Embracing Your Past to Succeed

Most of us don’t start out as independent consultants. Maybe we worked for a larger firm, or began our careers in another industry altogether. So when it comes time to launch our practices, it can be hard to know how to position ourselves – and feel confident enough to do so.

My new book, Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future, focuses on the question of how professionals can “reinvent” themselves, whether it’s a big change (starting your own business, changing careers) or a smaller one (ensuring others recognize your leadership potential so you can move up in your company). What I learned through my research is that “owning your narrative” and seeing your past as a strength is one of the most important ingredients of success.

One of the “reinventers” I profile is Libby Wagner, now a successful consultant and member of the Mentor Hall of Fame, who began her career as a poet and creative writing professor. When she started her consulting business, says Libby, “ I didn’t want anyone to know I was a poet. I had a lot of tapes going in my head. The economists I had worked with had really talked down to me, and people in business certainly weren’t interested in what I did. I was so afraid. In the very beginning, I thought I should try to go to Harvard and get an MBA.” But she held off and decided to try without it.

Soon, she realized that her clients weren’t asking about her credentials: “When they see that what I do actually works, then nobody cares. Nobody has ever asked me if I have an MBA, ever.” In fact, she says, “I think my not having an MBA gives me an advantage; I can ask all the ‘new girl’ questions and it makes them step out of their paradigm for a little while to see if what they’re doing is working for them.”

And it turns out the very skills she honed as a poet were the ones most relevant in her consulting. “The way I see the world is very language-driven,” she says. “I’m going to be listening for nuances and connections and patterns. That’s the way I look at the world and I take that to any interaction with the client, so I’ve learned to ask really good questions.”

Today, Libby has consulted for Fortune 500 clients including Boeing and Nike – and she’s christened her monthly e-newsletter The Boardroom Poet. The secret to embracing her own narrative from poet to consultant was understanding the value she could bring to her clients. As she wrote in a recent essay, “…my clients want results. They want to know that the money, time and effort they are going to invest will give them what they want: higher profits, more engaged workplaces, less stress, success in their endeavors. I can do this, exactly as I am…When I show up as a poet, entrepreneur, and ordinary smart person, I can then help others be who they need to be, too.”

Early on, it’s tempting to want to paper over our differences and present ourselves in the image of what we think a “perfect consultant” should be. But it serves us far better in the long run to understand our unique strengths, and leverage them – as only we can – to help our clients.

This post originally appeared on the Contrarian Consulting website on March 27, 2013.

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.