This Episode's Focus On Strengths
Dorie Clark joined me to chat about using your uniqueness to stand out at work. If you want to improve your personal brand or reinvent yourself at work, this is a must-listen episode of Lead Through Strengths. We talked about applying your greatest strengths at work to help you stand out and boost your leadership cache.
What You'll Learn
How to use a personal 360 to understand the starting point of your personal brand. She gives a rich version for those who really want to invest in their development. We also recount my experiment with her "Three Words Exercise" (great experience, by the way). That's the super-fast version of the experience. And if you want an in-between commitment level when you apply it, here's a resource she published in Forbes. It's about asking for input via email.
- Why I got called "Lady With Chainsaw" in my personal brand exercise.
- How to stop sanding down your uniqueness and instead make it part of your brand.
- Given that we're moving more and more to a world where what’s different about you is what matters, she shows you how to own your unique gifts and articulate them as part of your professional reputation.
- The story of a poet turned management consultant. You heard that right. It's not a corporate exile who left to follow her art. It's an artist who used that to her advantage in the boardroom.
- Ideas for developing yourself as a thought leader, even when you’re internal to a company and feel like it might be an awkward place to build a platform.
- Tips for breaking through the noise if you're in a job transition and want to be the candidate that stands out.
Resources of the Episode
Here’s A Full Transcript of the 25 Minute Interview
Lisa Cummings: [00:00:01] You’re listening to Lead Through Strengths, where you’ll learn to apply your greatest strengths at work. I’m your host, Lisa Cummings, and I’ve gotta tell you, whether you’re leading a team or leading yourself, it’s hard to find something more energizing than using your natural talents every day at work.[00:00:26] Today, you’ll learn some cool ideas for tapping your individual strengths, your uniqueness. Dorie Clark, today’s guest, well, she wrote the book on reinventing your career and, quite literally, she did. It’s called Reinventing You. She showed everyone there that squiggly career path with lots of different roles can be very rewarding and achievable.
[00:00:47] She’s been a professor at Duke, an award-winning journalist, a bestselling author, she’s currently a contributor at Harvard Business Review and Forbes, she survived a bunch of things that you guys write in and ask questions about like layoffs. She had one when was a journalist, or like blazing your own career trail even when you live in Indiana, in small town America where everybody normally stays there for life. And, now, she’s helping people through her latest book called Stand Out. So, Dorie, thanks for joining.
Dorie Clark: [00:01:18] Hey, Lisa, thanks for having me.
Lisa Cummings: [00:01:20] Alright, Dorie, so you know the show is all about exploring strengths, how to find them, leverage them, what it feels like when you’re doing that at work. So, if you think back over the last year of your life, what’s your favorite peak experience when you felt totally energized and at your best?
Dorie Clark: [00:01:38] Well, one of the things that I really enjoy a lot is public speaking and, in fact, that’s how we first connected was through Michael Port’s Heroic Public Speaking course that he offers, and I was down speaking on a panel that he did. One thing that was really cool in the last year is that I was going to be doing a teaching engagement for Duke in Thailand, and I used that as an excuse, because I was going to be in Asia to schedule a month-long trip around Asia speaking in different countries. So I had to just kind of gin this up creatively.
[00:02:13] I really didn’t have much of a plan, but I reached out to people that I knew who lived in Asia and just worked my leads and connections to get different talks. So I was able to take my mom with me, and so we explored five different countries and I was giving lectures at universities and companies there. For me, that was just a combination of a lot of things that I love. I was speaking. I was traveling. I was getting to meet people and learn about new cultures, so that’s something that in the past year really stands out as being a cool experience.
Lisa Cummings: [00:02:48] Yeah, and I love that it brings together all of the elements of your life: your family, your work, exploring different countries. What a good experience.
Dorie Clark: [00:02:58] Yeah, it was awesome.
Lisa Cummings: [00:03:00] Let’s talk about personal brand, because this is a big thread in your books. And one of the things you suggest doing is a personal 360. Most listeners here are familiar with 360s, maybe if their company starts them off or initiates them, and you’re suggesting doing one on yourself to understand where you’re starting from, and you have some really good advice on this topic. Can you share the Mary Skelton Roberts example?
Dorie Clark: [00:03:29] Yeah, absolutely. When I was in the process of starting to write my first book Reinventing You, I gave a presentation on some of my preliminary work to a foundation in Boston where I lived at the time, and Mary was a senior program officer there. And after the presentation she came up to me and said, “Oh, what you’re doing is so interesting. It really reminds me of something that I did once where I had a focus group about myself.” And I heard that, I thought, “Oh, my gosh, this is amazing.” I’m like, “Tell me more.”
Lisa Cummings: [00:03:59] Yeah.
Dorie Clark: [00:04:00] And so I had never heard of a person doing this, but she said that a few years before she felt like she sort of hit a plateau where she was in her career, she liked it but it wasn’t really stimulating her the same way that she wanted it to. So she was telling this to a friend of hers who, it turned out, was a market researcher.
Lisa Cummings: [00:04:22] That’s convenient.
Dorie Clark: [00:04:23] I know, right? And, of course, he had his idea. He said, “Well, let’s do for you what we do for clients. Let’s have a focus group.” And she was a little skeptical, but said, “Alright, let’s try it.” So she invited about a dozen friends and colleagues and some people who had known her whole life and some people who were more recent acquaintances.
[00:04:43] They came over to her house for a couple of hours one evening, and she had to sit in the corner, she couldn’t participate. She was taking notes and she could only ask questions if they were clarifying questions, because the goal is you don’t want the person kind of rushing in to defend or argue or whatever. But her friend, Don, was the moderator, and he just spent this period asking questions about Mary and about their perceptions about her.
[00:05:10] And so he asked questions like, “If you didn’t know what Mary did for a living, what would you guess?” and, “What are Mary’s greatest strengths?” and, “The world would be a better place if Mary did what?” And she said it was the most enlightening professional experience of her life to sit there because she said other people can see things about yourself that you just can’t see on your own.
Lisa Cummings: [00:05:34] Wow! And a brave exercise, too, I would think for many. I did a toe-dip version, because that’s like the full court press, right? You’re going all in, having somebody do a full focus group on you. And after reading it, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to do just a quick version,” and you have this exercise called the Three Words Exercise. Why don’t you tell them what that is, kind of the easy version, and then I can share the experience when I tried it?
Dorie Clark: [00:06:00] Yeah, I was excited, Lisa, to see that on Facebook. You were getting a lot of responses, so I’m curious to hear what the takeaway was. But, yeah, some people, when I tell them the Mary Skelton Roberts story, they are just so excited and they say, “Oh, I want to do this immediately. This is great. I want to have a focus group.” Literally, I’ve been giving workshops sometimes and there are people who whip out their phones, and I’m like, “What are they doing?” And then in the break, they’re like, “I already emailed my friends. We’re going to do it.”
Lisa Cummings: [00:06:30] Wow, that’s great. That is great.
Dorie Clark: [00:06:32] Yeah. So half the people loved it and then half the people say, “Oh, I would die. I can’t possibly have these people talk about me in front of me.” And so, for folks who think that’s a little too much, what I actually suggest is that they do a modified version, and this is pretty easy, it’s pretty low key. It is a low ask. And the ask is, you want to make sure you have enough people, so you go to at least a half a dozen friends or colleagues, and you say to them, “If you had only three words to be able to describe me, what would they be?”
[00:07:08] Clearly, this is not a hard exercise. It takes maybe two minutes for them to think of it, but it’s very useful because you get to know what it is that, off the top of their head, they think of as being the strongest salient characteristics about you. And before long, what usually happens is that you’re going to see patterns emerge in what people are saying.
[00:07:29] So what did you find in your experience, Lisa?
Lisa Cummings: [00:07:32] Well, it was great for me and, like you mentioned, I just did it on Facebook so it was quick for me and quick for them. I got about 60 comments and, thematically, I would say, I had pulled the words fun, driven and smart. Some variations of those showed up most often, and I found really good insight in that because, well, one, I’ve never considered myself particularly smart but I know what I’m good at and I leverage that, and I know what I’m weak at and I work around that. So it gave me sense that I was being successful at applying that thing to me.
Dorie Clark: [00:08:05] Oh, well done. Yes.
Lisa Cummings: [00:08:08] And then it was cool also hearing some fun things. Like one person used the word “farfegnugen,” and I thought, “Oh, that is really great. I never would’ve thought of that.” So giving me some additional words to think about my personal brand. One guy, his three words were, “Lady with chainsaw,” and I like to run a chainsaw, but the big learning part was true, but the part that was so insightful is the power of first impressions. I mean, I met him years ago, and that’s what I was doing when he met me, and those are still the first three words, years later, that he thought of when he thought of me.
[00:08:49] So all sorts of really cool layers out of it. Facebook, for me, was a cool place as well, because I have friend circles, hobby circles, work circles, people from all different places in my life so it gave a very holistic kind of dip about what people see in me, and I found it really useful. And it took, you know, what, 30 seconds of my time and, like you said, probably 30 seconds or a minute of the people’s time who contributed, so it was really cool.
Dorie Clark: [00:09:21] Yeah. Oh, how fantastic. That’s really an interesting insight.
Lisa Cummings: [00:09:26] Yeah, fun to see. It’s funny you mentioned some mentioning that they are really excited about doing the Mary Skelton Roberts focus group style and then some saying, “Oh, my gosh, I would die.” I actually got a few texts on the “Oh, my gosh, I would die” order just from doing the Facebook version. So it’s interesting to see how different people feel about getting feedback like that.
Dorie Clark: [00:09:54] Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Well, it’s cool that you did it.
Lisa Cummings: [00:09:59] Yes, and I appreciate you suggesting it. It was fun to test it out. Let’s take a little move over to Stand Out and talk about standing out with personal differentiation. So you do an exercise like this, you start to see threads about what other people see in your uniqueness. You say we’re moving more and more to a world where what’s different about you is what matters, and I agree. I think people can really hit their career groove when they own their unique gifts and articulate them as part of their reputation. You have another great example. This one’s Libby Wagner. Can you share how she came into her unique strengths?
Dorie Clark: [00:10:39] Libby Wagner is a consultant now. She’s a management consultant and she lives in Seattle, and she works with a lot of really major companies out there: Boeing, and Nike, and all the big places. But the really interesting thing about her that I came to learn, and part of why I wanted to write about her in my first book Reinventing You, was that she didn’t start out as a typical management consultant. She didn’t work for a firm, and then go out on her own, or something like that. She actually started as a poet.
[00:11:14] In our culture we hear stories all the time about management consultants who get burned out and become, they say, “Oh, no, I’m giving it all up. I’m going to become a poet.” We never hear the story, actually because it’s much harder to do this, of someone who is a poet who decides to become a management consultant. When she decided that she wanted to do this she was really terrified, because she thought that people wouldn’t take her seriously if they knew about her background.
[00:11:44] Her response to that was she actually tried to hide her background, she wouldn’t talk about it, and it was really what she’d done in the past was a blank slate, because she thought that people would immediately pigeonhole her and say, “What does that poet lady know? What can she teach me?”
[00:12:03] The interesting thing is that, whereas at first she was really concerned about this, she thought maybe she need to go back to business school or something like that, she ultimately realized, after working with clients, after gaining a little more confidence, after realizing what they were really interested in, because no one asked her if she had an MBA, she discovered. She realized that people want results, and she was able to give them that, and it gave her a new level of confidence.
[00:12:39] They couldn’t compare to her in the areas that she had studied. This is somebody who had spent years studying the nuances of language. And, as a result, if you are a CEO and you are looking to get guidance about the best way to communicate to your employees, or your clients, or your stakeholders, Libby is actually someone that you might especially want to talk to.
[00:13:02] So she began writing a newsletter called the Boardroom Poet, she started doing workshops based on her work with poetry and bringing that to clients, and became extremely successful in the process, because she owned herself and she owned her difference rather than running away from it. I think that’s something that all of us need to do when it comes time to really standing out and understanding and appreciating what is unique about us in the workplace.
Lisa Cummings: [00:13:30] Yes, it’s so cool. Even hearing the term Boardroom Poet, it just makes you double take, it makes you interested, and it became her greatest brilliance. That’s really cool. I’ve heard you talk about not sanding down your unique factors. I think that’s a really great visual as well for the edge we tend to want to take off ourselves, so we don’t offend someone or be viewed in a negative light, and instead just own your uniqueness and it can really help your career groove.
Dorie Clark: [00:14:02] Yeah, absolutely. It is essential. In this era where there’s so many people that are competing, everybody is out there and you can almost always find someone who’s willing to do something at a lower price. So the more you look like a commodity, the more you look like someone who is interchangeable with everyone else the more readily you can be dismissed. But if you offer something that’s different, if there’s a real reason that people should pick you because of your different perspective or that you have training or excellence in a certain area that is actually uncommon in your field or in your region, that is the kind of thing that can give you career insurance.
Lisa Cummings: [00:14:49] What a great topic. I love the phrase "career insurance." And, okay, so here, apply this to another follow-on question that I tend to get, and people view this like it’s corporate conundrum because they worry about the notion of building a personal brand when they’re in corporate because they say, “Ah, it’s kind of an awkward place to build a platform.” So, if you’re internal to a company, what’s your advice for developing yourself as a thought leader?
Dorie Clark: [00:15:19] In terms of developing yourself as a recognized expert within your company, I have a couple of thoughts. The first one is that you want to make sure, of course, that whatever area you want to emphasize is something that is in line with what your company supports and values. I mean, that sounds, in some ways, obvious, but I think the key is to recognize that your brand shouldn’t literally be your company’s brand because that ends up limiting you.
[00:15:53] If all people think of you as is, “Oh, well, he’s just a company man,” then there’s not any differentiation, there’s not any you there. But if we think of it like overlapping circles, you don’t want your circle to be exactly superimposed on your company’s, but you also don’t want it to be two totally separate circles so that when people look at you, they say, “Really? He works there? Why?” You want it to have enough overlap so that people can say, “Oh, yeah, his values are aligned with the company’s values,” but also enough difference where you’re able to show that you’re your own person, you have your own passions, your own unique things that you pursue or that you bring to the table.
[00:16:41] As a specific example, in my new book Stand Out, I actually profiled a guy named Michael Lecky, who is a regional vice president at Gartner, the research firm. Michael told me the story about how he built up a reputation for excellence and expertise in his company. He had gotten really interested in training and development, and when he first started it was something he really didn’t know that much about. He just literally started with an interest in it.
[00:17:09] But he essentially apprenticed himself to a consultant, who had been brought in from outside, and the guy was teaching classes, and so Michael took all the classes. And then Michael started assisting him with the classes, and then Michael started co-teaching the classes. And before long, people within the company started to look to him as somebody who had demonstrated expertise. And, as he was developing those skills, he wasn’t the most knowledgeable person in the world about coaching or training and development, but he was increasingly the most knowledgeable person at his office and within his company.
[00:17:47] So within the confines of a company you can really, if you’re willing to be honest about what you know, and what you don’t know, and if you’re willing to share what you’re learning, it doesn’t take long for you to develop a reputation where people say, “Oh, wow, this is the go-to guy here in the company.” And so sometimes people think, “Oh, well, you know, I can’t be a thought leader. That’s only these sort of special genius experts or thought leaders.”
[00:18:15] And it’s true, most of us can’t necessarily be worldwide experts on something but I’m willing to bet that almost all of us can become local experts on something. By which I mean, what can you be known inside your office or inside your company for being the best at? And whether that’s the best at understanding Facebook ads, or the best at training and development, or the best at solving technical problems when people’s computers break down. Whatever it is, you can find a niche and become known within the confines of your company for it, and that makes you more valuable.
Lisa Cummings: [00:18:57] I love that example. Gartner is almost like the ultimate in pushing on what people’s typical perceptions are about getting into a new field because people look to Gartner to be the expert in an industry. They look to Gartner for their magic quadrants or whatever they produce, and this guy got known in his local team, got a discipline, went after it, and what a great story. I think it’s really applicable to people who can really see themselves doing this in a department or in a company and are not yet ready to see themselves as a worldwide thought leader. It’s very achievable.
Dorie Clark: [00:19:38] Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you.
Lisa Cummings: [00:19:41] So, okay, let’s apply this to job transition, because you talk about the noise out there. Well, there’s a lot of competition and noise when it comes to applying for a job, getting a job. What advice do you have for breaking through the noise in that context?
Dorie Clark: [00:19:59] When it comes to getting a job, I think that one of the most important things that we need to think about is that if you want the power balance to shift your way, you need to give people a reason to come to you. And I’ll tell you what I mean by that. I mean, we all, I think, know that the era of just sending in a resume and a cover letter has passed, and it’s nice but it’s really like playing the lottery or something. It’s whether the computer is screening out your keywords or something.
Lisa Cummings: [00:20:37] Exactly.
Dorie Clark: [00:20:38] It’s just not the way to do it, so I think most people have clued in to the importance of warm leads, and networking, and looking on LinkedIn to see who you know who knows someone and trying to get in that way. That’s very powerful and that still is a good strategy, but the strategy that far fewer people know is to try to start laying the groundwork now to make sure that the inbound offers come to you, rather than just waiting for the time when you need a job and then saying, “Okay, okay, what can I do?”
[00:21:14] I am a huge fan of content creation because that is the cornerstone of thought leadership. You’re never going to be a thought leader, local or otherwise, if people don’t understand how you think. We have all these tools now. I mean, LinkedIn is fantastic and one of their newest things, which just happened in the last year, which I think still not enough people are taking advantage of, is the fact that you can now blog on LinkedIn. You don’t even have to start your own blog and have this like existential commitment to it. You can create blog posts on LinkedIn that appear on your profile and showcase your expertise around an issue.
[00:21:54] So if you’re someone that really wants to get a job in sports marketing, for instance, then start writing about it, and you can use that in so many ways. You could start writing about it and interview people for your blog and use those interviews as a networking tool. That’s pretty powerful. Or, you could start writing about it and just mention people. You could mention their books, or you could cite them by name or whatever, and then send them the article afterwards, and say, “Hey, I wrote about you.” That’s another way that they’re going to start paying attention, and say, “Oh, wow, this person is obviously following the industry, this person knows me and is writing about me.”
[00:22:33] You’re at your very first encounter. You’re not asking for something like a job. You’re showing that you’re adding value by helping to spread the word about what they’re doing, and it lets people see that you understand the trends, that you see the world in an interesting way. And if you do that enough, it begins to build up momentum. Now this is absolutely not an overnight process but, nonetheless, even if you just get started now, it is an additional credibility tool so that when people are looking you up they will see that you’ve created this great stuff.
[00:23:04] But, over time, if you do it regularly for a few years then you’re going to have enough momentum that you are going to start getting inbound inquiries, and people that you’ve never even heard of are going to be reaching out to you saying, “Hey, we have this position.”
Lisa Cummings: [00:23:16] It has so many layers of brilliance in it. I mean, starting with the LinkedIn part where you used to have to be defined as an influencer to be able to publish. Now everyone can. And then what you’re writing about as a channel. So many people tell me they don’t blog because if they can’t do it weekly, or whatever they commit to, they’re going to look like fools. If you do it on LinkedIn it takes the pressure off of that part as well. And then mentioning people who you want to be part of their tribe and sending them what you’ve written, there were so many layers of brilliance in there that were great. So, man, just super rich all the way around. You’ve created a lot of career magic with these stories and these tips today.
[00:24:02] I want to share with the listeners the resource of the episode. So, as you guys might’ve guessed, the resource of the episode is actually plural – you get two – Dorie’s book Reinventing You and the newest book Stand Out. You’ll find the link to both of those in the show notes [resources section]. And then, Dorie, you also have another goodie for them, don’t you?
Dorie Clark: [00:24:24] Yeah. Thank you, Lisa. I actually created a free workbook. It is a 42-page workbook which I adapted from Stand Out. For people who are interested in trying to really think through what their breakthrough idea is and how they can begin to spread it, it is a 139 questions that you can ask yourself and it’s a workbook, so you can write in the margins and really grapple with it. And that’s available for free on my website. It is DorieClark.com. I hope people will download it and come up with some brilliant ideas.
Lisa Cummings: [00:25:03] I know they will. I’ve seen it, and it is an excellent resource. So thank you, Dorie, for packing this show just with so many great resources today.
[00:25:12] Remember, using your strengths at work makes you a stronger performer. If you’re always out there focusing on your weaknesses, you’re choosing the path of most resistance. So claim your talents and share them with the world.