DAN MCGINN: Welcome to Dear HBR: from Harvard Business Review. I’m Dan McGinn.
ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. Work can be frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be. We don’t need to let the conflicts get us down.
DAN MCGINN: That’s where Dear HBR: comes in. We take your questions, look at the research, talk to the experts and help you move forward. Today we’re talking about rebranding yourself with Dorie Clark. She’s an independent consultant and the author of the book Reinventing You. Dorie, thanks for coming on the show.
DORIE CLARK: Hey, thanks, Dan!
DAN MCGINN: So you did a pretty radical reinvention a couple of years ago. How did that happen?
DORIE CLARK: I actually had multiple reinventions, Dan, and it started with an ignominious failure which is that I got laid off from my first job so I was forced to reinvent myself. I had been a political reporter, and so I thought, all right, if I’m not having any luck in newspapers, maybe I can do this other adjacent thing. And so that’s how I became a spokesperson first on a governor’s race and then on a presidential race. Of course, they lost, too.
ALISON BEARD: In your consulting work, do you find that people are more often completely changing what they do? Or more just want to change their reputation?
DORIE CLARK: I think it’s both. I mean, it’s a human condition that we want something that’s a little bit out of grasp. Right? We want to advance. We want to do more. And usually, for most people, there is a gap between where they are now and where they want to be. They need to be perceived a little bit differently. They need to be seen as more of a leader. But there are also folks that are probably daydreaming and saying, gosh, I wish I could be a photographer. I wish I could do whatever it is that really lights them up.
ALISON BEARD: Well, we have both of those types of questions to tackle today.
DORIE CLARK: I’m excited. Let’s do it.
ALISON BEARD: Dear HBR: how can I change people’s perception of me as a colleague? I’ve been at my current organization for 3½ years. During that time, I’ve been in two different leadership roles. However, no one seems to see me as a leader or an expert in my field. That’s despite over 15 years of experience. I’m enthusiastic, loud, sarcastic and quick-witted. Because of my past sarcastic quips, people feel like they can say whatever they want to me. They frequently make jokes at my expense. I want to grow in my job and gain the respect of my colleagues. But I don’t want to drastically change my personality while I’m at work. I’ve tried being quieter and cutting out the jokes, but people still don’t seem to see me any differently. How can I gain respect and demonstrate that I’m a competent leader and contributor?
DORIE CLARK: The thing that really jumps out at me here is that this woman said she’s tried acting in a different way, and people haven’t noticed. Of course, they haven’t noticed. It’s noticed. It might seem huge to this woman, but it’s probably a really subtle shift to her colleagues. And so she’s going to need to take much more deliberate and concerted action to get them to notice.
ALISON BEARD: But at the same time, she says she doesn’t want to change her personality. So how far would you encourage her to go?
DORIE CLARK: She needs to telegraph her moves a little bit more. She might be adjusting and modulating just the right amount, but because people are so used to thinking about her in this particular frame, oh, she’s the funny one. She’s the sarcastic one, you know, it could take a long time for them naturally to pick up on the fact that’s she’s behaving a little bit differently. And so something that is a really powerful tool whenever somebody wants to change how they’re perceived by other people, you get them to do it in a rather expeditious fashion, is to actually draw attention to it by saying to the person, hey, I have thought about it, and I’ve realized that in the past, I may have come across as a little sarcastic. And I just want to let you know, I’m actually making an effort to try to not do that anymore. Just by stating it, by calling it out, that’s how you get the perception to change much faster.
DAN MCGINN: I’m struck in this situation by the idea that she faces a challenge now to rebrand herself because when she entered the organization 3 ½ years ago, she wasn’t as intentional as she might have been about what she wanted her new brand to be.
DORIE CLARK: I think that’s really true, Dan, absolutely. Fundamentally, humans are wired to conserve cognitive energy. We don’t want to think about things that we don’t have to think about. There’s just so many things already that people are worried about at work, that they have to deal with and so we have to somehow break into people’s consciousness if we want there to be a change. That’s why it’s important to flag your new behavior. It becomes particularly important for people who’ve been at an organization for a long time because you know what? You might have come in as an intern, and now you’re 37 years old, and everybody says, oh, she’s such a lovely girl. And that is completely not the brand you want anymore.
ALISON BEARD: What can she do in more subtle fashion to just act more like a leader?
DORIE CLARK: The question I think for someone like her who has kind of a fun, rowdy personality, is under what circumstances is it appropriate? And it sounds like from her question that maybe she just kind of had the on switch on all the time. And so it’s not about her being different. It’s really about what are the places where that’s appropriate, and then what are the places that as a professional and as a leader you may want to tone that down?
DAN MCGINN: Your point about the humor is very well taken. On our show, Alison’s brand is that she’s the person that brings all the research. She brings all the citations and the real knowledge, and I kind of just wing it. But let me try to rebrand myself here and cite some actual research by [HBS professor] Alison Wood Brooks on the use of humor in the workplace. What Professor Alison has found is that powerful people, if you’re in a leadership position, you can easily get away with jokes, and if they land, you’re OK. If they don’t land, you’re probably pretty still OK. If you’re in a lower power position in a workplace, and you tell a joke, and it comes off wrong, the penalties for that can be much more significant.
DORIE CLARK: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a great point.
DAN MCGINN: A lot of us use sarcasm as a way to be funny. Is that ever a part of leadership? Is it a brand attribute that people need to be particularly concerned about in this context?
DORIE CLARK: well, there’s certainly a place for sarcasm. Lots of people enjoy it. But an implication that could be taken from the use of the word sarcasm is that it’s jokes at someone’s expense. And what leads me to believe that perhaps, is that she said that people feel free to say anything to her, and sometimes make fun of her. And that sounds like it could create some negative feelings potentially. One other thing that comes to mind about this woman’s situation, too, that may be important, she is focusing on questions about her humor and about saying anything and being a little bit loud and rowdy. But I think it’s also worth asking, is that the only issue at play?
ALISON BEARD: That’s a great point, Dorie. We published a post from Christie Hedges, basically telling people to do that, and assuring them that it would be incredibly uncomfortable, but gathering five people, friends, colleagues, mentors and asking them point blank two questions, what’s the perception of me, and what could I do differently? And just be ready to hear the unvarnished truth, and then act on it in a way that will help you advance in your career.
DORIE CLARK: I love that. And in fact, I have a related story or exercise that I share in my book, Reinventing You, which is the idea of having a literal personal focus group just the way that a consumer package goods company would do about a new product. And in this instance, one thing that’s helpful is, if you can find somebody, you get a friend, a trusted friend to be the moderator. And this moderator, who’s your friend, asks the questions. And that way you just sit there, take it in, take notes, so that you can really listen with an open mind to it.
ALISON BEARD: Dorie, I wanted to ask you about other ways in which she could demonstrate her expertise or authority after she’s telegraphed that she’s interested in leadership positions. What can she do to show her colleagues and her bosses that she is smart and talented and ready to move up?
DORIE CLARK: So one of the things that she can do, Alison, is to focus on content creation. So meaning, how can she share her ideas publicly in a way so that her colleagues can see for themselves that she is smart and talented and has good ideas. Signing up to do sessions at a conference or even a lunch and learn inside your company can be a way of sharing ideas. If she’s more of a writer, it could be starting to write blog posts on LinkedIn or Medium, so that people can really take a look and say, oh, that’s interesting. I didn’t realize was working on that. Or I didn’t realize that she thought about things that way. That can really begin to mark you as a leader because frankly, most people do not make the effort to do that.
DAN MCGINN: Is there a case to be made that she should be judged less on the jokes she makes in meetings and her sort of general demeanor, and more on the actual substance of her work? And if what she thinks is holding her back is these sort of style points, can she kind of redirect focus to the work instead of what jokes she may have made last month in a meeting?
DORIE CLARK: I mean, certainly, if you’re doing good work, you want people to see it. You want people to be aware of it. But it sounds like she at least believes that her past quips or behavior may have been a barrier to that. So I think it actually is a legitimate thing to focus on.
ALISON BEARD: I also focused a little bit on, is there more substance she could offer that would overcome the sort of style dings that she’s getting? We published some research on female CEOs and what got them to the top, and the researchers found that women who got ahead demonstrated courage, risk-taking, resilience, an ability to manage ambiguity, I think also demonstrating vision and strategic thinking are also seen as important for leaders. So if she can go into meetings and still maybe make her jokes, but then demonstrate all of those things, the fact that she understands the business, she’s highly competent in addition to being warm, I feel like that could be a good strategy as well.
DORIE CLARK: I think that’s absolutely right. I mean, if she were to actually just plan out in the important meetings, you know, the ones where influential people, her boss, her senior leaders are going to be there, she may say, this particularly meeting is an opportunity for me to showcase my vision with regard to the future of the industry. This particular meeting is a place where I can really highlight the accomplishments of my team and make it clear what you want to get out of it. What do you want other people, what perception should they have of you coming out of that meeting? Just being a little bit more deliberate can pay huge dividends for her.
DAN MCGINN: So Alison, what can we say to lift this listener up?
ALISON BEARD: So first we think she could consider whether it’s only the jokes that are holding her back. She might want to gather a group of trusted colleagues and ask for candid feedback about how she’s perceived. Once she has all that information, she should telegraph her desire to assume more leadership roles and be taken more seriously, and maybe even the fact that she’s going to try to change her behavior accordingly. She should understand that she doesn’t need to completely alter her personality, but she may want to make subtle shifts in her leadership style, and that’s pretty easy to do with experimenting and repetition and finding out what works for her. And then she can also establish her authority and expertise internally by preparing well for meetings, asking smart questions, showing vision and strategic thinking, and then even outside the company, by becoming a thought leader in her sector or field.
DORIE CLARK: Absolutely. I think that’s a great summary. I am down with that.