Build Your Reputation the Rachael Ray Way

It’s often hard to deduce how someone becomes known as a leader in their field. Sometimes, it seems they’ve always loomed large: for decades, Michael Porter has been synonymous with strategy, and John Kotter with change management. Other times, the explosion onto the scene is fast and furious. One minute, you’ve never heard of Eric Ries, and the next he’s on the cover of Inc. magazine, speaking at major conferences, and advising the White House on innovation. But occasionally, there is a glimpse into the process of how someone can emerge, quickly and powerfully, into the public consciousness.

A while back, I was talking with fellow HBR blogger Boris Groysberg. When he discovered I was writing a book on professional reinvention, he asked for my thoughts about Rachael Ray, the perky Food Network star and the subject of one of his Harvard Business School case studies. Reading the case study, I realized Ray’s experience provides a perfect template for the elusive process — which any professional can learn from — of how to develop a world-class reputation and become dominant in your field.

Skills development comes first. Broad public exposure won’t do you much good if your ideas and skills aren’t sharp. In fact, it would probably be harmful for you to be under the searing klieg lights too early in your professional trajectory. You need a period of time to hone your skills without public scrutiny. One famous example is the Beatles in Hamburg, where they tested themselves by playing to different crowds every night for up to eight hours at a stretch. (Malcolm Gladwell references their experience in his famous “10,000 hours” argument in Outliers: The Story of Success.) Ray, too, had her own immersion experience, albeit in Albany, New York, where she started as a food buyer for a gourmet market, eventually teaching 30 minute cooking classes when they couldn’t find a chef who would accept their low rates. After her beloved boss was fired, she took the show on the road, and got a job teaching cooking classes at Price Chopper supermarkets across the region.

Build your platform. The next challenge, once you’ve developed your expertise, is cultivating a receptive audience. (Chris Brogan and Julien Smith talk about the importance of platform-building in their excellent new book, The Impact Equation.) Ray’s peripatetic teaching schedule brought her to the notice of a local television channel in Albany, which gave her a weekly cooking show. That broadened her exposure and brought additional credibility, including nominations for two regional Emmys. It also gave her the opportunity, in 1999, to write her first cookbook (which was released by a one-woman publishing house). In the next two years, she produced content at a feverish pace, writing three other cookbooks. Her fan base was growing, a necessary prerequisite for later widespread success. Indeed, a recent analysis by the digital agency 10 Yetis showed that the viral hit “Gangnam Style” was made possible by a clever early seeding strategy by YG entertainment (the record label that represents the rapper Psy), organically building an engaged fan base on Twitter and YouTube so they’d be ready when a possible hit came down the pipeline.

Embrace luck — and make your own. Finely-developed skills and a robust platform are necessary, but not sufficient, in order to become recognized as a leader in your field. After all, plenty of people can cook as well as, or better than, Rachael Ray. And plenty of companies have large Twitter and YouTube followings — but they never achieve domination on the scale of Gangnam Style’s 623 million views (as of this writing). What’s so frustrating for many talented professionals is the fact that you simply can’t control one of the most critical factors that goes into success: luck looms tantalizingly within reach, but you don’t know when it will anoint you. In March 2001, Groysberg writes in his case study, NBC’s Today show had a rash of guest cancellations due to a snowstorm. Enter luck: one of the producers had been given Ray’s cookbook as a gift and suggested she fill in. And then Rachael Ray made her own luck, driving nine hours through the snow to make it to the studio. The next day, she was offered a $360,000 contract with the Food Network, launching her massively successful television career.

Getting your big break — whether it’s a major promotion or a contract with the Food Network — can often, from the outside, seem like a random lightning strike. But there’s nonetheless a general order to the process. First, you develop a base of solid skills, whether through hours of computer programming or hours of teaching cooking classes. Next, you build an interested fan base that appreciates your contribution — and that, in turn, increases your luck. And when it comes, as Rachael Ray demonstrates, it’s up to you to drive through the snowstorm to get it.

This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website on November 22, 2012.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.