Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).
On Work and Life Stew Friedman spoke with Dorie Clark, former presidential campaign spokeswoman and a recognized “branding expert,” about how to understand what’s unique about you and use that at work and elsewhere. Dorie is the author of Reinventing You and her most recent book, Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It.
The following are edited excerpts of their conversation. Here’s the podcast of the full interview.
Dorie Clark full podcast
Stew Friedman: How did you just got into this topic? You started in marketing and publicity and you use those skills and methods, somehow, to help individuals, as opposed to companies, market themselves. What inspired you to do this?
Dorie Clark: My first book, Reinventing You, was really the product of my own experiences because I had to reinvent myself numerous times. The way that the economy had been going think a lot of people have experienced disruption. I was a newspaper reporter and I got laid off. I worked on political campaigns and we all lost. So, I had to re-invent myself. I wrote a book trying to interview practitioners who had done this successfully, to learn about it. With my new book “Stand Out”, I try to answer the next question which is, once you find the place that you really want to make your mark, once you’ve found the job you love, or the career that you love, how do you actually get noticed above all the noise and get people to really understand and appreciate your true talent?
SF: Why do you think that’s an important topic for today’s business world?
DC: I think more and more, this is the form of career insurance that we all need. We live in a world where there’s always going to be someone who’s willing to do the job for less. That’s how the economy is turning. You have to give people a really good reason to want to do business with you specifically. The best case you can possibly make is becoming recognized as an expert. It doesn’t have to be a world expert. But even if you’re recognized as the expert in your company at a certain thing, or the expert in your community at a certain thing, that’s a powerful form of leverage that you have in negotiation and it shows people, “Okay, if I need to pay a premium to work with this person, here is why.”
SF: How do you think being able to stand out, being able to develop a calling, can help people create a greater sense of harmony among the different parts of their lives to integrate them better?
DC: Well, you certainly know better than most, Stew, that when you look at psychology studies about what really makes people feel happy and satisfied is having a meaningful life. It’s having a sense of purpose in what they’re doing. People want to have an impact. No one wants to feel like a paper pusher, or someone who’s just watching the clock endlessly having to do tasks that don’t really matter. If you can develop this expert reputation, if you can get noticed for your talents, it enables you to play on a bigger stage. It enables you to have more opportunities coming to you. The kinds of opportunities you want, so that your career can be as fulfilling as you choose for it to be.
SF: How do you get people to first understand what’s really special about them, what they uniquely bring to the table, so that they can find their niche and gain support from others?
DC: The starting point is just beginning to understand what is special and what is unique about you. I think honestly, it’s hard for a lot of people because we know too much about ourselves. We know too much in the sense that we’re so far into the forest, we can’t see the broader perspective. We’re in our heads 24/7. Anything that someone might say about me, I probably heard, right? But the thing that I probably have very little understanding of, is when it comes to the impression that I’m giving the world. When it comes to the things that other people think are most meaningful, most different, most salient, I probably don’t know that. A lot of things have equal weight in my own mind. Or I might think I’m coming across one way, but for the public it’s coming across entirely differently.
So, I suggest that if you’re trying to get a handle on what is unique and special about you, what’s very helpful, and I suggest this in my first book, ‘Reinventing You,’ is to do a three word exercise. For a week, you go to some friends, acquaintances, and ask them, “If you only had three words to be able to describe me, what would they be?” This is not a hard question. Takes a minute to answer.
SF : Sure, and just anybody who knows you can do it. They probably find it fascinating as well. How does that help you to understand what is distinctive about you, asking about that question of friends and colleagues?
DC: Before long, you’re definitely going to start to see patterns in what people think. That’s helpful because it shows in a really broad stroke, what it is that’s most unusual, or having the most impact on people. I did this exercise, I was a doing a webinar with a group of Israeli entrepreneurs recently. They actually took one of their group members and decided to make him a guinea pig.
They did this exercise where everybody took a minute. They wrote down their answers about him and then they read them out. Out of 10 people in the room, 7 of them used the word creative to describe the guy. If you hear feedback like that you know, “Okay, that’s special. That’s something that people really think is unusual about me compared to the masses.”
SF: Yeah, that’s going to persuade you. Although, I can imagine some people might feel it’s a little awkward to ask people to describe them. Do you encounter that where people are saying, “I don’t know if I feel comfortable asking people to tell me the three words that come to mind when they think of me.” It’s clear that that will be a very valuable thing to do especially when you ask multiple people and they converge on this one concept, like creativity. Do you have to push people to get past their inhibitions about trying to do something like that?
DC: You do sometimes. What I tell some people is blame me. Literally say, “I was listening to this radio show recently and there was this woman named Dorie Clark and she said we should try this exercise. So just for fun I’m going to ask you, what are the three words you’d use to describe me?” Throw me under the bus, blame me, use me as your excuse to get the data you need.
SF: That works. I use that all the time with my students when I ask them to do things that might seem little awkward. Same exact thing, blame me for forcing you to do this as part of our class work and that will get you over the hump. That is a very good and practical suggestion. Now, what if you hear different things from different people when you try that exercise out, and ask people to describe you and eight people different people say different things, or does that not usually happen?
DC: Usually, there is much more of a conversion. But if eight people would say different things, I think that’s the point where you begin to step back. Number one: Ask what is the context in which people know you? Is it that really you’re manifesting an entirely different self to them? Why did they have such diverse opinions? That’s an interesting thing. Another thing is to ask yourself, are you actually acting in a consistent manner? Are you shaping your personality to what you hope other people might want or need.
It’s important to use other people as a mirror to see how we are coming across. But it all comes back to authenticity. You don’t want to be shaping yourself based on that they might want, or what you think they might want. It’s really about getting clear on who you are, and making sure that the impressions that they are getting is a true impression based on what you would wish them to see.
SF: That’s just great advice, and so critical for leadership development, for integrating the different parts of your life, and for learning how to stand out. Joe is calling from Oregon. Joe, welcome to Work and Life. What is your question?
Joe: Hi. I’ve got military background and I’ve come across it quite a bit where so much about what I’ve done with the military and what I’ve got to bring to the table that I wouldn’t know how to start to explain let alone put something in a resume that my employer might understand. Where would be a good place to start translating my military experiences and skills?
SF: That’s a great question. Thank you, Joe. Dorie, what advice do you have for Joe?
DC: Thanks, Joe. This is actually very appropriate because I work with military veterans all the time. Literally, on Saturday morning I flew out from having just given a speech at The Deloitte University in Texas, speaking to group of 50 service members who are transitioning into the civilian work force. I’m also involved in a charity called American Dream U, and spoke for them at Fort Bragg last year. It’s a really common question as people are transitioning out of the military, and the things that you may have done there. Let’s say you flew helicopters or you were disarming bombs. Those are not necessarily things that immediately translate in direct way to what you might be doing in the civilian world. I think a really important point in this is to not let yourself be boxed in. Employers are looking for one to one correlation, mostly because they don’t want their brains to have to work too hard.
You flew helicopters. What does that have to do with marketing soda? You need to guide them. You need to take a 30,000 foot view and say, “Okay, what are my real skills?” it’s not about flying the helicopters or disarming the bomb. It’s about leadership. It’s about the fact that you’re able to supervise and safely care for a group of 30 soldiers millions of dollars of equipment. If you can drive home that message, so that they understand how the skills are transferable, take the broader view that it might be hard for them to grasp immediately, that can be really powerful.
SF: Joe, it sounds s though you’re struggling with the question of how to make that translation. Do I have that right?
Joe: Definitely because a lot of the jobs that interest me, don’t have anything to do with the stuff I’ve done in the past. What I’m hearing is I should use general ideas or principles, and not necessarily specifics about flying, or shooting or whatever else.
DC: I think that’s absolutely right, Joe. In my first book, ‘Reinventing You,’ I profiled a woman named Toby Johnson who was an Apache helicopter pilot who later transitioned into a very successful executive career at Pepsi. The way that she was able to do it, when she first went to Business School, she thought she was in trouble because her classmates were interviewing for internships, and she didn’t really feel like she had a good story to tell.
A lot of them had come from other corporate jobs. They can talk about their past experiences that they had had before going to business school. All she’s ever done was work for the army. But once she realized, it was about leadership skills, it wasn’t about the tactical elements of what she was doing on a day to day basis. Then, people really began to get it. If you get them away from the line items on your resume, and towards the bigger themes of what you’ve learned to do, that’s how you can win the debate in their minds.
SF: It’s making that translation. So, how can people begin to feel comfortable to bring more of who they really are to work especially, when it is perhaps at odds or different from, what’s standard or normal, in a work environment? What about when what is different or distinctive, their special passions and interests cut against the norms, or what they think of the norms, in a work place that they want to be a part?
DC: Yeah, some really important points, Stew. There’s a couple of thoughts that I have. The first one, is understanding the fact that literally, statistically, in terms of the studies that have been done, you will actually benefit. Your performance will benefit, and your outcomes will benefit by being a more authentic leader. Sylvia Ann Hewlett and her colleagues at the Center for Talent Innovation have done studies specifically about LGBT employees. They discovered, perhaps in contrary of what many people might expect, ‘out’ employees as compared to ‘closeted’ employees actually had greater workplace satisfaction and greater success, and were feeling that their careers were moving forward and they were getting the promotions that they wanted.
The reason for that, is that when you’re focused on hiding a certain part of yourself, this goes not just for gay and lesbian employees, but for anybody, when you’re focused on hiding a certain part of yourself that takes a lot of psychological energy. Its energy that otherwise, if you didn’t have to worry about it, could go to your job. That’s part of a reframing that I think is really important.
SF: It’s a topic that we’ve talked about a lot here with Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith on the topic of covering and they make the very same point. There is a lot of wasted effort that goes into pretending. If you can eliminate that waste and be yourself, then you have more resources and energy to devote to the tasks at hand. Standing out, it may come with some risk, right?
DC: Yeah, I think there is a certain degree of bravery that’s required to do it, but you will get untold benefits. I actually, co-authored a piece in Harvard Business review with Christie Smith about this, about covering and authenticity in the work place. In my new book, ‘Stand Out,’ I profiled a woman named, Diane Mulcahy. She is with the Kauffman Foundation. She has a lot of research on entrepreneurship. A couple of years ago, they did a study about essentially what was going wrong with the venture capital industry. Diane came from a background where she was a venture capitalist.
This was highly critical in the industry, and when it was about to be released, she had a lot of people take her side say “Diane, this is suicide. You can’t put this out.” “It’s like she’s attacking her former colleagues,” they thought. She really felt like this is important information, if she wanted to support entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurial ecosystem, she needed to be willing to do it. She did release the report and got a ton of coverage, and she did get blowback. But if you want to make change, it has to be about the idea. It can’t be all about you and she was willing to do it.
SF: It probably benefited her in the long run by taking a stand for something that she believed and believed was going to be helpful to her industry. We’ve got Gabrielle, calling from New York. Gabrielle, welcome to Work and Life. What’s your question?
Gabrielle: Thanks so much. I’m very excited. I’m moving to Philly in a couple of months and will be joining the work class of 2017.
SF: Excellent. I hope to see you on my class, Gabrielle. What’s your question?
Gabrielle: As I begin my MBA journey I’ve been thinking a lot about blending my non-traditional background and trying to transition into consulting. I’ve been thinking a lot about how my colleagues would answer the question “What three words would you use to describe me?” And then how my friends would describe me. I think that there will be some dissimilarities and I’m trying to think about, how I can bridge the connection and combine them.
SF: Great question, Gabrielle. Dorie, what do you think? How do you bridge the divide that you might think is there, in terms of who you are, how you come across at work as opposed to at home, or with your friends in your community?
DC: Yeah, this is really important. What I will say here is that actually, a lot of us have been trained to think that there’s just one correct way of being at work. Sometimes that means shaving off other parts of our personality. We’re becoming the archetypal man in the great flannel suit. What we’re learning more and more is that these points of distinctiveness, all of the cool personal stuff that your friends might see that your colleagues don’t, that’s actually the thing that can make you a memorable, vivid person that people want to be working with.
Of course, there are things that you might do with your friends that you wouldn’t do at work. You still probably shouldn’t swear. You still probably shouldn’t come to work in a hoodie if you want to be a management consultant. There is a huge category of things that people might think are really irrelevant, but bringing them to the fore is sometimes very powerful. It could be that you’re a passionate musician. It could be that you love travelling and you’ve been to a bunch of countries and are just fired up about that. But these things that might seem like they’re a million miles away from your work, actually can lead to interesting intersections because a lot of research on creativity shows that the way to really be innovative, to really be a contributor, is to meld together different disciplines because it enables you to see the world differently.
I’ll actually just mention it for people who want to apply these concepts in their own lives. On my website, dorieclark.com, I created a free 42-page workbook with 139 questions you can ask yourself to think about ways that you can find your own breakthrough idea.
SF: Gabrielle, I’ll see you again in Philly next semester. Thomas, calling from Texas. Welcome to Work and Life. What’s your question?
Thomas: Hi, like one of the previous callers, I’m from the military as well. Now I work at a pretty large employer. We all pretty much do the same thing and I’m trying to figure out how do you, in an environment where everyone is doing the same type of work, let your own character and work ethic be shown.
SF: Dorie, how do you advise people like Thomas on the issue of conformity pressures in organizations?
DC: Thomas, awesome question. If the nature of the work is very similar, then I would try to distinguish yourself on entirely different level. What I mean by that is if you can find essentially an extracurricular activity that you can use to stand out and build your brand around, that can be very powerful and also a good way to network, depending what it is. Literally, this could be anything. It could be being the chairman of the recycling club, or leading the Latino employee resource group, or it could be something where you’re a fitness buff. Maybe this is good with the military background. You could launch a jogging club after work, or something like that. By either starting your own organization or taking the reigns of something. It shows people that you’re a leader, and it shows people different facets of yourself that enables you to stand out.
SF: Thomas, I hope you found that advice to be useful. Kurt’s calling from Oklahoma. Kurt, welcome to Work and Life. What’s your question for Dorie Clark?
Kurt: I just completed my MBA. I’m graduating May 11th and I have a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychiatric Social Work. Everybody at my community knows me as a therapist who does trauma work and I’m trying to rebrand myself and get out of that profession. I’m wondering how to do that. That’s my question.
SF: Thank you, Kurt. Dorie, what advice do you have for Kurt?
DC: Rebranding yourself is always an important area, an important challenge because people’s perceptions often do lag. One of the best ways to begin rebranding to start creating content so that people can actually see with their own eyes that you’re knowledgeable in this new field. If you want to get out of the trauma space, and more into MBA stuff, let’s say you’re doing business consulting, if you start blogging and sharing so that your contacts will see them in your news feed and they’ll say, “Oh, I see Kurt writing all these things about improving business processes. I didn’t realize he did that.” Over time that begins to sink in. Also, when you’re writing this content, it gives you stuff to talk about; you can talk about what you’re writing. The second thing, that’s really valuable to do, I will call it, ‘surprise people.’ Snap them out of their previous conception of you. This is where it pays to do something big, something visible like taking on a leadership role with an organization. You can be the person who is in charge of business consultants of a greater Tulsa, or wherever, but something that is just off enough from what you used to do, that when you talk to people about it, and when they see it on your business card they’ll say, “Really Kurt, you?” they’ll give you an opportunity to have that conversation, so that they can pivot their perceptions.
SF: Kurt, what do you think, can you do that?
Kurt: Yeah, that’s a great advice. I think I can do that. I was just trying to figure how to rebrand myself and get out of that workspace that I was in.
SF: Dorie, so much useful advice for our listeners. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?
DC: I think the best piece of advice that I have ever gotten, actually in a really technical sense, is not to have an office. That might sound really strange because this is the Work and Life show. But I want to mention it.
For me, it’s been a great source of professional satisfaction to be able to work from home. I buy myself an extra hour or two per day not commuting. If you’re someone who enjoys working from home and you can do it, I highly recommend it. I’ve worked for myself for 9 years now, I’ve saved literally tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on office fees, and I’ve had a better quality of life doing it.
SF: That is great advice, Dorie. What’s the one most important thing that you want to leave our listeners with in terms of core-message of your work?
DC: I think the core-message that I want to leave folks with is that it is more important than ever to stand out. We all live in a world with a thousand Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections. We all get way too many emails. You have to make sure that people understand what you’re good at, in fact what you’re best at, and that message is coming through loud and clear. It’s worth it to invest taking the time to know yourself, and to spread the message to others through the leadership roles you take, the content you create, and things you write and how you talk about yourself in your conversations.