Dr. Sarabeth Berk is a personal branding strategist, career advisor, the leading expert in hybrid professional identity, and the founder of More Than My Title. She’s also a hybrid professional herself. Additionally, Sarabeth has been a TEDx speaker, cited in Forbes, and received a “Colorado Inno on Fire Award” for her innovative work. On this episode, we discuss what a hybrid professional is, the benefits of hybridity for workplaces, and how to manage hybrid professionals to maximize their impact. Additionally, Sarabeth shares the advice she gives hybrid professionals in her work with individuals and organizations.
I want to start with the fact that early in your career you spent a good deal of time in the education field. You spent time as a teacher and in other roles. How did that time, specifically the field of education more broadly, shape the professional you are today?
Yes, it’s so funny. I actually started as an art educator. My background is in art and design. I went into teaching because I wanted to bring more creative expression to students, and honestly, break out of the mold of how teaching doesn’t allow enough creativity. What I realized when I was teaching is, I wanted to transform the whole system. I was frustrated with just what a school day looked like and how we were stuck based on the school schedule dictating the rest of everything else and just weird systems things. In order to do more innovative work in teaching, I had to break out of that box.
Teaching has been an amazing foundation for me because it’s taught me how to translate ideas and to take information and help other people digest it and build from it. That zone of proximal development I think really applies to every organization I’ve worked with where you have to start with where they are and then give them those little baby steps and scaffolding to move them out of that comfort zone into that learning zone. My skills as a teacher have been really useful for how to translate information, meet my audiences where they’re at, and then get them to new levels. I’m really grateful I had that experience. Now I’m taking you to new spaces as this creative disrupter.
I love that. I think we’re definitely going to go back to education as the conversation goes on, but I do want to talk about the tagline, specifically, of your current firm, which is The Power of Hybrid Professionals. Can we jump off with this? What is a hybrid professional?
A hybrid professional is someone in the workforce who has multiple professional identities in their work, but they work at the intersection of those different identities. They don’t just use one and then use another. It’s not the either/or. The hybrid is the intersectionality of your different identities, and that integration point is really where your secret sauce and unique value lies. I am opening up this concept to a wider audience to popularize it because we’ve been stuck in a binary world of experts and generalists, but there’s a third bucket that’s been hidden, and that’s the hybrid professional. That’s why that tagline is so important to me because I think hybrid professionals are one segment that makes teams high-performing, and we have to think about hybrid professionals today.
When you think about organizations that are thinking about this in a strategically positive way, what are they doing and what would your advice be for organizations who haven’t even considered this type of professional and the impact that it might have on their organization more broadly?
I’ll start with just the notion of hybrid work. We’re using that term all over the place, but hybrid work really means three things, and we’re using this phrase hybrid work as a catch-all. Hybrid work is hybrid workplaces, hybrid jobs and roles, and then hybrid workers, people, like I just mentioned, with multiple identities. From an organizational point of view, we need to break down this concept of hybridity into different structures, and organizations need to look at talent as not just one thing anymore. People are bringing multiple skill sets, identities, and expertise to the table.
We know people job hop and they switch and they have many careers over a lifetime. That means you can build expertise in one thing and then change. Being multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary is a really important person you want on your team because they can cross domains or be cross-functional, and you’ve got to hire for that. I think what I’m hearing from leaders like Josh Bersin and Heather McGowan is job descriptions need to be more fluid because people are more adaptable. When you say you’re looking for a “unicorn” for a role, those unicorns exist.
You can say, “We need someone with a background in anthropology and an MBA and coding skills and design knowledge,” and you’re going to be able to find that person because more people are accumulating these interdisciplinary areas of expertise. I think organizations need to just start talking about and thinking about hybrid professionals as one part of their talent set on a team.
We’ve talked about it from the organization perspective. Let’s switch a little bit and talk about it from the professionals’ perspective. What are the skills that people, potentially younger in their career, should be cultivating in order to succeed as the leader of a more hybrid professional type of workforce?
I think a lot of this work starts on the individual level as a person. We need to be clear about the different identities we possess. When I first talk with hybrid professionals and ask them, “What do you do?” they just give me a laundry list of identities which isn’t very helpful. As an individual, you’ve got to be clear because then in order to lead, you need to be able to recognize what are the different identities that person believes they have and that are utmost important for them to thrive and feel fulfilled in their role. As a manager or a leader of hybrids, you’ve got to make sure you’re engaging and checking in on them if they are able to use and feel seen for their multiple identities in the workforce. Does that make sense?
It does. I think I want to talk a little bit about how you’ve changed over your career. We talked a little bit about the education component early in your career. How do you think about how risk-taking and how your own career changed the way you focus on the work that you do? How do you instruct people given the career trajectory that you had?
What I wish I had known when I was younger– I think that’s a little bit of what you’re getting to, is that you can be the sum of your parts. That’s the bottom line. It’s not about just choosing one path anymore, which is the old advice we get from career advisors and mentors. When you look at your different professional identities, whether you’re gaining that over time because you’ve more experience in the workforce or you have side interests and hobbies that are emerging and they’re complementing but maybe not connected yet to what you’re doing in your job.
That is the realization I think more people are having is, “I don’t want to just be seen as one thing here and then go over and do this side hustle.” How can you find the intersections? I encourage people to draw Venn diagrams and to look at who are you in those spaces in between your identities, because when you can unlock that, you actually find out where you belong in the workforce and what opportunities you’re trying to attract to yourself.
The Venn diagram component is really intriguing to me, and I’m assuming that you utilize that in your own daily or weekly planning. Are there other strategies that you’ve developed along the way that allow you to be an organized hybrid professional?
This is a whole process I’ve created to guide people through this journey because nobody else knows how to give this career advice. This is cutting edge because, again, traditionally, people have said, “Okay, what are all your passions? Let’s narrow it down and choose the one thing you want to be known for as an expert to find the one job.” A lot of the tools I use with people are about hyper-focusing them on what makes them different or unique when they have a set of titles like director, strategist, marketer. How do all those things fit together? What I’m really helping people figure out is the sum of those parts which I believe is their unique value prop.
One of my favorite ways of doing that, aside from the Venn diagram, is asking people where they’re the first, best, or only in what they’ve done in their work history because when you find out where you’re the first, best, or only, those point to areas where you did something nobody else was doing. You were the first to figure out this new client partnership, or you developed a product that was the best in class with your team. I think using these questions like first, best, and only also gets to what you enjoy the most and what you’re the best at that you didn’t realize, which your hybridity is signaled from that.
You can break apart those moments like creating the first product and then realize, “Wow, in that moment, I was using being this wayfinder and this designer,” and then also maybe your science background was all involved in that and you didn’t see that intersection until you looked at that moment. Everything fits together from actions and moments into identities.
One thing that you’ve hit on, on a few occasions and you actually spoke on Clubhouse about recently was the topic of career pivots. How do you think about the ways that somebody should make a career pivot a positive step forward in their career journey?
I think my answer would be the term career pivot is problematic. Because people are constantly evolving and iterating in their career, it’s not just pivoting anymore. It’s growing.
People are holding over 10 jobs in a lifetime across three or four different industries. We know this is just natural. Instead of people worrying about shifting or finding their second career, I really want people to think about how they are combining and building more knowledge and identities as they go. To me, that’s the hybridity. Your pivot is about emerging and metamorphosizing in your professional identity. That is something I’ve seen in my research. Metamorphosis and juxtaposition and paradox are all about figuring out your hybrid professional identity.
What makes you the most optimistic when you look at the landscape of how companies are adjusting to this new world and maybe how professionals are adjusting to it? Where are you, for lack of a better way to describe it, a little bit pessimistic and think that we as working professionals, and we as organizations still have a lot of work to do?
I’m just frustrated with the fact that we’re stuck on this language of experts and generalists. Then we have a thousand other terms of like the T-shaped professional, or the polymath or the multi-hyphenate that we just can’t get past this language of either/or. Just as we’re looking at gender identity, and race, and class and all these other parts of individuals, we are hybrid human beings. Allowing people more room to redefine themselves in their work, I think is huge.
Heather McGowan talks about this as becoming self-actualized in your career identity is about looking inside of yourself and you defining who you are not the other way around. Not letting employers in the workforce dictate your job title, and how they see you. I think the biggest thing I’d love to see is more people taking ownership of their work identity, and breaking out of boxes, and thinking about hybridity as the tool they’ve been missing in their toolbox because once they own their hybrid professional identity, that’s the game-changer. You can show up and be your truest self at work and nobody else defines that except for you. More people need to take ownership of their identity and work.
I heard someone once describe a career in terms of acts of a play. If you’ll permit me, if I called the first act of your play your time and education, and if I called the second act of your play this focus on hybrid professional, what do you think the third act of your play might be?
Oh, it’s beautiful. Yes, I’ve definitely heard about the acts of a play. It’s a good metaphor. I think it’s hindsight and foresight. If I look back, I can make sense of all the different roles I’ve held from education to innovation. Now I call myself a creative disrupter, which that is really the through-line I never knew has been there all along. I arrived at the creative disrupter because that’s the sum of my different identities. That’s my hybrid title is what I call it.
Moving forward, I feel like more than my title, which is the business I started from my book is becoming more of my future. Being this expert of hybrid professionals feels like potentially my next act and I’m open to possibilities because the universe always brings us things that are unseen. That’s as much of my forecasting as I have at the moment.
As a final question before we shift to the last two questions that I ask everybody, if you were coaching a leader who was very early on in their career, maybe right out of university, right out of grad school, what are some of the traits that you would want to give them and how would you advise them to go after getting really competent in those specific areas that you think will be critical for leadership success in the future?
I think universities are still focused so much on siloing education into disciplinary knowledge and domains. The jobs of tomorrow can’t be seen today. It’s just shifting so fast. Obviously, adaptability is key to any leader. We’ve seen that so much in the pandemic. Second to that, I would say is intersectionality. We really do need to start cultivating workers that aren’t just focused on one thing but can also juggle being between, being in this interstitial space, that liminal space that is so beautiful and lacks description. There are no words that can define something that’s between things because it defies language. That would be a skill I think future leaders need is to play more with hybridity.
That is a wonderful spot to shift to the final two questions that I ask all of our guests. The first one is this. If you could describe your leadership style in just one word, what would that word be?
My leadership style, in one word, is hybrid. I know that’s such a cheap shot but that is literally my orientation today is the both and the space between hybridity. I think is also a space of innovation and that is where I live. Hybrid is my leadership style.
That works for me. The final rapid-fire question is this, what is the best piece of advice that you have ever received?
It’s simple. It’s permission to be the sum of all your parts. The minute I learned that I didn’t have to compartmentalize myself, and pigeonhole myself into these boxes, and trying to just be one thing, allowing myself to be the Venn diagram, the sum of all my work identities, has changed my career and change my identity, and honestly, my self-confidence. That is the missing piece I wish more people would understand. You don’t have to just choose one thing. Be all of your different work identities.
This interview has been edited for clarity.