An interview with Phil La Duke

Phil La Duke
Sep 17 · 18 min read

As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dawn Dugle. Dawn is an award-winning storyteller who spent 25 years as a broadcast and digital journalist. During that time, she met business and nonprofit leaders who had great stories, but they didn’t know how to tell or sell them! As a result, their businesses and charities were suffering. She was obsessed with finding a way to help them, and founded Dugle Media — a business sales consulting company. She also created StorySelling Solutions — a four-part training program designed to help businesses and charities attract qualified buyers or donors, improve their sales/donations and grow their business. This training has been proven effective time and again, and clients report up to 25 times the ROI on their training investment within the first year. Dawn is also a nationally recognized keynote speaker and author.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I am a storyteller and a story collector. People will come up to me out of the blue and tell me their stories. It started when I was a kid and has continued throughout my life. It’s normal to me, although new friends find it disconcerting when complete strangers come up to talk to me!

It was a great gift as a journalist. But during that time I would come across amazing people who had great stories that were the “best kept secrets” of their world. When you’re a business person, you want to be the worst kept secret — you want people to know what you’re doing. But while most business people are good at running their business, they’re maybe not so great at telling the story of their business. That story is what is going to help you add customers, sales and eventually growth.

I knew I could use my gifts and skills to help others grow their business or non-profits (which I also classify as a “business”.)

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Success does a funny thing to people.

There are the people who are super-happy when you are down, and they feel better if you’re miserable too. So when you start to grow, they can’t stand it. (Cutting those people out of your life is critical for your success, but it’s not always easy to do when they’re close friends or family members.)

Then there are the sideline critics. They remind me of those two curmudgeon Muppets who sat in the balcony and threw insults at the other Muppets on the stage, but never got on the stage themselves.

Then there are the “you’re taking something away from me” people. They somehow believe that if you are successful, it takes something away from them. I personally believe that there’s enough abundance and success for everyone and I’m glad when someone hits a home run with their business. It gives me hope too!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It really wasn’t all that funny — but it was a good lesson to learn.

A woman, who I thought was a friend, asked me to “meet for coffee” with her client. She did something else for a living, and said this client was considering hiring me for my expertise.

So, I went to the meeting and she and I got to chatting…for two hours.

Her client never showed up. I finally said — “Where’s Mr. Client?” She said he wasn’t coming.

A week later, I learned she took the things I had shared with her and were passing them off as her own. I guess the funny thing is, she couldn’t execute it very well and ended up flat on her face, and losing that client.

Some would tell you the lesson is — never share your secrets with anyone. Maybe…But I also know you have to have confidence in what you’re doing. There have been many times since, I’ve told people EXACTLY what it is that I do — and they couldn’t replicate it. (The ones I’ve taught can do it, but not the ones who just want to “pick my brain”.)

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

I came to coaching and leading reluctantly. I really thought of myself as a “doer” — someone who just gets it done. But when I went through this Leadership program with 360 degree feedback and the Myers-Briggs test — all signs pointed to me being a great coach. When I embraced that, things came easier to me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like a fairy godmother came down and waved a magic wand and gave me the key to my dreams. I work for it, but it doesn’t feel like a struggle. It feels like the path I’m supposed to be on. I felt like I could make a bigger difference if I ran my own company and helped several groups at a time, instead of working in one business.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Anything that is needed. When you are the CEO or an executive in any company, you have to get this notion of “that’s not my job” or “they’re not paying me to do that” out of your mind.The CEO sets the direction of the company, explains that direction to the team and why you’re doing it, then manages those expectations. You trust your people to do it, but verify it gets done.

But you also can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty — for real. There have been times when I had to tidy up a bathroom because we had important guests coming in and there was no time to call housekeeping.

I’ve washed mugs that were too dusty to serve coffee in to our guests.

When you’re the CEO of your own company, especially one that is trying to get off the ground, you are the team. You’re the direction-setter, you’re the appointment-setter, you’re the secretary, and bookkeeper. You work until the work gets done.

You can’t just give yourself the title of CEO, then take off at 2 p.m. every day. You have to get stuff done.

If you are one of those people who ever mutters the phrase “they’re not paying me to do that”, go find a job at a bank. Punch the clock and do exactly what’s on the job description. You’ll never make it as a CEO or executive.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

I determine my schedule. If I want to spend a little longer at a meeting with a client, because they have questions that I can help them with, I can do it without worrying that my boss is going to think I’m goofing off. (She knows what I’m doing.. because she is me!)

What are the downsides of being an executive?

I determine my schedule. Haha. Especially when you’re running your own business, it can be easy to NOT set a schedule or skip out on things like networking or meeting with people, but you have to give yourself structure. I have a color-coded calendar system so that at any given point I can see how many sales calls I have scheduled, or time set aside for content creation, or time set aside for networking and creating new contacts.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

MYTH: You have to look like everyone else

The truth is if you’re in a business that’s not a “suit” business, wearing a suit every day can turn off your clients. You also need to be comfortable as yourself, since people are buying into YOU, not the logo, not the suit and not the business itself. You.

MYTH: You have to sound like everyone else

There is so much crap out there in the way of jargon and mindless pseudo-speak, you end up wondering — what in the world are they talking about? When did it become fashionable to talk over people’s heads?

When I was a journalist, I trained my rookies to write like they speak — clearly, plainly and to the point. That served me well as a journalist, then as an author and now as a speaker and sales trainer.

MYTH: People already know everything

If I had a nickel for every time an economic buyer told me their teams already know this or that, I’d be a rich woman. I never assume people know the basics of social media or selling or storytelling. But they often aren’t going to tell you that when they’re in a room of their peers. I overcome this in training by defining what I’m talking about at the outset. That way, they’re not sitting there wondering what I’m talking about for 45 minutes, not engaging with the actual training.

I also deliver this in a matter-of-fact way. I don’t make someone feel stupid for not knowing something. It’s the quickest way of turning their attention off.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

How much space do you have? HA! I bet no one ever told a male executive to “calm down”. When a woman executive is passionate or excited about something, she gets told to “calm down” or is accused of being “hysterical”. My experience is that the men who say these things (and it’s always a man) are usually threatened by the skill level of a woman executive or her success. I’ve seen men try to belittle a woman executive, trying to diminish her efforts.

I’ve also met a lot of bullies as an executive.There are men who try to bully me because they’re threatened by my abilities (even though we’re on the same team!) There are also WOMEN who are bullies because they don’t want any other women at the table! It’s ridiculous!

There was a time when I thought that if I could just be “tougher” or have thicker skin, it would be better. But what I’ve learned is — my empathy, my emotional intelligence and my sensitivity are an asset to my business, not a hindrance. People who try to prey on that by bullying me really say more about themselves than they do about me.

Women also have to toot our own horns, but without sounding like an asshole. Men are expected to brag about their accomplishments, and no one thinks twice about it. It’s a lot more challenging for a woman to do the same thing. But I find that if I just state the facts, matter-of-factly, people take that pretty well.

Standing firm. When negotiating, women tend to talk about the offer, then keep talking — and we’ll talk ourselves down! By that I mean we start discounting the price before the other person has even said a word! I can’t remember who said — that during a negotiation, put your offer out there and shut up — but it has stuck with me ever since. I know the pricing, I know the value I bring, I tell you what the cost to you will be… then I stop talking.It’s hard. We want to fill the silence. But I remain silent (which is hard for an extrovert!) And the other person usually agrees quickly — making me think I should charge more!

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Things take about three times longer than you think they would.

Even when you have someone who has said “yes” to you, who wants to buy your product or service, there is always a lag time to getting started and getting paid.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

The best executives are:
Self-motivated (you can’t wait for someone else to give you the pep talk, give yourself the pep talk)

Self-directed (don’t have enough sales? How many sales calls are you making this week?)

Positive (you have to remain positive when you get a lot of “no” all day long… and when no one is returning your calls)

Lighthearted (this journey is going to be hard enough, there’s no sense being so serious about it.)

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Use your authentic voice, and don’t let someone else tell you what to say.

In one of my first management jobs, I had to have a “difficult conversation” with someone. I was putting this person on notice, the first steps toward firing him. My boss hadn’t hired me. We were both placed there by corporate, so he didn’t know what I was capable of. He spent two hours “coaching” me in what to say — and by coaching I mean he told me exactly what to say.

The result was a disaster. I used his words, so I didn’t sound authentic or empathetic. And the person I had to have the difficult conversation with became a cancer in the team and ultimately got himself fired.

Later, when I just spoke from the heart and used my own words, those conversations had much better outcomes. I was able to work with another individual in not only saving their job, but helping them grow in the team!

There are going to be many people (usually men) who speak louder than you. It doesn’t mean they’re right. If you feel there’s a better way to do or say something, then that is probably true for you! Follow that inner guidance.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My mentor Julie.

We were paired together in the National Association of Broadcasters mentoring program. They asked me what I wanted in a mentor, and I said someone who was a direct, no-nonsense person. And they delivered!

Julie is very thoughtful but has been known to give me a very thoughtful kick in the ass when I needed it.

She was also instrumental in helping me when I started out consulting. I am incredibly grateful for all of the advice and wisdom that she’s shared in the last decade.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Working on it!

I am a “Mississippian by choice”. That means I didn’t grow up here, but chose to live here.

The thing that gets me fired up is when writers/news people, who have never set foot in Mississippi, tell stories about how fat, stupid or poor the state is. They give this impression that we barely have teeth and electricity, when in fact there are some amazing advancements happening here. All roads to Mars lead through Mississippi and the Stennis Space Center. We have created a virtual reality “lab” for students to learn how to create VR programs, without having to travel to Silicon Valley. Starting a business is incredibly inexpensive, and the state is being wired for fiber cable. So you can be an entrepreneur — anywhere.

Those stories aren’t getting told, because the ones that get the most publicity are the ones where we’re last in the good stuff, and first in the bad stuff.

I feel it’s part of my life purpose to shine a light on what’s going RIGHT in this state, and inspiring others to do so as well.

(Yes, I know we have a lot to work on. But maybe if we start talking about what’s going right, it will give people hope to keep working toward a better tomorrow, instead of continually getting beat down.)

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Figure out what you’re doing — exactly — and why. Not only is this your business plan, but it’s also your story. If you can’t tell it, you can’t sell it. Don’t say “I’m going to help people.” Great. A lot of people want to help. Figure out what problem you’re solving and how you will be of help. That’s the start of your story. Then, why are you doing it? Why you are solving this problem is the most memorable thing you can tell someone. It’s what they’ll remember for years to come! I talk a lot about storytelling. I talk about it to anyone who will listen. And you know what? People come up to me — years later — and repeat...me, back to me! They talk about how they’ve been thinking about it nonstop and they want to hire me because they need help! (That all stems from my “why” — because I believe everyone has a great story, but most people need help crafting it into something that will help them “sell”.)
  2. Just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Yes. I can do social media. Yes. I can build a website. But those were not the essential pieces to my business. In the early stages, I was desperate to pay the bills, so I took on jobs that weren’t mission critical. They always took more of my time than I wanted to expend, and that means it takes time away from the real things you need to be working on.
  3. Everyone wants to “pick your brain” When you do figure out your story and what you’re selling, you’re able to tell it well at a networking event. That’s the great news. The bad news is, now everyone wants to “pick your brain”. At first, you’ll be flattered and you’ll go to the coffees or the lunches where people ask you a million questions and come up with a plan for their business, without paying you for your time or helping build your business. I got smart a few years ago and started offering the “Pick my brain” price. When someone asks to “have coffee” or “pick my brain”, I ask: “Do you have a quick question or did you want to sign up a ‘pick my brain’ appointment? For x-dollars, I give you 90 minutes of my undivided attention to ask me anything you want.” And you know what? 75% of the time, people ask me who they should make the check out to!
  4. You’ll die of “exposure” Along the lines of people wanting free stuff, I’ve been asked to speak at one small time thing after another. My rule is, if it’s an opportunity for me to market myself or my business, then I will do it for free, because I’ll ultimately get some business out of it. But I don’t work for “exposure” anymore. There are so many conferences that take in thousands of dollars in registration fees, but don’t want to pay their speakers in anything more than “exposure” at the event. (By the way, I asked the electric company if I could pay them in “exposure” and surprise, surprise — they said no!) People value what they pay for. As a paid speaker, for example, I’ve never been bumped. I’ve never been dismissed (“oh, that’s just Dawn…”). And in my last speech, they gave me an escort to get me from one end of the conference to the other! Don’t give your stuff away unless it builds your brand and leads to a much bigger client. Will turning down an “exposure” payment mean they won’t ask you to do anything else? Yes. And that’s a good thing. You’re not wasting your time with people who don’t value your services! It also leaves you free to work with people who DO value your time and contributions. And the more you get paid to do what you do, the more opportunities you can give back to your community with charity or pro-bono work. (But you can’t do that if you’re in the poorhouse.)
  5. It always works out. I’ve had some amazing days as an executive. Thousands of people getting all fired up by my training and then going off and doing awesome things with it! Getting featured in magazine and television stories! Then, I’ve had some very sucky days too. There were days when I had no one to talk to about what I’m going through as an executive and entrepreneur. There are days when I’m crying my eyes out because it doesn’t seem like I’m gaining traction. (And because I’m super-dramatic, I have epic pity parties.) The thing is, everything usually works out the way it’s supposed to. When I don’t get a speaking gig or a training client, it’s because something bigger comes along that I needed to devote the time to. When I needed money, it showed up (amazing how this happens). If you take away nothing else, remember: you create your experience. If you expect to succeed. You will. If you expect to fail, you will. (Henry Ford said it first: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”)

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

#GoodThingsWorld

I spent 25 years of my life as a journalist — mainly focusing on what was going wrong in society. And there’s a lot going wrong — we do terrible things to each other. But one day I woke up and decided to spend the rest of my life highlighting the GOOD STORIES, what was going right in the world. Maybe if we spent more time looking for the positive things, we would find more of them. I was on an editorial board a few years ago when the Mayor of Jackson said all people did was talk about the bad things going on in Jackson. I simply said: “Why don’t you start talking about what’s going right?”

#GoodThingsJXN was born and has been going strong ever since. Does it mean everything’s perfect? No. But just because you have bad days doesn’t mean you can’t talk about the good things too.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Oh I absolutely LOVE this quote from Brene Brown: “If you’re not in the arena getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”

When I was 16, I was given the opportunity to go to France for six weeks on an exchange program through the Lions Club. It cost my family very little money to do so, and I had the most amazing experience. When I returned to the US, I was so excited about my time. I wanted to talk about it, but people’s eyes glazed over.

The same thing happened after I spent a year living and working on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands when I was 23. I realized there are a lot of people out there who love sitting on the sidelines. They sit in the cheap seats and have a lot to say about your life choices, but they never take any risks themselves.
When they see someone “daring greatly” it just reminds them of what they haven’t done. Never mind the fact that they could have done the same thing!

So this quote from Brene reminds me that their comments, while sometimes hurtful, should be taken with a grain of salt. Perspective.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

Marie Forleo.

Her brand of business positivity is so infectious! And I love that she’s not telling people to go out and hustle and grind until they grind themselves into dirt!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 400 works in print. He has contributed to Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrive Global and is published on all inhabited continents. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke or read his weekly blog www.philladuke.wordpress.com

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Phil La Duke

Written by

Author of “I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business” and “Lone Gunman. Rewriting the Handbook on Workplace Violence Prevention

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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