Mastering the Art of Self-Promotion

Cultivating a reputation as an expert in your field can be extremely beneficial, but self-promotion carries risks that can trip up even experienced professionals. Here's what you need to consider before you get behind the lectern.

Rodney Masney took some heat from his company when his comments recently appeared in a national newspaper.

He was speaking on general trends to a reporter on behalf of the Americas' SAP Users' Group, but when his comments appeared in print, they seemed to stem more from his position as global director of IT infrastructure services at Owens-Illinois Inc., a Perrysburg, Ohio-based maker of packaging materials.

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"The executive team saw that and wanted to know why I was speaking on behalf of the company," says Masney. "There wasn't a tremendous amount of damage, but I got called out."

Masney learned from the experience. "All you can say is, 'I'm sorry, and next time around, I'll be more careful to be clear about what organization I'm representing when speaking,'" he says—noting that for this article, he's speaking from his own broad range of personal experiences.

That incident aside, Masney says his work in the spotlight has been positive, bringing him new challenges and skills.

Career counselors and IT leaders alike say that cultivating a reputation as an expert in your industry can be extremely beneficial, creating increased job security, valuable contacts and personal satisfaction.

"It sets you up for long-term career management. And there's a satisfaction that your hard work is paying off—that you're getting recognition for all your expertise," says Pam Lassiter, principal of Lassiter Consulting in Boston.

But as Masney's experience shows, such activities carry risks that can trip up even experienced professionals.

You can manage those risks using old-fashioned business skills—such as time management, career planning and relationship-building techniques—as well as healthy doses of cultural awareness and common sense. And it's best to know how to use them before you get behind the lectern.

Bide Your Time

"You're talking about stepping into the spotlight, so it's very important to think about how you do this and where, to understand what your opportunities are today and what you want for the future," says Marian F. Cook, CEO of Ageos Enterprises Inc., a management consulting firm in Wheaton, Ill.

Cook knows. She started to seek speaking gigs in the late 1990s as a way to build her reputation and the contact list she needed to launch her own business. But those speaking commitments soon took up more and more time without delivering significant value to her.

"I thought I had to say yes to every opportunity, and it took away from my work-life balance. I was spending too much time, too many nights, doing [presentations] that weren't furthering my own goals," says Cook, who was working in IT strategy for a Chicago-based dot-com at that time.

After several years of this, Cook reassessed her strategy. She became more particular about the speaking opportunities she sought and accepted, judging them by the topics to be discussed as well as the venues where they were scheduled.

Her selectiveness paid off. Cook says she nearly halved the 20 hours she had been spending every month on such activities while managing to get better contacts and increased visibility from the work she did do.

Loose Lips

But the potential pitfalls in building up your reputation as an expert go beyond those that tripped up Cook and Masney.

You could, for example, get overwhelmed with speaking engagements or blogging commitments and neglect your real (paying) job. You could inadvertently reveal proprietary information or destroy business relationships by accidentally saying the wrong thing.

Robbin Goodman worked with an IT consultant who made disparaging remarks about a partner company to a reporter from a major news magazine. The consultant assumed he was just chit-chatting with the reporter and was not on the record, but he never indicated that the comments weren't for print. "He put his company's reputation at risk," says Goodman, who is executive vice president and partner in the technology and business services practice at Makovsky & Co., a public relations and investor relations firm in New York.

The resulting story required damage control from the executive team of the consultant's firm.

Some companies have policies designed to head off such indiscretions. Sunoco Inc., for instance, requires peer review of materials intended for presentation—a precaution that also serves as a coaching session, says Peter Whatnell, Sunoco's CIO and the incoming president of the Society for Information Management. IT-related material intended for publication also undergoes a peer review and a check from Sunoco's public relations department to ensure that the content doesn't violate corporate rules by, for example, endorsing specific products or services.

But even with safeguards, you can slip up. Goodman says some people unknowingly violate company policy by including their job titles and company names in their bios when they write or speak as experts. Others surprise—or anger—their bosses and peers by failing to give them a heads-up about their outside activities.

"There is a danger of professional jealousies," says Goodman. But he thinks that more often, colleagues become annoyed when would-be pundits neglect to inform them about their outside activities or request input when appropriate.

"You have to manage your relationships with colleagues and know your company's culture," Goodman says.

These were some of the issues that Richard "Chester" Holleran had in mind when he started to speak on product document management. "I thought through the potential negative consequences and tried to avoid them," says Holleran, a Wilmington, Mass.-based manager of software engineering and IT at Agfa Corp.

He says he turned to the company's lawyer for guidance. Holleran opted to present only at local events, such as regional user-group meetings, declining invitations for out-of-town venues because he didn't want to raise his profile too high too fast. "That would have made it much more of a foreground activity," Holleran says.

In the end, discretion serves as the best protection against potential problems. If you are earnest and diligent, people will be more likely to tolerate the occasional misstep, whether it's a typo in a PowerPoint presentation or a slip-up during an interview.

"If you have a long-term track record of doing well, providing a return for your organization, that credibility goes a long, long way," Masney says. "And that credibility can help smooth over the bumps."

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

This story, "Mastering the Art of Self-Promotion " was originally published by Computerworld .

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