Selling Yourself Without Selling Out

Advice for IT professionals on how to promote their accomplishments without crossing the smarmy line.

High-performing individuals are often not recognized for their contributions. The antidote to being overlooked is self-promotion—the act of making others aware of your work and accomplishments.

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Most IT professionals aren't comfortable with the concept and practice of self-promotion. They view it with derision, as a personal public relations campaign, a way of shouting "Look at me! I'm the best!" Because IT professionals traditionally see their value in making the machinery of a workplace run smoothly, they expect their work to speak for itself.

Unfortunately, doing good work isn't enough. It often doesn't speak for itself, especially IT work, so much of which end users take for granted. (They seem to notice only when systems aren't working, and that doesn't reflect well on you, nor does it represent the bulk of your work.) That's why selling yourself—and your team—is critical. It's key to your effectiveness and long-term success. For example, if your accomplishments are well-known, you'll be top of managers' minds for promotions. Negotiating salary increases will also be easier: You won't have to fight so hard for a raise if your boss and her boss are aware of your many successes. They'll want to give you a raise to retain you.

Your organization can benefit from your self-promotion, too. Organizations are only as good as the people who work for them, and if those people downplay their accomplishments, the organization may not learn what has worked well, nor can it tout the benefits of those successes. What's more, enthusiasm for accomplishments can be infectious and may foster a climate of innovation, ambition and healthy competition among a leader's direct reports, colleagues and the organization as a whole. As a manager, part of your job is to communicate the value of your team.

When you approach it with authenticity and integrity, self-promotion helps you build the credibility, confidence and social capital you need to get people to follow your lead and move forward in your career. Read on for tips on how to sell yourself without smarminess.

Focus on the Work

Even leaders who see the value of self-promotion are often unsure how to proceed. Like most behaviors, self-promotion can be overdone to one's detriment. To strike a balance between bragging and modesty, stay focused on the work and the value it brings to the organization. Talk about the outcome instead of what you personally did to accomplish it. Take yourself out of the equation. Avoid overusing the pronoun I when talking about your work. That way, you won't come across as boastful.

Tell a Story

Don't think of self-promotion as bragging. Consider it an opportunity to tell success stories. Everyone loves a good story, especially one with a happy ending. Good stories captivate an audience and help them remember the accomplishment. Let the story—not you—do all the work. Your story should include how you steered the process toward the desired outcome.

Communicate your or your team's success stories to as many people who would be interested in hearing them, in as many forms as makes sense, such as in a company newsletter, in an e-mail to appropriate departments and teams, and when youre asked to speak about recent projects at a meeting. If your story is a good one, word will get around. The important thing is to focus on what was accomplished and to talk about your accomplishments in a way that will help others who are working on similar projects be successful.

Team Up

For leaders who naturally shy away from self-promotion, the key is to use tactics and behaviors that are effective and maintain a sense of authenticity. For example, leaders who are uncomfortable touting their accomplishments may want to find a colleague with a similar struggle. That way, coworkers can promote each other, so each gains greater visibility in the workplace.

What's your Promotional Personality? Whether you're a schmoozer or are anti self-promotion, we've got strategies for you.

Schmoozer. You are highly social and know everybody. You like to see and be seen, particularly with "the right people."

Your challenge: Make sure that you are not perceived as a phony with little substance and a big agenda. Your interactions should be meaningful and genuine with everybody.

New mind-set: Self-promotion should be targeted, intentional and sincere. Worker. You are highly competent, work-oriented and productive. You view social activities, networking and self-promotion as time wasters.

Your challenge: Expand your view beyond the task and take a broader view. See how connections enable you to have stronger impact.

New mind-set: Self-promotion contributes to workplace effectiveness. Anti-braggart. You see self-promotion as bragging and obnoxious and will go to extremes not to be perceived that way. Overly modest, you often deflect praise and are quick to take blame.

Your challenge: Ensure that your skills and your work are viewed and valued accurately by others. Stop downplaying your contributions.

New mind-set: There's a difference between bragging and authentic self-promotion. Selective Marketer. You know the value of self-promotion and have had some positive experiences as a result of touting your work, your group or your talent. Even so, you are unsure of how to consistently or strategically market yourself without overdoing it.

Your challenge: Integrate self-promotion into your routine work and communication so that it is appropriate, useful and consistent.

New mind-set: Self-promotion is an ongoing leadership task, not an occasional activity. -- G. Hernez-Broome, C. McLaughlin and S. Trovas

Think of Self-Promotion Strategically

Plan what you communicate and how. Be consistent with your promotional strategies, maintain your credibility and be sincere.

Connect With Others

Build relationships with colleagues inside and beyond your department. Take the time to make the rounds and talk with them about your work. This will give you an opportunity to share the projects you're working on—and the value they're bringing to the company—with more people, thus raising your profile in the organization and making more people aware of what you're doing.

Create Opportunities to Promote Yourself

Step into the spotlight. Volunteer to facilitate meetings or for projects that will showcase your strengths. Join an industry association. These actions lend themselves to increasing your visibility.

Be Honest With Yourself and Your Colleagues

Your promotional efforts will be more effective if people in your organization respect you and your credibility. To earn their respect, you have to be honest about your strengths and weaknesses. You have to be proactive, and you can't ignore problems. If you can curtail difficulties by planning ahead, you'll increase your credibility. And don't pull rank. Value people at all levels of the organization and highlight their accomplishments, too.

Reframe Your Beliefs About Self-Promotion

To overcome any aversion you feel toward selling your accomplishments, it's helpful to reframe your beliefs. When you look at self-promotion from a positive perspective, it will feel more natural to you. Here are some examples of several misconceptions about self-promotion and how they can be reframed.

Misconception: Team players don't take credit.

Reframed: Visibility benefits the team.

Perhaps you're part of a corporate culture that values the group over individual effort. Or maybe you've been burned by others taking credit for your work. If self-promotion seems to conflict with your group's orientation, then it's time to realize that it can, in fact, benefit the group. At times, your efforts may highlight your individual role, while other cases may warrant your promoting another group member or the group as a whole. Misconception: Senior management doesn't want to hear about me.

Reframed: Senior management appreciates information and talent.

Senior management doesn't need every detail about you and your current task, but it does want to know that you are engaged in your work and in the goals of the organization. Have a clear statement in mind about a key project or component of your work so that if you're asked about it, you can take advantage of the moment to demonstrate your credibility as a communicator and leader. Misconception: Self-promotion is a waste of time.

Reframed: It's part of the job.

Many people say they don't have time to talk up their work. In fact, effective self-promotion can save time for you—and others—in the long run. When you talk about your successes, you create the opportunity to prevent redundant work. People will know what you're working on and what's been done. Misconception: My boss doesn't have time to listen to me talk about my accomplishments.

Reframed: My boss's job is to keep tabs on my progress.

Your very busy boss doesn't want to have to pry things out of you. Tell him what is going well, what challenges you're facing and what help you need. Your job is to keep your boss informed.

Choosing the self-promotion strategies that suit you will make the activity feel more natural to you. And when self-promotion feels more instinctive to you, it will come off as genuine—and not as bragging—to others, too. Be proud of your accomplishments, share them with your organization and watch new career paths open up to you.

This article was based on the guidebook Selling Yourself Without Selling Out: A Leader's Guide to Ethical Self-Promotion by Gina Hernez-Broome, Cindy McLaughlin, and Stephanie Trovas, all senior associates at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). CCL is a top-ranked, global provider of executive education that develops better leaders through its exclusive focus on leadership education and research. For more information please visit CCL's website.

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