Becoming a Thought Leader with Dorie Clark

Dorie Clark helps individuals and companies get their best ideas heard in a crowded, noisy world. She has been named one of the Top 50 business thinkers in the world by Thinkers50, and was honored as the #1 Communication Coach in the world at the Marshall Goldsmith Coaching Awards. She is a keynote speaker and teaches for Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School. She is the author of Entrepreneurial You, which was named one of Forbes’ Top 5 Business Books of the Year, as well as Reinventing You and Stand Out, which was named the #1 Leadership Book of the Year by Inc. magazine.

A former presidential campaign spokeswoman, she has been described by the New York Times as an “expert at self-reinvention and helping others make changes in their lives.” She is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, and consults and speaks for clients such as Google, Yale University, and the World Bank. She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, a producer of a multiple Grammy-winning jazz album, and a Broadway investor. You can download her free Entrepreneurial You self-assessment workbook at

Inside This Episode

  • The Two Triggers of Personal Reinvention
  • How to Take Control of Your Own Narrative
  • Building Your Personal Brand
  • Tailoring Your Brand to Your Audience
  • Why Everyone Needs to Manage Their Identity
  • The Three Main Levers to Becoming a Thought Leader
  • Balancing Being an Expert and Being Approachable
  • How to Get Started Even if You Don’t Know Your Passion
  • The Power of Bottom-Up Conversations vs. Top-Down
  • Playing the Long Game With Strategic Thinking






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John Ryan
You're listening to key conversations for leaders. This is episode number 50. Welcome everybody. In today's episode, we'll be talking about becoming a thought leader with Dorie Clark, we'll be looking at the two triggers of personal reinvention, how to take control of your own narrative. The three main levers to becoming a thought leader and how to get started, even if you don't know your passion and much, much more.

John Ryan 0:27
Leadership is about vision. It's about creating a vision and sharing that vision with others in a way that inspires them to walk with you towards its fulfillment. Along the way, leaders encourage motivate, guide and even challenged people to bring their best each and every day and it's all done through conversations. That's what this show is about better conversations for better leaders. Hey everyone, and welcome to key conversations for leaders. I'm your host John Ryan, and today we have a very special guest, Dorie Clark Dorie has been named one of the top 50 business thinkers in the world by thinker's 50 and was recognized as the number one communication coach in the world by Marshall Goldsmith leading global coaches award. She has a consultant and keynote speaker background teaches executive education at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School and She is the author of entrepreneurial you reinventing you and stand out which is named the number one leadership book of 2015 by Inc magazine. A former presidential campaign spokeswoman Dorie has been described by the New York Times as an expert at self reinvention and helping others make changes in their lives a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, she consults and speaks for clients, including Google, Microsoft and the World Bank. And we are fortunate to have her here today. Dorie, thank you so much for being here on the show.

Dorie Clark 1:43
Hey, john, so glad to be talking with you.

John Ryan 1:46
Now want to know, if you wouldn't mind walking us through? Like how did you get started? What was your journey to becoming an expert in personal and professional reinvention?

Dorie Clark 1:55
Oh, my goodness. Well, I started the journey involuntarily, I guess you could say, one of the things that I've learned in the course of my research and my writing about reinvention is you know, there's there's two principal paths there, there is, of course, the kind of voluntary reinvention where you decide, oh, you know, I feel so called to do X, Y, Z, let me move into that. And then there's the involuntary variety, where you, you kind of get re reinvention thrust on you, maybe you're laid off for your industry changes or something happens. And you have to kind of scramble and make do and that was actually my situation. I had started my career as a journalist, and I ended up getting laid off after only about a year working in the industry. And I had to figure out what to do next. So I embarked upon a series of reinventions, I worked for political campaigns, which turned out not to be successful. I worked for nonprofit for a couple of years. And ultimately, during the time I was working at the nonprofit, I kind of had this epiphany that I could start my own business. And so I reinvented myself into that. And eventually, as I got more settled doing consulting, and executive coaching, and I began creating some content and thought leadership, I realized that reinvention was a kind of underexplored area. And so I wrote in 2013, my first book, reinventing you.

John Ryan 3:20
Fantastic, and since then, obviously, have written several books and have another one on the way. Coming up here, which I want to talk about in just a little bit, you know, the reinventing you It sounds like that came from your own direct experience thrust upon you and, and also by choice throughout the way as well. What advice do you have for people who are taking that idea, and maybe opting to reinvent themselves waiting for someone to force them to reinvent themselves?

Dorie Clark 3:46
Yes. So part of what animated my desire to write reinventing you was, I felt like because reinvention was not something that I had been seeking out or expecting. I was always like, three steps behind, and you know, just sort of, you know, trying to figure things out. But I knew that there were more strategic or more optimal ways to do it. I just wasn't sure what they were. So I went back in writing the book, and I interviewed more than, you know, multiple dozens of successful professionals who had made career transitions, both both voluntary and involuntary, to really try to excavate this question of what makes someone successful, what are the things that you should be doing? And so I would say that one of the most important things that I learned in the course of talking to these folks who had come out successfully on the other side of it, is that we need to understand while we are reinventing ourselves, that we really have to take control of the narrative. I think that's one of the most important parts because oftentimes, we assume that other people are going to be able to connect the dots that they'll get it that like, Oh, well he used to do this and now he's going Do this other thing. And the truth is, most people are way too busy and way too, just checked out to connect those dots. And so they're either not going to remember that you're doing it, they might not even clock for them. Or they're going to say, Hmm, well, that's kind of weird. I wonder why he's doing that? Or they're gonna make up some random answer. Oh, yeah, gosh, john must just be having a midlife crisis. None of it's helpful. And so what we need to do as the reinvent her is we need to craft a narrative to show that other people get it, we have to explain it to them, I used to do a, and now I'm going to be transitioning to B. And here's why I'm making this transition. And here is how I am applying what I learned in my previous career to this new career, and why it's going to be awesome and valuable. And if you if you paint that picture for other people, they will usually get it and they'll usually say, oh, okay, that makes sense. But they are never going to come up with that on their own. And we cannot derelict our duty by expecting them to come up with it on their own.

John Ryan 6:10
This sounds a little bit remnant of what I would imagine a spin doctor might do on a campaign trail, as well as painting the narrative, but we're doing it in a personal professional level. Do who do we have to think about when we're making that shift to tell that narrative to or does it depend on the situation?

Dorie Clark 6:29
Well, you You are right, john, that it is it is not dissimilar to communication work on political campaigns, which is, I guess, perhaps why I gravitated to it was I had a lot of experience in that, you know, how do you how do you tell your own story, rather than having somebody else, you know, even worse, your opponent, tell your story for you. So ultimately, as we're doing it and thinking about creating it, I like to tell people, you know, of course, you can kind of come up with a standard narrative that's like you're in your back pocket, go to sort of thing. But as with any political candidate, to the greatest extent possible, you want to try to understand your audience and what's going to be relevant and salient for them. You know, if you're talking to a group of college students, they don't really care about your Social Security reform provisions. I mean, you know, that's, that's not the thing that I would lead with. So, if you are in the midst of a reinvention, and you are pit, you know, pitching it, you know, sort of explaining it to different people, of course, you can have a standard thing, if for some reason, you just don't know who the audience is, but in most cases, we will. And so if we are, you know, trying to position ourselves for a job in x industry, then of course, we're going to want to be strategically highlighting that most transferable skills that we possess that might be relevant in that new industry.

John Ryan 7:53
That makes a lot of sense. You know, I think one of the interesting thing, one of the many interesting things, of course, about your work is that this idea of branding yourself and reinventing yourself is not just for the entrepreneur, it's not just for the political candidate, but really, for anyone even, you know, a mid level manager who wants to advance their career going forward. Why is it more important than ever, for each of us to take responsibility for our own brand?

Dorie Clark 8:19
Yeah, well, you're exactly right. I mean, it is reinvention of sorts, anytime you get some kind of a major promotion, for instance, right? I mean, we all know, there's awkward situations where suddenly you are managing people that you used to be peers with, or you suddenly have to learn how to present yourself as a senior leader. Whereas before, maybe you were, you know, one of the guys and now you're now you're leading this group of people, that's a reinvention. We might not necessarily think of it in those terms. But, you know, if you break it down, it's how do you get people to see you in a different way. And that's, that's what's at the core of it. So it becomes important, because if there is a gap between perception and reality, oftentimes, you know, having it's I guess, it's nice if people think you're like, so much greater than you are, you know, although that, that ends up creating imposter syndrome sometimes, but most typically, if there's a gap, it goes the other direction, where people are under estimating you or they're thinking about you the way you were five years ago, not the way you are today. And that actually leads to real tangible losses for you in your career, it means you're less likely to be promoted, you're less likely to be picked for opportunities, you're less likely to get raises. Because if you you know if I'm busy thinking about who john was in 2014, you know, I'm I'm missing all the things that john has learned since then, you know, all the skills, all the contacts, all the technical upgrades, you know, whatever it is, and I'm thinking, oh, gosh, I don't know if he can help handle that. And, you know, meanwhile you're crushing it. But we do not want to be the tree falling in the forest, we do not want to be the most awesome person that ever everybody's like, you know, overlooking. And so this is why it's so important to to claim control of your personal narrative.

John Ryan 10:16
So a couple different directions that come up for me as you say that one is as the leader, if I have a team of people, I need to be aware of my picture I have on my team, who they are now, not just who they were in 2014. So I can adapt to what the needs are and what their opportunities are going forward. But as the employee or as a leader, myself, I need to be aware of how I'm being perceived. And take control that narrative as much as I possibly can is am I on trial? Very much. So. Okay. You know, one of the things I know that you've helped many people do with your executive coaching consulting is also positioned themselves as a thought leader. I don't know you I consider you one as well. I don't know if you have that identity yourself. But what exactly how do you define a thought leader?

Dorie Clark 10:59
Yeah, so I actually did a conversation a while ago on it on another podcast, the HB our idea cast, which was specifically about this topic, where I was, I was debating, you know, not exactly debating, but I was quote, unquote, debating the woman who is the host of the time, Sarah green Carmichael, about the term thought leader, because she wanted to know, she's like, I think the term thought leaders a little gross. And I said, No, no, no, hey, I'm gonna defend it. And so the reason that I wanted to defend the term thought leader is, I agree, you know, it's often super pretentious, when people call themselves a thought leader in the same way that I think it's pretentious, when people call themselves an expert. I think it is, it is something that is far better for other people to call you. You know, it's, it's nice if I think I'm fantastic. But But really, I mean, the measure is, like, do other people think you're worth listening to. But specifically, I think that thought leadership is something that is worth aspiring to, if we literally break down the term thought leadership, it implies two things.

Dorie Clark 12:04
The first, if you're a thought leader, you inherently have to have followers. That's sort of definitional. And so therefore, that is, to a certain extent, it's imperfect. But to a certain extent, this implies a certain level of quality, that you have to be saying something that a certain number of people believe is worth listening to. And I think that's worth aspiring to the other part is thought leader. And that implies that this is somehow a different category than mere celebrity. You know, Kim Kardashian is a lot of things, I wouldn't really call her. You know, she's an influencer. She's a celebrity, I wouldn't necessarily call her a thought leader. And the reason is that a thought leader is known for their ideas, they are known for the content and depth of their ideas. And I also think that if you are in the world of professional services, or entrepreneurship, or the world of business, that's actually a pretty good thing, I would say it's a pretty noble thing to be known for. So I think aspiring to be a thought leader is actually a net positive.

John Ryan 13:10
I would think so too, I think, really great examples. And thank you for bringing up that that discussion that you have on the other podcast, around thought leadership and help us to get our get our heads wrapped around it. You mentioned earlier about the perception of others. And often, they don't necessarily think that you're the Superman or Superwoman compared to other people, they they tend to look at you maybe from the past, because I'm not necessarily updating their image of who you are as a person. thought leaders, then you can't I kind of agree. Like I think the last thing I want to hear someone say I'm the guru, I know all no one else like that, that kind of ego I think immediately begats pushback from many other people, how does one manage that? Is their knowledge, skills, ability and experience and expertise develop? They don't have to say I'm the guru, they just lead or how would you go with that?

Dorie Clark 13:59
Well, it's a good, it's a good question. And so over time, and actually, during the writing of my second book stand out, the subtitle of this is how to find your breakthrough idea, and build a following around it. And so in many ways, this is this is basically a book about how to become a thought leader in your company or in your field. And what I came to realize is that there are three main levers in establishing yourself as a thought leader, or a term I like to use as a recognized expert. And that is content creation, social proof, and your network. And these three factors kind of work together holistically to get you known and get your ideas known. But the key factor is just to break them down quickly. content creation is basically sharing your ideas and sort of doesn't matter how you do it.

Dorie Clark 14:47
You can have a podcast like you have, you could, you know write articles, you could give speeches, you could write a book, you know, whatever, but it is about getting your ideas out there so that they are discoverable to other people. That matters a lot. Number To his social proof, what are the markers of credibility that you have, so that people know that you're worth listening to? And have you? Have you been quoted in publications people have heard of, have you worked with clients that people have heard of? Are you involved or a leader in professional associations in your industry, all of these things help to signal that you're not some quack. And the third is your network. because ideally, you know, there's a lot of competition. So you need to have other people who are helping to amplify those ideas. But if you have those three categories covered, you actually are well on your way to being able to be a recognized expert, or a thought leader in your field.

John Ryan 15:40
Thank you for bringing up stand out and sharing those ideas as well. That's exactly the next thing I wanted to ask you. Which is where do people get stuck and developing those lovers in really going through the breakthrough process where they tend to get stuck?

Unknown Speaker 15:52
The biggest place Shawn, where they get stuck in? And you know, it's it's such a human tendency, so I can definitely empathize with this. Is that for you know, of course, there's some people that are not interested in this at all, you don't try at all. But for the people who are really working at it, they're like, Yes, I would like to be recognized for my expertise. You know, I'm trying, what often happens is they, they feel frustrated, because they feel like, Oh, my God, I'm working so hard. I'm doing all the things, why is this not working. But if you actually break it down, the problem is that they're doing a lot of one thing. And like, pretty much nothing in the other in the other one or the other two categories. And, and, you know, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you have to really have all three, in order to be a recognized expert. So for instance, you might see somebody, and their preferred modality is networking. And that's great. They know, everybody, everybody loves them, you know, oh, yeah, john, he's such a good guy. Oh, he's fantastic. Well, what does john do? Oh, no, I don't really know. I mean, well, he's great. I mean, everybody loves john, you know, because if you are not creating content, people don't know what your ideas are. They don't know what your expertise is, if you don't have social proof, they don't know that, you know, that you're recognized by other people as having good ideas. All they know is like, well, John's John's a great dude. You know, which, which is a great thing to be, but it ain't gonna get you work.

John Ryan 17:27
So true. I love I love how all three of those come together. Thank you for kind of illustrating that picture. Do you have a stance? I imagine you do. Because basically, you just had I think I know where you're going with this one, versus the the guru idea that I'm separate from others that I lead versus being among them, like the every man or every woman kind of idea? Do you have a preference? Or does it depend on the brand itself?

Dorie Clark 17:49
Well, you know, I think there's a fine line about about any of these things, right? I think that ultimately, in order to have followers, presumably, people are turning to you because you know, at least a little more than they do. You're informing them in some way. You're inspiring them in some way. Because they say, Oh, you know, like, I hadn't thought of it that way. Or, oh, wow, doing x is possible. I didn't know x was possible. So you need to be sort of leading the charge. But also, if you are getting too far separated from the people around you, then you're going to lose perspective about what questions they have, what they're interested in what they care about. And it's just, it's just not going to be relatable anymore. I mean, there was a time space. And I have no personal knowledge of this at all. I like, you know, this, this is not my world, because I really focus on business topics. But you know, there's an interesting piece about Rachel Hollis in the New York Times last week, and it was talking about how she has been facing backlash because at least according to this article, and people are saying, Oh, well, she you know, she got disconnected from her fans and she's not relatable. I have no idea if that's true or not. But certainly it is it is a thing that one has to worry about and be mindful of. And it is something that if the perception is there that that is the case and again whether it's true of Rachel Hollis I have no idea but if people perceive that it often is cause for them to disengage

John Ryan 19:33
I can I can see that. Is there any because clearly I imagine you love what you do I can I can sell love the passion that you have with these topics and every time I've heard and read your your material, you can see it comes through the work. What's the one thing you wish that everyone knew if there who want to pursue doing what it is that they love?

Dorie Clark 19:52
Yeah, well, there's so there's so many interesting aspects of this. And I I actually do talk About a bit in my new book, the long game, there is a section where I talk about the concept of what I call optimizing for interesting. Because there's, of course, a lot of pressure in our society about, you know, Oh, do it, do what you love. You know, there's, first of all, there's debate about that, you know, whether you should do what you love, he shouldn't do what you love. But actually, I think a lot of people are stuck even a stage before that, which is, what do I do? If I don't know what I love? What do I do? What do I do if I don't know what my passion is? And it really makes it very high stakes. Because it's like, well, sorry, you can't decide anything about your life until you find your passion.

Dorie Clark 20:38
And, you know, this is this is pretty challenging. I mean, it would be sort of like, if our if our message in society was like, Oh, well, actually, you can't do anything in your life until you find your soulmate? Well, you know, for a lot of people, they'd be kind of waiting a long time to get that squared away. So of course, I am a fan of people, not just sort of sitting around and waiting, but instead taking proactive action. And for me, the I think there's a better frame. So instead of thinking about like finding your passion or something like that, what I like to suggest is that instead, we actually just kind of put one foot in front of the other and say, Well, what am I curious about? What would be an interesting choice? Because that is an easier question to answer. Most people are curious about something or they find something interesting. Is it their life passion? I mean, who knows? But it's the act of exploring, it actually gets you closer to it. So making that choice about, you know, what, what would be more interesting to do in this situation, I think can yield fruitful insights.

John Ryan 21:49
So if I hear you correctly, listen, I'm just finding the passion is too big of a leap and we get in a stuck state, rather make it a smaller increment find something that you're curious about, date the passions until you find the one that may be the the long term relationship for you.

Dorie Clark 22:03
Totally, totally.

John Ryan 22:06
Is there anything that you would recommend that maybe as a hot button, you see for entrepreneurs starting out that that they should avoid at all costs, perhaps when starting to create their own brand?

Dorie Clark 22:17
Yeah, I mean, when it comes to, to your brand, I think sometimes sometimes people try try a little too hard to steer it in a certain direction. I'm listening to a book right now on audio book called super pumped, which is a history of Uber. And they're talking about the the early days. But just before he got into Uber, so Travis Callen ik had had had a successful exit from a previous business that he had started. I mean, it was not, it was certainly not anything to the scale that Uber was, but it was enough that he had a little spare money. And he was trying to establish a brand for himself as an angel investor. And so he set up this, this Twitter handle, and he and so apparently, he was trying to get everyone to call him t bone. And he made this Twitter handle where it was like a bunch of raw meat on it. It's like, Alright, we might be trying a little too hard there. You know, it's like, oh, okay, we're gonna we're gonna just really go to an extreme. I think that we don't have to have it all figured out in the early days of our personal brand, you know, you don't necessarily have to, oh, what's, what's the image? What's the nickname? What's the tagline? What's this? I think that ultimately, where people go wrong is that they sometimes try to be too certain and to top down from the beginning, oh, well, I'm going to be t boned. And that's going to stand for this. Actually, I'm much more of a fan, at least early on in being bottom up. And just, you know, sharing sharing some ideas, trying some things, see what sticks, see what is popular, see what emerges organically and then lean into that rather than trying to force things into a certain channel or outcome.

John Ryan 24:08
Thank you for sharing that. You mentioned a little bit about the long game how to be a long term thinker in the short term world. Can you give us another Sneak Peek perhaps and this sounds like a very exciting work that you have coming out. I'd love to hear more about it.

Dorie Clark 24:22
Yeah, thank you, john. I appreciate it. I am excited about it as well. It is coming out September 21 of 21. And the basic idea is it is a book about the this is the subtitle, how to be a long term thinker in a short term world. I did a course for LinkedIn learning a few years ago on strategic thinking it has now been seen by more than 1.1 million people. And I discovered in the process of just people you know, reaching out to me and sending messages. That strategic thinking is something that people are really interested in and kind of obsessed. With these days, because we all know what's important. I mean, I there's probably not, there's not anyone out there that's like, Oh, yeah, strategic thinking, who needs that? Who cares? Right? Like, we know, it's a good thing. But there is a huge pressure, always toward the short term. There's, for most people, they would also say, Gosh, I don't have time to do strategic thinking, I wish I could do more strategic thinking. And so this is a book about how to take strategic thinking and apply it to our to our professional lives to our own careers, and actually how to how to make it real how to actually do it, rather than just pay lip service to the fact that it's important. And then, you know, go go on rushing from emergency to emergency, which so many of us seem to do.

John Ryan 25:44
Excellent. Can't wait to read it. Thank you so much. One last question for you, you know, right here, key conversations within conversations are really the key to a ton of change and growth and development. Can you think of a conversation that perhaps you have in the past that had a big impact on you personally, or professionally?

Dorie Clark 26:01
Well, you know, I one conversation that I that I think about where I was, I was sort of on the on the opposite end of it, but it's, it's something that I feel very happy and very proud about, I have a good friend, a woman named Maria and contrary, and she is this year going to be celebrating her fifth year, her fifth year anniversary is an entrepreneur. And she before that was a composer and a big, big jazz, big band leader. And, you know, that's not the most lucrative thing in the world. So she had all of these like, kind of crazy, not that great, odd jobs. And anyway, about five years ago, I actually, you know, I like to try to ideate for my friends where I can. And so I actually sent Murray a text. And, and she loves to talk about this. And I said, I just been thinking about her and thinking about her career. And I sent her a text and I said, I think you should quit your job and become a virtual assistant. And she was like, What are you talking about? And I laid out my reasoning for her. And she was like, Huh, that's actually a pretty good idea. Because it would, you know, give her more time and more flexibility for her music. And she wouldn't have to be dealing with a mishegoss of the crazy job that she had at the time. And anyway, in relatively short order, she was able to build up her business from first being a VA to then being a social media consultant, to now having her own social media agency. And she, you know, she's expanded, and she does all these things. She books people for TEDx talks. So she's, she's really, you know, built this amazing entrepreneurial empire for herself. And I feel very lucky to have sort of been part of, of sparking that. And when I think about a conversation that's meaningful to me, it's I, I'm a huge fan. And it doesn't have to be specifically people becoming entrepreneurs. But I am a fan in general of something that entrepreneurship, or entrepreneurial thinking represents, which is people really taking control and owning their life and owning their decisions and how they want to chart things moving forward. And so it makes me really happy that just based on kind of my initial suggestion or idea, Marie took the ball and ran with it, and has created something great for herself.

John Ryan 28:29
That's fantastic, all from a simple text.

Dorie Clark 28:33
Exactly. Very cool.

John Ryan 28:34
Dorie, thank you so much for being here. What's the best way for our listeners and viewers to get in touch with you and find out more about your work and of course, your upcoming books.

Dorie Clark 28:42
Yeah, john, thank you so much. I appreciate it. if folks want to learn more and and also dive into some of the questions that I grapple with in the long game, I do have a free resource, which is the long game strategic thinking self assessment, and folks can get it for free at Dorie Clark comm slash the long game.

John Ryan 29:02
Wonderful. I'll put all those links in the show notes as well as links to all your social media. Thanks again so much for being here. Thanks, john. Excellent. And thank you all for watching and listening until next time, develop yourself empower others and lead by example. Thanks for listening to key conversations for leaders with your host John Ryan. If you enjoy the show, please let us know. Give us a rating or write a review. And if you'd like to connect with me and other like minded leaders, I invite you to join our Facebook group called Develop, Empower and Lead where I deliver free live training every week. If you go to It will redirect you right there. Hope to see you there soon.

John Ryan

Host of Key Conversations for Leaders Podcast, Executive Coach, Consultant, and Trainer

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