Congress and state legislators not only increases my knowledge of the industry and individual companies within FPA’s membership, but engages the members directly with policymakers, which isn’t often top of mind when they are running businesses day to day.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach?

I greatly admire Priyanka Bakaya, CEO and Founder of Renewlogy, as a thought leader within the sustainability space. Her strong background in energy research makes her a powerful force in the waste and plastics industry as she promotes a circular economy by turning plastic waste into fuel. I think all thought leaders can learn from the way Priyanka engages with the public and media while discussing a sensitive environmental issue.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

As I am sure you’ve found throughout this interview series, a lot of people use the term “thought leader,” but many of us define it a little differently. Even with all the nuances between definitions, I still feel it has value across the board. Anyone with prominent standing in an industry would like to be seen as a trend-setting expert in his or her respective field, and for the moment, no word exemplifies this idea quite like “thought leader.”

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Leaders are often so deeply embedded in their industries that they may feel overwhelmed. I like to leverage my busy schedule and responsibilities to enhance my personal life. For instance, I travel abroad for many conferences and general business purposes. Whenever I can, I try to tack on a personal visit and really use these opportunities to see the world and interact with people from different backgrounds. I am rarely tied to my desk for an extended period and the constant activity helps me thrive professionally and personally.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think we are in great need of a movement within the sustainability arena to correct the misinformation about plastics in the world today. Too often are individuals and companies ostracized for their actions as they relate to sustainability, and companies that use flexible plastics are demonized in conversations that center on recyclability, which is just one component of the sustainability story. Instead of moving toward less sustainable alternatives like glass or metal, we should concentrate on improving the recovery and reuse of plastics. Infrastructure in the United States and Canada needs to be updated, and in places like China and India, it needs to be built from scratch. We can make progress with the plastic pollution problem if we work on it collectively. Overall, I would really like to see an end to the plastics bans so we can refocus our energy on addressing infrastructure challenges to create a true circular economy.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have two, but they are slight variations on the same theme. The first is “I will sleep when I am dead” (Warren Zevon), and the second is “There will be sleeping enough in the grave” (Benjamin Franklin). I am a cancer survivor twice over, and as a result, I strongly believe in taking advantage of every day and every opportunity I am now given. A busy schedule and lack of sleep is an indication of living life to its fullest.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would like to sit down with Hillary Clinton. I previously missed meeting her at a fundraiser, when it was understandably cancelled due to the birth of her grandchild. As a strong female leader, I know she could share invaluable insights and wisdom.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Connect with me on LinkedIn and Twitter or follow FPA on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry, With Alison Keane, Esq was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.