Dorie Clark: An interview by Bob Morris

DorieClarkHeroDorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant and frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review and Forbes. Recognized as a “branding expert” by the Associated Press, she is the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). Clark consults and speaks for a diverse range of clients, including Google, Fidelity, the World Bank, the Ford Foundation, Yale University, the Mount Sinai Medical Center, and the National Park Service.

Clark, a former presidential campaign spokeswoman, is an adjunct professor of business administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She has taught marketing and communications at Tufts University, Suffolk University, Emerson College, Smith College Executive Education, the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business, and HEC-Paris, which is ranked #2 worldwide in executive education by the Financial Times. Her work has been published in the Harvard Business Review Guide to Getting the Right Job and the Harvard Business Review Guide to Networking. She frequently appears in worldwide media including NPR, the BBC, and MSNBC. At age 18, Clark graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Smith College, and two years later received a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School.

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Morris: Before discussing Reinventing You, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Clark: I have to give the nod to my mother, Gail Clark, who instilled a deep sense of confidence in me through her unwavering love and support. These days, the pendulum seems to be swinging back toward a more tough-love style of parenting, as a cultural reaction against the “make every child feel special” approach in the ‘80s and ‘90s, which my mom’s parenting style anticipated. But I can attest that the drive and assuredness that come from having a secure base like that are quite powerful.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Clark: My biggest professional influence was probably starting my career as a reporter. I loved being able to ask questions and learn about a new subject every week, and that approach and curiosity has stayed with me.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Clark: If the Internet hadn’t happened and journalism (and much of our economy) hadn’t been “disrupted,” I probably would have remained a journalist, because I loved the profession. But when I got laid off my from first reporting job at age 22, I had to come up with a new plan, and that set me off on the career adventures that eventually led to Reinventing You.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Clark: I’m a proud liberal arts student, with my undergraduate degree in philosophy and my masters degree in theology. I believe my studies have made me a better writer and thinker, and able to understand patterns and make connections in a richer way.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Clark: I can relate to the current knock on Gen Y workers because I, too, hated dressing up and struggled to get to work on time in my early days. It seems pretty basic but the transition from the complete autonomy of graduate school was difficult. Of course, what I came to realize is that those things were infinitely easier for me as an entrepreneur, because I was excited by the freedom of working for myself (for a brief while as a freelance journalist, later heading up a nonprofit where I was in charge, and finally starting my own consulting business). I’m grateful for the things I learned as an employee, but temperamentally, I realized I’m able to excel as an entrepreneur where I wasn’t in a more traditional structure.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Clark: I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post a while back called “Business Secrets from Scarface.” Even though (perhaps because?) it’s a gangster movie, the excitement and danger of business is right on the surface. Watching Tony Montana, first in his rise to power (asking for bigger assignments, staying cool in decisive moments) and later as a cautionary tale, is quite powerful.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Clark: I’m a big fan of “deep dive” non-fiction books that immerse you into a particular world. Anthony Bourdain’s books aren’t “business books,” but give you an amazing glimpse into the restaurant industry and its unique culture. I also loved New Jack by Ted Conover, which showed what life working in a prison is like.

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Clark: Wilde is the original personal branding expert. He was flamboyantly unique, even though he eventually suffered for it (given the negative attitudes toward homosexuality at the time and his notorious trial). Given that we’re still talking about him more than 100 years later, he’s a perfect example that being yourself and contributing something new to the world can enable you to make a lasting impact.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Clark: Like many other professionals, I struggle personally with the question of how to optimize my time and efficiency. Especially with new tools like social media, it seems that new demands are being placed on us, without a diminution of previous responsibilities. The new Holy Grail is figuring out what we can – and should – drop, and where we can best apply leverage. The 80/20 principle haunts us all!

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Clark: I think Tom and Brooke are largely correct (and, in fact, I interviewed Tom last year for my Forbes blog). Big Data is shaping everything in our lives – the new trick will be understanding in which circumstances it’s smarter than we are, and in which circumstances it’s merely interesting information that needs to be integrated with human insight.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Clark: The Silicon Valley ethos that mistakes are good and to be encouraged (as long as they’re learned from quickly) has become conventional wisdom in business literature and on the lecture circuit, but I’m not sure it’s really penetrated many corporations. It’s awfully hard to fight human nature and years of schooling that train us to avoid mistakes like the plague. But of course they’ll occur anytime you’re doing something new, which you need to do in changing circumstances. So we’d better get more used to it.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Clark: I think there are a few key problems – some of which I’ve certainly noticed in myself. One is that top executives are still excited by the hands-on work of their companies. Steve Jobs is the classic example of a leader who never quit sticking his hands into the development process because he was so invested in it and jazzed about it. Another reason is that many C-level execs actually are quite smart and quite good at their jobs, and the people to whom they delegate may not be as good. Of course, just because you can do something better doesn’t mean it’s worth it for you to do it. Finally, there’s the problem of planning. Many execs these days are pressed for time and pushed to the max, leaving them little time to tee up the projects and assignments that would allow a subordinate to take something off their plate. Even though it’s worth it long-term, they just can’t make the time in the short-term to make delegation happen.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Clark: It’s fairly fundamental – our brains are wired to remember stories and to forget numbers. Executives get schooled that they need to appeal to reason and rely on numbers and evidence, and that’s important – but it’s never sufficient. You can’t really make a sale or get a result unless you also connect emotionally. My Forbes interview with fellow HBR author Jonah Sachs talks about this a bit.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Clark: John Kotter of course laid out a fairly definitive method for organizational change. But I’ll add that two of the elements he talks about are particularly critical – first, creating a ‘sense of urgency’ so that people understand change is necessary, and second, tapping into participants’ own needs and motives to get them excited to make the change. No one likes to be told what to do, but if they’re motivated on their own, it makes a huge difference.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Clark: Business schools are a part of universities, but need to operate very differently than their peers in academia. It makes sense for, say, an English department to wait a few years to see if Jonathan Franzen or Jonathan Safran Foer is worth adding to the canon – to see if something is a fad or a classic. In business, you need to move quickly, and it’s astonishing to me that there are so few classes being offered on subjects so essential and pervasive as social media, as my friend Mark Fidelman has written about.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Clark: I don’t think most corporations have enough “global leaders” of the kind that Angel Cabrera and Greg Unruh talk about, and training them will be key. You can’t be a truly international corporation if you don’t have the executive leadership to manage it.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Reinventing You. When and why did you decide to write it?

Clark: I started blogging for the Harvard Business Review in November 2010, and my second post was called “How to Reinvent Your Personal Brand,” drawing on my experience having a lot of different careers and realizing that many people couldn’t really keep up with what I was doing. The post was popular and I was really honored when HBR asked me to turn it into a much longer piece for the HBR magazine, which ran in March 2011 as “Reinventing Your Personal Brand.” When the story ran, I was approached by several literary agents and realized I had a topic that seemed to be striking a chord. From there, I turned it into a book proposal, which HBR Press picked up that May.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Clark: One of my favorite stories is about a woman named Libby Wagner, who transitions from being a poet and professor of women’s studies and creative writing at a community college to being a management consultant for companies like Nike and Boeing. Most people would think that was completely impossible, but she made it happen, and is a great role model for other people who face the skepticism of others.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Clark: Broadly speaking, the book ended up the way I envisioned it, but it was helped tremendously by the great editing of Jeff Kehoe and Erica Truxler at HBR Press. And given its academic press heritage, HBR actually has a peer review process, as well, so four outside reviewers read my book and offered comments – a real quality guarantee that most publishers these days aren’t doing.

Morris: In your opinion, what are some of the most common misconceptions about the current and imminent employment landscape? What in fact is true?

Clark: I think there’s very little understanding that our economy has changed fundamentally and permanently. The new estimate is that 40% of Americans will be freelancers or self-employed by 2020 – a shocking change that will make personal branding and reinvention even more important. Even for those who continue to work for large corporations, competition will be fierce and you’ll need to distinguish yourself. It’s not so much about “getting a job” as it is about making a job by demonstrating your insight and abilities and making them want to work with you, specifically.

Morris: Although you seem to have written the book primarily for executives, I can it can also be of substantial value to those who are now preparing for a career in business or have only recently embarked upon one. Do you agree?

Clark: I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from recent grads that the book is helpful for them, which is heartening for me. That was a difficult time in my life – figuring out how to transition into the workforce – and I didn’t really have anyone to explain office politics, or power dynamics, or how to get noticed. I’m thrilled that Reinventing You can help with that.

Morris: The meaning of the word “career” certainly quite different now than it was when I began my first full-time job after graduate school as an English teacher and football coach at a boarding school in New England. What do you think the word “career” means today?

Clark: In the past, “career” often connoted your tenure at one company, or at least in an industry. Now, change is the norm, and you’ll likely be doing a lot of extremely different things during the course of your professional life.

Morris: In my opinion, many (most?) students now enrolled in schools, colleges, and universities are preparing for jobs that either no longer exist or will not be there when they graduate. What are your own thoughts about that?

Clark: In many ways, that scenario is an argument in favor of the liberal arts – after all, it doesn’t make much sense to get a degree in XYZ field (medical imaging or whatever) if that’s going to be disrupted in a few years, anyway. It’s far better to learn foundational skills about writing and critical thinking. Indeed, as Deloitte’s Cathy Benko has written, even the US Department of Education has estimated that “60% of the new jobs created this century will require skills now possessed by a mere 20% of workers today.”

Morris: You offer sound advice about “reinventing” one’s brand. That presupposes that there already is one that is somehow ineffective. Please explain.

Clark: Personal brand is really just a synonym for reputation – how people think of you – so everyone already has one. The question is, does your reputation match what you’d like it to be? If not, it’s worth taking the time to think about it and try to make adjustments.

Morris: There are organizations such as IBM, McKinsey & Company, Cirque du Soleil, and the U.S. Marine Corps that have an image they expect their employees to exemplify. Isn’t that a form of externally imposed branding?

Clark: I think it’s smart and appropriate for a company to have a brand and seek out like-minded employees. As John Hagel of the Center for the Edge has discussed, it’s like a “beacon” that enables people (or people and companies) to find each other. Of course, the best companies encourage employees to have their own distinctive personal brands – but having a common, shared value like “creativity” or “intelligence” is a good starting point.

Morris: When embarking on a “journey” of reinvention, what are the most common mistakes made with regard to selecting a “destination”?

Clark: Sometimes people will jump into a new plan without fully investigating it. In Reinventing You, I tell the story of a woman utterly convinced she wanted to be a floral designer – until she spent a morning actually shadowing someone with that job, when she quickly learned it wasn’t for her. Trying things out and learning on the ground is essential to finding the right path.

Morris: What’s involved when “test driving” a path to follow?

Clark: There are a lot of ways you can learn about potential jobs or careers that interest you. Joining a nonprofit board is a great way to learn about a new industry, such as health care or education, or to learn new skills you want to develop. If you think you’d like to become a fundraising consultant, testing it out on a board is an easy way to see if you’d like it. You can also ask to shadow someone for a day (most will be flattered) or pay a service like VocationVacations to follow around people with interesting or unusual careers.

Morris: The title of Chapter 5 is “Develop the Skills You Need.” Many people have little (if any) idea as to what those needed skills are. How best to identify them?

Clark: One obvious step is to ask people in the field you’re interested in: What knowledge has been most valuable to you? What skills do you need to succeed? Which skills are necessary but often overlooked? Another way to glean information is by asking the people you’re close to for feedback. If you ask a number of people to describe you in three words, you can probably find out a lot about your strengths – and, perhaps by omission, weaknesses you may want to plug.

Morris: What are the most important do’s and don’ts to keep in mind when selecting a mentor?

Clark: It’s often hard to find one person who is the “complete package” as a mentor. (After all, most successful people are very busy and may have legions of people competing for the honor of being their protégé). Instead, open your mind to learning from an assortment of colleagues who may each possess a particular skill (social media savvy, good delegation, excellent presentation skills) that you admire.

Morris: Please explain the meaning and significance of Chapter 7, “Leverage Your Points of Difference.”

Clark: I believe we’re moving away from an era where people primarily judged you by how you were similar to others (did you go to the right school? Do you belong to the right clubs?) and now, what truly matters is how you’re different: what insights can only you bring to the table? What perspective can you share? Understanding that enables you to access a powerful competitive advantage.

Morris: At this point, I want to ask a question about a book that has had a great impact on my life, The Denial of Death. In it, Ernest Becker, concedes that no one can deny physical death but there is another form of it that [begin italics] can [end italics] be denied: The death that occurs when we become wholly preoccupied with fulfilling others’ expectations of us.

I think that insight is very relevant to much of what you discuss in your book. Do you agree?

Clark: Many people assume erroneously that personal branding, or being conscious of one’s brand, is about shaping who you are to meet others’ preferences or expectations. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, when done right, it’s about crystallizing what makes you unique and then getting others to understand and appreciate the value of that. That’s what can enable us to thrive as individuals and as a society.

Morris: When building a narrative about one’s self, how to identify and then incorporate within it previously hidden or unrecognized “underlying themes”?

Clark: It can be hard to identify themes that go through your professional life, because that requires a “macro,” 30,000 foot view, and we’re often immersed in the daily details. Broadly speaking, I’d try to answer the question “why is your path logical?” Trying to frame it that way can help you see how X led to Y, and how the two elements connect. Of course, asking trusted friends for their opinions and insights can also be very helpful.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question: Why are such themes so essential to the appeal and impact of one’s narrative?

Clark: Because the human mind is wired for stories, people want to understand the story of your career – your professional narrative. A disjointed narrative is confusing and doesn’t reveal much about you, or perhaps indicates that you’re flighty or can’t commit to a job or industry. Instead, you want to leave people with a story that shows your transitions and what you’ve learned – the satisfying biographical arc of how you got here from there, and why you’re uniquely prepared to face this moment.

Morris: Please explain the meaning and significance of Chapter 9, “Reintroduce Yourself.”

Clark: Sometimes the hardest audience for your professional reinvention, ironically, is your existing group of friends and colleagues. If you meet someone new at a Chamber event, they’re not going to second-guess you when you introduce yourself as an executive coach – but your old colleagues may say, “What do you know about that?” Reintroducing yourself, and showcasing your expertise, helps allay others’ concerns and shows them that you know exactly what you’re talking about.

Morris: What does building one’s portfolio involve? What do those initiatives help to accomplish?

Clark: As knowledge workers, it can be hard for others to evaluate what we know and what we can do, since our knowledge is in our heads. Whereas an artist can show off her portfolio of sketches or paintings and we can see how good she is, it’s historically been harder for other professionals. But thanks to the Internet and the ability to blog or create other content (podcasts, videos, etc.) for free, we can allow others to see how we think and “try before they buy,” which is a powerful tool.

Morris: What are the most important do’s and don’ts to keep in mind when involved with social media? Please explain.

Clark: There are a lot of social media do’s and don’ts, which I’ve written about for my Forbes blog. But here are a few of my favorite things to do:

o Post regularly. If you start a blog or open a Twitter account, treat it as an ongoing commitment, because you don’t want to have an abandoned profile representing you to the public.

o Specifically mark out time in your calendar to create content, to make sure it happens.

o Engage with others – respond to comments, retweet others’ posts, and try to make it a two-way dialogue.

Morris: If your readers get nothing else out of Chapter 11, what do you hope it will be? Why?

Clark: Consistency matters in your personal brand. People won’t think your change is genuine if it’s short-lived or fleeting; personal branding is also about how you live your life, so if you want to be viewed as a better listener, for instance, it’s important to make an ongoing effort.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Reinventing You and is now determined to do everything possible for support employees’ personal growth and professional development at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Clark: A great place to start is by helping employees gain more self-knowledge. Having an employer pay for an executive coach is a powerful statement about investing in the growth of an employee over the long-term. Encouraging job-shadowing within the company is also a great help, and allows employees to learn more about different parts of the business and where they might fit in as their careers develop. And I’d also urge CEOs to embrace social media and blogging by employees, as a way to help the company’s brand, as well, since your employees are your best ambassadors.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Reinventing You, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Clark: Many CEOs – especially those in small companies – are so focused on running their businesses, they don’t spend much time on developing their personal brand. But a leader with a strong brand can dramatically accelerate a company’s success and image in the marketplace; as one example, Blake Mycoskie from TOMS Shoes helps drive coverage and draw people in to the story of the brand.

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Dorie cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Her website

Reinventing You page at Amazon

Twitter link

Forbes link

HBR link

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