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Mere hard work may not get you ahead in your career. Learn to market yourself too

Giving a talk about managing personal brands to some professionals recently, I said that it was necessary to do some “self-promotion” so that more people may know about them and what they do.

Too many people’s work goes unsung because only a handful of co-workers such as their immediate managers or teammates know the good work they do and the recognition or pace of career advancements they deserve remain elusive.

Too many people’s work goes unsung because only a handful of co-workers such as their immediate managers or teammates know the good work they do and the recognition or pace of career advancements they deserve remain elusive.

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Giving a talk about managing personal brands to some professionals recently, I said that it was necessary to do some “self-promotion” so that more people may know about them and what they do.

A few faces grimaced with what looked like disdain or discomfort.

The reactions surprised me for I thought I was reminding them of a well-accepted practice.

Companies never keep mum about their products or services, so the same should apply to professionals who want their careers to take off.

In the early days of my career, self-promotion seemed like charlatan behaviour. I scoffed at it because the people around me who did it usually came across as show-offs, leeches who took credit for things they hardly did or just empty vessels that made a lot of noise.

But I soon learned that there was an art to this, for some people made it look like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Yes, it takes some effort to learn and execute this, so the introverted me concluded that it was easier to simply work hard and let the results speak for themselves — a virtue my parents constantly extolled.

Sometime in my mid-career, a former manager I still have great respect for, made me see that this was not enough.

“You need more exposure if you want to move up,” he smiled when I asked him why he sent my colleague and me in his place to go on a work trip with the chief executive officer.

Too many people’s work goes unsung because only a handful of co-workers such as their immediate managers or teammates know the good work they do.

However, these do not go up the chain of command and the recognition or pace of career advancements they deserve remain elusive.

For example, while many people work hard and deliver results, only a small percentage will get promoted for good work performance because of budgets and the dreaded “bell curve”.

When it came to managerial decisions about who to promote — and I have sat in these gruelling sessions — the candidates who made it through typically delivered a strong performance (a given), had at least a fair reputation and were known to many of the decision-makers in the panel.

Even though they were not involved in these confidential discussions, their presence was keenly felt.

The odds of a promotion were low for candidates without at least one of the last two “credentials”. I have only once succeeded in pushing such a candidate across the finishing line — after three attempts.

WORKING ON ‘EXPOSURE’ AND ‘IMAGE’

American management consultant Harvey Coleman quantified the factors for career success clearly — “performance” contributes a meagre 10 per cent to a person’s success, “image” (your personal brand) makes up 30 per cent and “exposure” (who knows you and your work) accounts for 60 per cent.

One should therefore think about how much effort to spend on driving one’s performance versus promoting one’s exposure and image in line with one’s career aspirations, which will be very different from another person’s.

If you are happy to simply do a good job, “hum along” and accept that all you may get are decent pay increases and bonuses, there is no need for drastic actions.

Even so, a measured dose of self-promotion can help make it easier to do your job well.

But, if you harbour ambitions of climbing the corporate ladder, you may need to put more effort into your exposure and image, as fortune favours those who market themselves effectively.

I wouldn’t overdo it though. If the effort you put into your work performance is less than that of the other two factors, an alarm should go off in your head.

Self-promotion is especially necessary if you don’t already have a manager or career sponsor singing your praises occasionally or giving you the opportunities to do “high profile” work.

Take what you will from the tips below.

1. Be selective

Don’t make a big fuss of everything you achieved at work because this dilutes the “big moments” and it’s also annoying.

But if something is noteworthy, go out with as big a bang as you deem fit. At the minimum, share an (email) update with your manager along with observations on how things may be improved in future.

This shows you are interested to share the lessons you learnt.

If it’s novel or part of an important team or regional business priority, offer to present it at a team meeting or ask if you could send the update to your manager’s manager (with him or her copied in the email).

2. Think of your target audience’s needs

This can help your approach come across as a lot less opportunistic.

For example, if your expertise is communication, get to know the people in marketing and offer to help boost one of their marketing campaigns with publicity.

This also reinforces your reputation as a cross-functional thinker (a positive brand attribute).

Or volunteer to contribute to an employee interest group that promotes mental wellness (which happens to be sponsored by an executive you want to know better).

3. Use social media and networking sites

Having a “voice” on online channels such as LinkedIn is a great way to enhance your exposure and brand more broadly.

Even if you are unwilling to partake in professional banter or shout about things you have bragging rights to, you can still let others know who you are and what you care about.

For example, sharing your perspectives and experience on issues such as social and gender equity may help draw like-minded people and communities to you.

4. Don’t fake it

If you humble-brag and are not known to be humble, drop the humble or you may damage your brand.

People who brag unabashedly are more liked than humble-braggers because they are seen to be more sincere, a Harvard University study found.

More importantly, remember that claiming credit when it’s not due or inflating your achievements comes with very dire consequences when you are exposed.

If you still feel squeamish about putting yourself out there, tell yourself you deserve some spotlight. Or, think of it as keeping others up to date with your work — it’s very possible you may spark ideas in others or help them solve a similar problem.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Roger Pua has more than 25 years of international work experience, including senior leadership roles at companies such as LinkedIn. He currently teaches part-time at Nanyang Business School and advises LITMUS, a communication agency.

Related topics

Self promotion career market work image

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