Dorie Clark on How to Stand Out: An interview by Bob Morris

Photo Credit; Joel Veak

Photo Credit; Joel Veak

Dorie Clark is the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013) and Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It (Portfolio/Penguin, 2015). A former presidential campaign spokeswoman, she is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and Entrepreneur as well as the World Economic Forum blog. Recognized as a “branding expert” by the Associated Press, Fortune, and Inc. magazine, Clark is a marketing strategy consultant and speaker for clients including Google, Microsoft, Yale University, Fidelity, and the World Bank.

She is an Adjunct Professor of Business Administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and a Visiting Professor for IE Business School in Madrid. She has guest lectured at Harvard Business School, the Harvard Kennedy School, Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, the Wharton School, the MIT Sloan School of Management, and more. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and appears in worldwide media including NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and the BBC.

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Morris: Before discussing Stand Out, a few general questions. First of all, I think your previous book — Reinventing You — is a brilliant achievement. To what extent have you reinvented Dorie Clark over the years since you graduated from Smith College?

Clark: I’ve reinvented myself quite a few times. Right after college, I went to Harvard Divinity School and thought I’d become an academic, but (after getting my masters degree), I didn’t get into any of the doctoral programs I applied to. So I reinvented myself into a journalist, only to get laid off, and then a political campaign spokesperson, only to work on two consecutive losing campaigns. It took me until nearly a decade after college to land on my current profession as a marketing strategist/author/speaker. So my interest in reinvention comes quite naturally! I wanted to write Reinventing You to help other professionals go through the process more seamlessly, and faster and better.

Morris: My own opinion is that most people prune — if not reinvent — their lives every few years. Frankly, I have found this immensely difficult, sometimes painful. It’s such a struggle to resist what Jim O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” What are your own thoughts about all this?

Clark: Reinvention is definitely becoming a constant in most people’s lives. After all, how many people do you still know who spend a lifetime – or even a decade – at one company? But I like to differentiate between what I call “Capital R” Reinvention, which is a more dramatic job change or career change, and “lowercase r” reinvention, which is the practice of keeping ourselves flexible and adaptable with small choices we make, from taking a class on something new to being open to making a new friend in an unlikely place. The better we are at “reinvention” on a regular basis, the less likely “Reinvention” will feel traumatic when the time comes for a major change.

Morris: I congratulate you on what you have achieved in your career thus far. Presumably there have been a few setbacks along the way. Thus far, what has been the single greatest disappointment and what are the most valuable lessons that you have learned from it?

Clark: There continue to be setbacks and disappointments in my professional life, even though in general I feel happy with the success I’ve achieved. My first book, Reinventing You, was actually the fourth book proposal I created; the other three before it were all rejected. And there are at least four fellowships I’ve applied for in the last 2-3 years that I haven’t been chosen for. You have to keep pushing. But probably the hardest disappointment was the first, getting turned down for the doctoral programs. That’s because academia was my only plan; I really didn’t have a Plan B. But that taught me something important, which is that you should always have an alternate strategy, because you never know how things will play out, and you need to be prepared.

Morris: In your opinion, should people prepare for a career in a specific field or master skills that will be highly-valued in any field? Please explain.

Clark: My ideal advice would be to learn baseline skills – good writing and speaking, for instance – and then get professional experience in particular fields through internships or volunteering. Paying a university to educate you in a specific discipline, especially one that might change rapidly, could be quite expensive and leave you adrift if the field changes or if the need is no longer there because of demographic changes or technological advances. Far better to get specific work experience at work, rather than in a classroom.

Morris: Opinions are divided — sometimes sharply divided — about the how essential charisma is to effective leadership. What do you think?

Clark: I think people want to follow someone who seems “like a leader.” But charisma is often misunderstood. I like the research of the Center for Talent Innovation, which broke down the concept of “executive presence” – often related to charisma – into its constituent parts. They are communication skills, gravitas (i.e., can you handle pressure during difficult circumstances?) and, to a more limited extent, appearance (such as professional dress). All of these are things that individuals can master with practice.

Morris: Here are two of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Clark: One of my favorite stories from Stand Out is about the psychologist, Robert Cialdini, who revolutionized the field by paying attention to his students when they questioned the typical way of doing business. In his field, experiments were done in a laboratory setting and then the findings were simply assumed to translate to real life. Students wondered how researchers knew the same principles would apply, and Cialdini told them they simply had to trust that human nature was the same everywhere. But he listened and wondered if there was a way to know for sure, so he started doing the first field experiments in psychology and became a legend in his field by advancing the discourse in a meaningful way.

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

Clark: In the business world, we often talk about the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 Principle – i.e., that 20% of your effort yields 80% of your results. That’s particularly true when it comes to the research I did around breakthrough ideas. Most of these recognized experts are known for one or, at most, two “big ideas” and concepts that are associated with them. It shows the importance of doubling down when you’ve found an idea that resonates.

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

Clark: I’ve been interested in the concepts behind Stand Out – how to become a thought leader, or a recognized expert, in one’s field – for years. In fact, the very first blog post I ever did for the Harvard Business Review, nearly five years ago, was about this topic. Reinventing You, my first book, is about how to find your place in the professional world – how to change jobs or careers or how others view you, so that you can get to the place you want to be. Stand Out builds on that theme and tries to answer the question, “Once you’ve found the place you want to make your mark, how do you go about doing it? How do you become recognized as a true leader in your field?”

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

Clark: I was particularly struck with what I learned about how to build a following around one’s ideas. I didn’t go in with a hypothesis about how that was done. But in the course of interviewing more than 50 top thought leaders, I realized there were patterns and tried to draw them out. Specifically, even though gaining traction around one’s ideas might seem like a random process, it follows a three-step process. First, you have to build your network – a trusted group of colleagues who can help you vet your ideas. Second, it’s building an audience – communicating your ideas to the public through blogs, speeches, etc., and making your ideas findable to the public. And finally, it’s building a community. That means you’re no longer the only person talking about your ideas; your audience has become so invested, they start talking to one another and evangelizing on behalf of your idea.

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

Clark: I had originally conceived of the book in two sections, as reflected in the subtitle – first, how to find your breakthrough idea, and then, how to build a following around it. The biggest change is that I added a third section talking about the mechanics of thought leadership, addressing questions like how people actually make money around their ideas, and what the daily regimen and work habits of thought leaders look like. I wanted to make the book even more practical for people who aspire to be leaders in their field.

Morris: As I indicate in my review of it for several websites, including Amazon US, UK, and Canada as swell as my own, I am convinced that almost anyone can stand out, even if they are [begin italics] not [end italics] a thought leader with a breakthrough idea, much less an idea that has built “a following around it.” Your response?

Clark: One of the points I make in Stand Out is that a lot of people are deterred by the idea that they have to become the world’s leading thinker in a given subject. Of course that’s not realistic for the vast majority of people; you can’t have 7 billion experts. Unfortunately, that deters a lot of people from even trying to build up their expertise and reputation. What is 100% possible for everyone is to become what I call a “local expert.” You don’t have to be the greatest copywriter or CPA or HR director in the world; if you’re simply the best one in your company, that gives you a degree of job security and professional repute that can be quite powerful. In fact, building up this expert reputation on a small scale is increasingly necessary in order to justify your salary or consulting fees. We live in a world where someone is always willing to work cheaper, but when you have a solid reputation, it gives people a clear reason to choose to work with you, and not someone else.

Morris: In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain suggests that many introverts are uncomfortable with self-promotion, with standing out, preferring to let their achievements speak for themselves. What is your own perspective on that?

Clark: I think that’s true, but as an introvert myself, I think it’s often used as an excuse. Some people say, “I’m uncomfortable with self-promotion, so I won’t do it.” That’s a tragic mistake, because opting out means you’re letting other people tell your story for you – and they’ll often either overlook you, or get it wrong. I think the real challenge is finding ways of doing self-promotion that feel comfortable and fun for you. I hate loud parties and big crowds, so I’ve learned to say no to events that are structured like that. Instead, I organize small group dinners, or promote my work through writing, and that’s a lot more gratifying.

Morris: You and I have known dozens of people over the years who, as they are described here in Texas, “have a big hat but no cattle.” These people certainly stand out. In fact, they seem to be jumping up and down and waving their arms to attract attention. In your opinion, what are the most valuable lessons to be learned from people such as these?

Clark: In Stand Out, I talk about the definition of the word ‘thought leader.’ Some people malign it and think it’s overused or that too many people are self-identifying as thought leaders without justification. But I actually really like the specificity of the term, because it helps make clear who qualifies –and who does not. “Thought” is central to the enterprise; in order to be a thought leader, your reputation has to be built on your ideas, not sheer celebrity. And “Leader” is also critical; you can’t be a thought leader if you’re shut up in the ivory tower and no one knows about your ideas or is listening. You need to share your ideas and help galvanize a movement. That separates the wheat from the chaff.

Morris: Let’s discuss breakthrough ideas for a moment. In your opinion, how best to generate them? Are there any especially important dos and don’ts to keep in mind during that process?

Clark: One baseline element that’s worth mentioning is the importance of quiet reflection. As David Allen, whom I profile in Stand Out, mentions, “It doesn’t take time to have a good idea. It takes space.” The meaning here is that too many of us are caught up in the ‘urgent’ and the hurly-burly of daily life. We need perspective to come up with ideas, rather than quashing them because we have 100 emails we have to respond to. Making room for that is a powerful step any professional can take.

Morris: Here are several important initiatives on which you focus. For each, what is the [begin italics] first step [end italics] to take? Creating one’s professional development group

Clark: Make a list of a half-dozen friends or colleagues you admire and why. What do you hope to learn from them? Then see if you can set up coffees with each of them separately over the next month or two to begin to deepen the relationship.

Morris: Growing one’s network through interviews

Clark: Write a few blog posts where you interview colleagues you’re friendly with, so it’s low risk. Once you’ve practiced a bit and feel more comfortable, make a list of dream interviews you’d like to conduct. You’re not going to get Elon Musk right away, but “ladder up” incrementally so you’re asking increasingly prominent people if they’ll speak with you, and you can get there.

Morris: Leveraging one’s affiliations

Clark: Pick one or two (at most) affiliations you have that you’d like to focus on. This could be an alumni connection, a charity you’re involved in, a publication you write for, etc. Ideally it’s a connection that you feel passionate about and something that prominent and like-minded people congregate around. Then focus intently on leveraging it. Get involved in a pre-existing group (like an alumni club chapter) or volunteer to start something of your own (offer to host a fundraiser at your home for the charity).

Morris: Blogging

Clark: Schedule 90 minutes on your calendar in the next week to write a blog post, and then post it on your LinkedIn profile. To find a topic, think about questions that people frequently ask you about your field, or think about one trend in your industry and what your take is on it. Is it overblown? Or is it really meaningful, and if so, why?

Morris: Writing and publishing a book

Clark: This is borrowed from Alan Weiss, a consultant I profile in both Reinventing You and Stand Out. Take a topic you want to write about. Today, make a list of 10 chapters you could write about it. Then each day for the next 10 days, pick a chapter and make a list of five topics you’d cover in that chapter. For instance, if one chapter is about marketing, the sub-topics could include traditional PR, search engine optimization, social media, guerrilla marketing, and content marketing. Once you’ve created your outline, start writing at least 500 words a day. Before long, you have a book (50-60K words).

Morris: In the book, you share your thoughts about how to achieve these and other objectives. In your opinion, which of them (if any) can do more to help a person stand out than can any of the others? Please explain.

Clark: As a former journalist, I’ll give the nod to content creation, especially writing blogs. Creating content on its own isn’t enough to position you as a thought leader, but it’s necessary, because it’s what allows people to find and discover your work. If they connect to your message, that’s when the magic starts to happen.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Stand Out and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. In your opinion, where to begin?

Clark: One important element that I discuss in both Stand Out and Reinventing You is social media. Though it’s changing rapidly, some CEOs are still hesitant to let employees take to social media and share their ideas and perspectives. But that’s an old-school perspective. If you provide proper guidance and hire the right people, your employees can become brand ambassadors for you online, and will feel increasingly loyal and fulfilled because you’re allowing them to express their ideas and become recognized for them. Does this mean potential competitors might discover them? Yes, and so might potential clients for your business.

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 Stand Out, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Clark: There are two elements I think will be valuable to owners of small businesses. First, as with Reinventing You, I want to make the case that professionals need to think simultaneously about building the brand of their companies, and also their own personal brand as a leader. The more thought and effort you put into that, the better your results, because people will respond differently to you, be more likely to appreciate your talents fully, and will be more eager to do business with you. Second, I think it’s critical to emphasize that standing out – identifying and sharing your point of competitive differentiation – is no longer optional. It may have been ‘nice to have’ before, but now it’s mandatory. You have to be able to explain and demonstrate why you’re different and how your ideas, as well as your products and services, are different and better than the competition. If you can do that, you’ve given people a very clear reason to want to work with you.

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

Her home page with Free 42-Page Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook link

Amazon page link

Reinventing You link

Stand Out link

TEDx talk: Finding Your Breakthrough Idea link

Twitter link

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