Essential Tips to Transform Your Brand and Take Control of Your Future

Dorie Clark, Branding Expert and Adjunct Professor at Duke University
Dorie Clark, Branding Expert and Adjunct Professor, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant, professional speaker, and frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review. Recognized as a “branding expert” by the Associated Press, Fortune, and Inc. magazine.

She is the author of Entrepreneurial You, Reinventing You, and Stand Out, which was named the #1 Leadership Book of 2015 by Inc. magazine and one of the Top 10 Business Books of the Year by Forbes.

Described by the New York Times as an “expert at self-reinvention and helping others make changes in their lives,” Clark consults and speaks for a diverse range of clients, including Google, the World Bank, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Yale University.

She is an adjunct professor of business administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and a Visiting Professor for IE Business School in Madrid, Spain.
Her work has been published in the Harvard Business Review. And she is quoted frequently in major media, including NPR, the BBC, and MSNBC.

In this edition of Digital Trailblazers, Clark shows you how to think big about your business transformation goals and take control of your future.

Read the full Q&A below.

Appian: Good morning Dorie. And welcome to the Digital Trailblazer thought leader series. Much of the conversation in our series has been around the technology of digital transformation. But there’s also a human element as well. And I wanted to focus on human side of digital transformation today. In your new book, “Reinventing You,” you talk about the need for personal reinvention in today’s fiercely competitive job market. I see some interesting parallels, in terms of companies reinventing themselves for the digital age. For business leaders, how does the notion of digital transformation relate to the personal branding strategies in your book?

Company Culture, Key to Transformation

Clark: One way that it relates directly, of course, is that as a business leader, you need your workforce to be willing to change to meet the changing needs of the marketplace. And, if you’ve created a company culture where you can come in and keep doing the same thing as the path to success, that can be very dangerous in terms of creating a mentality that’s resistant to change.

“We’ve all heard from the Buddhist sages that change begins within yourself. But it’s true for companies as well. Individual employees need to be willing to change their understanding of who they are, and what they’re capable of, and what their role in the organization entails, so that you can transform at the enterprise level as well.”

Appian: As you think about the process of brand reinvention, how is it different today than it was in the predigital past?

Clark: As with many things, technology has changed certain aspects of reinvention. But the fundamentals are the same. In my book, “Reinventing You,” I identify a three-step process of professional reinvention.

3-Step Process of Reinventing Your Brand

The first step is to get clear on what your existing brand is. The thing is, people think something about you. The question is, what do they think. And is it in line with where you want to go in the future.

The second step is identifying the brand that you would like to have. That’s about setting out the future vision and being able to work backward, to think about how to close the gap between your present reality and your desired future state.

And sometimes that involves gaining additional skills, getting more training. It could be improving yourself as a manager—improving your listening and delegation skills, etc.—but it’s about understanding what you want your brand to be, and how you would like people to think of you.

“Third, and finally, is what I call living out your brand. Sometimes the conversation around personal branding seems to imply erroneously that this is a one-time activity. “You create your brand, and you’re set forever (laughter).” But of course, that’s not the case. We’re all creating our brand every day.”

What you think of another person—as we can all imagine—is not just about what they did once.  Or what they said about themselves. It’s about how they behave on an ongoing basis. So living out your brand is about really understanding and ensuring that all of your actions, that everything you do—how you dress, the things you talk about, how you treat people—that all of these things are congruent, and that they all contribute to sending one unified message about who you are, and the capabilities that you want people to know that you have.

Beyond the Elevator Pitch

Appian: That thought really connects with the notion of digital transformation. Some companies make the mistake of thinking it’s about the mobile strategy or the intelligent automation project. But transformation goes beyond incremental improvements in process and efficiency. It’s about reinventing how you do business, from the back office to the front office.


“Yeah, I think that’s an apt analogy. People are so used to looking at the tip of the iceberg. When you talk about personal brand, people tend to think: “Oh, you mean elevator pitch (laughter).”  But no, no, no, that’s just one piece of it. But there are many layers below that that you’re not perceiving. Some companies will think: “We’ve got to transform for the future, so let’s get some AI (laughter).”

But, if you don’t have substance beneath the tip of the iceberg, it’s not going to go very well.

Appian: I know you talk to hundreds of C-suite execs. So, what are some of the big challenges these business leaders have when it comes to re-imagining their business models for the digital economy?

Don’t Underestimate the Rate of Change

Clark: I think that when it comes to re-imagining business models for the digital future, we all tend to simultaneously overestimate and underestimate the rate of change. Meaning that when something breaks through the headlines, like artificial intelligence, driver-less cars, etc., executives tend to get whipped into a frenzy about it.

“And, partly, that’s justified. Not because the wave’s going to crest tomorrow, but because they know that many of their stakeholders are going to be reading those same articles. And they’ll start asking questions like: “What is your AI strategy, or your 3D printing strategy. And what are you doing to take advantage of these trends?”

Because of the public relations aspect of their job, senior execs need to have good answers about what they’re doing to address these things.

But this can also lead to behaviors that are irrational. People are getting into crazy bidding wars at exorbitant multiples for startups because they feel a need to claim a piece of some hot trend.

To really be strategic, we need to essentially reign in our irrational impulses by following the checklist (for successful investing) that Charlie Munger famously talked about. It’s where he keeps a running list of human psychological foibles. And asks himself, at any given moment, if he’s falling prey to any of them.

Getting the Biggest Return on Transformation

Appian: When you look at all the organizations out there, which do you think have done the best job of reinventing themselves?

Clark: There are some good examples out there. This past weekend, I listened to a presentation from the CEO of The Nature Conservancy. He talked about how when the Conservancy was founded, it was started as essentially a land trust to buy property and protect it. And many people think that that is what they do now.

“And, to a limited extent, it is. Their mission, of course, is to conserve land. But what they’ve actually done, which is far more clever, is seeded a national land conservation movement. They’ve encouraged the creation of local land trusts to purchase and maintain land locally. So, the Nature Conservancy itself didn’t have to do it.”

They were basically creating a movement to outsource that function, so that the Nature Conservancy could focus on higher-level more complex deals, that are beyond the capabilities of a small local group. In many ways, I think that’s an emblematic transformation, because they are continually asking themselves: “What is our highest and best use? What is the thing that we are capable of doing, that no one else is?

And how can we add more unique value by letting other people handle the easy stuff, so that we can tackle the really difficult, complex, stuff that will get us the biggest return?

The Perfect-or-Fast Conundrum

Appian: That’s such a great story about self-disruption. Many of the digital leaders who we’ve talked to say that successful organizations disrupt themselves before their competitors do. On a related note, there’s a narrative which says that the key to digital transformation is in building an organizational culture where people understand that it’s okay to make mistakes, and not be afraid to take risks. What do you make of that point of view Is it more important to be perfect. Or more important to be fast?

Clark: This is a conundrum, isn’t it? Of course, it’s okay to cultivate a culture where it’s okay to make mistakes, because people are human and there’s no such thing as perfection. If your people are so terrified of making mistakes, that’s going to freeze them up and, almost by definition, prevent innovation. Because if you’re truly innovative. If you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before, you don’t know if it’s going to work.

“And, if you’re in a position that the penalty is so severe if it doesn’t work, then the obvious response is to only replicate what has worked previously. However, that said, the key to this is understanding that there are some instances where it’s okay to experiment—low-stakes situations. You need to know the difference between that and critical high-stakes situations, where you need to have everything vetted.”

So, if an organization creates an environment where employees understand the difference, they’ll know where to take and not take risks. That’s the ideal kind of culture that can blend both of those aspects.

Online Learning Poised to Explode

Appian: To wrap up our conversation, as you look ahead, what are some of the trends that are on your radar for 2018?


“Business is changing rapidly. Everybody recognizes that, even if they don’t know what to do about it (laughter). That said, it’s getting increasingly expensive and complicated to train people. Employees may want to hone their skills, but they don’t have a lot of out of pocket money to do it. So, I think we’re going to see continued growth in the online learning trend.”

It has gone mainstream. And it’s beginning to be very pervasive. [Last year, U.S. enterprises spent $70 billion on training and development]. I think that at the enterprise level, people see it as a good solution to provide just-in-time learning for employees. And employees look at it and say: “I know I need new skills, but I can’t take time off from my job to get it.”

But taking an online course to get a skill that you need, is increasingly going to look like a winning proposition.

About this series

This interview is part of our ongoing Digital Trailblazer series. Join the conversation as we talk with innovators and big thinkers on all things digital transformation. Click on the banner below to read the full series.

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