Updated: Aug 17, 2020
I've had the opportunity and honor to mentor women over the years and one area many of them have shared they want to get more comfortable at or where they have received feedback around getting better is promoting themselves. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to generalize here, I think this is true for both men and women, but for some reason seems to be more common among women. Many studies have been conducted that support this idea that women are less inclined to self-promote themselves. Some studies even state that this is one of the reasons that fuels the gender gap. Today I don't want to talk about the gender gap, but I want to acknowledge that self-promotion is an essential tool for career advancement, whether in job or performance review, or just networking; and share some ideas on what you can do and where you can start to feel more comfortable self-promoting yourself.
Before I dig into ways to become better and more comfortable at self-promoting, I want to make sure I state that the first step always is to perform and deliver. I believe that is not possible to promote something that is not there. On the other hand, I also believe that we need to look and assess ourselves and our performance and contributions realistically; that is, don't see things better than they are but also don't see things worse than they are. Women tend to see their own performance more critically than men. There was a study done a few years ago done by HBR that found a large gender gap in self-promotion — with men rating their performance 33% higher than equally performing women.
So, having set that baseline of the fact that the first thing we need is to perform, and assuming we are performing in our current roles, how can we become more comfortable self-promoting?
I believe this is key and also at the foundation, just like performance. It's key that you are well self-aware of your strengths and your opportunities for development. What are you really good at? Where do you struggle or need extra support or growth?
We definitely don't want to downplay our areas for development and growth, but when it comes to self-promoting ourselves, we are going to want to focus on our strengths, on the things we do well, on the areas where others see us as experts.
2. Promote others before you promote yourself.
People who struggle to self-promote themselves typically talk more in terms of "we" than what they do in terms of "I". That is great because demonstrates that you value teamwork and the people in your team. That being said, if you only talk in terms of "we" is difficult for others to see what your role in the team achievement was. It’s important to find a balance.
Continue to promote other people, their capabilities, and achievements. As you promote others, they will also promote you. On the other hand, try to mindful of when you are promoting others and when you are using "we" vs "I" just out of level of comfort. If you struggle to use "I" statements here is my tip for you. I like to start with "we" statements. I like to start talking about the team and then I transition to explain what role I played in the team. At the beginning it took intentional self-reflection and practice because it didn't come natural to me, but over time I developed the habit and technique and it started to get easier and easier, to the point that it comes natural now.
What I like about this approach is that you don't come as bragging, you don't minimize the team effort or the individual contributions of other team members while you self-promote yourself at the same time.
3. Don't assume everyone knows what you are working on and what you have accomplished.
I find that one reason by we struggle to self-promote is because we believe that in order to grow and advance our career we need to put our heads down, work hard and assume that if we do that, others around us will noticed it and recognize our work.
Many times, we assume that our boss, colleagues and others in the organization know exactly what we are working on and what we have accomplished. Once thing that has helped me is to change my assumption and rather assume that they don't know. When I assume they don't know what I am workout on it's easier for me to explain what is that I am working on and what I have accomplished so far on those projects or activities. As I do that, I am self-promoting, but it doesn't feel like I am.
4. Stop downplaying your role
The words we use to communicate and explain our role has a big impact on how we present ourselves, the value of our role and the impact we are making in the organization. Many times we downplay our roles unintentionally. If I ask you right now if you have ever downplayed your role your answer most likely will be no. Pay attention on how you present yourself and your role to others next time you introduce yourself or explain what you do. Have you ever used expressions like "I just do . . ." or "I am just . . ."?
In episode 31 of the Leading Yourself Podcast I shared a story to exemplify this. If you listened to it, you might felt identified and you might be wondering, how can I stop downplaying my role? You can practice getting out of this habit by stating your full title and throwing in a few impressive details next time someone asks you what you do. So people would say, craft an elevator speech and use it to introduce yourself. Not only can this make you feel more confident about the importance of what you do, but it can also open the door for possible career growth.
5. Talk about your career accomplishments as well as your personal ones.
I believe that we are one person. Yes, we play different roles in our lives, but we can separate the professional self-form the personal self. We tend to avoid talking about our personal life at work, we try to keep those roles separate from each other. My tip for you is to do the opposite. It might be easier for you to talk about your accomplishment outside of work, whatever they are. Typically, those things are things you are deeply passionate about, that are important to you. Maybe you coach your kids' sports team, maybe you teach on Sunday school at church, or maybe you have a podcast or a blog. I believe that talking about these things is very important for many reasons, including:
Typically, is easier to self-promote yourself in these areas than at work related topics.
We are passionate about them and when we talk with passion, we take our stories to the next level.
Many of the skills that help us achieve these things in our personal lives are transferable to our professional roles.
6. Look for a sponsor
Sometimes we need a little push. I have been fortunate to come across people in my career that have given me that push. They have started the conversation about something I did and break the ice sort of say for me to be able to naturally jump into the conversation and feel comfortable talking about my achievements and my work. I like to think these individuals were sponsors. What is a sponsor? We talk a lot about having a mentor, but I don't think we talk as much about having a sponsor. These two individuals play different roles and they are both very important in helping you advance in your career. The main difference between the two is that a mentor advises while a sponsor advocates for you. I personally believe as I said that we need both but when it comes to self-promoting and helping us become more comfortable doing it my personal opinion is that a sponsor is the right person to help us.
Not sure where to start to find sponsor? Here is a great article on how to go about finding a sponsor.
7. Focus on serving others vs selling yourself
The main reason why self-promoting feels uncomfortable is because it feels like we are selling ourselves. I mentioned that one basic premise before we are in a position to self-promote ourselves is to perform. I feel that if you are not performing and you try to self-promote it will always feel salesy. The other thing that has helped me not feel salesy is to focus on serving others vs selling myself. By serving others we many times self-promote ourselves without even feeling like we are.
Let me share an example. This blog. My personal vision is to inspire others and help others grow. That is my passion. This blog is something I do on my free time, is not part of my job. When I started the blog, I was feeling unease with the idea of sharing it in LinkedIn, mainly because LinkedIn is the platform where I present my professional self, where people can see what my job is, and my work history is. I was afraid of how it would come across. But then I stop for a minute and went back to my personal vision and my mission to leave a legacy, to inspire others, to help others grow personally and professionally, and I realized that LinkedIn was the perfect platform to do that. When I started posting these blogs and until this date my only objective is to serve others, to serve you. Turns out that by serving others without intending it or planning it, it has become a self-promoting mechanism.
8. Build your network
I personally find that is easier to talk about my work with people I know than with complete strangers. As a good introvert, it takes some time for me to become comfortable talking to people I don't know. Constantly investing time in expanding and nourish your network is key to create the environment for you to feel more comfortable sharing and speaking up.
The other great benefit from building your network is that there will be more people that will be talking about you, your work and contributions and you will gain more sponsors.
9. Be and do you. Stay authentic
I feel I have to say this. None of the above things matter if you don’t stay true to yourself. Be you and do you. When you try to be someone else, come across a certain way what is not your true self, or try to sell something on which you don't believe in, none of the tips above will help, and you will be left our frustrated, drained and lost. As someone once said, "I would rather lose being myself than win trying to become someone I am not". When you are yourself and you do you, success will come. Stay true to yourself, while to step out of your comfort zone and continue to evolve.
10. Be a sponsor to others and encourage them to share their stories
And last but not least, pay it forward. I can assure you; you are not the only one struggling to self-promote yourself. So be a sponsor for others, encourage them to share their stories, and their accomplishments. Nothing will compare with the level of satisfaction and fulfillment you will feel when you are able to help others.