Take Your “Self” out of “Self-Promotion”

No Way Out

The look on Sam’s face really caught my attention. I wasn’t sure if he was coming down with something, or if he had eaten something bad at lunch. He did not look well. “I have to do it. I know I have to do it. I hate the thought of it, but I know I’ll never get what I deserve if I don’t do it,” said Sam. He wasn’t talking about some brutal new workout program or cleaning the muck out of his rain gutters. He was talking about self-promotion.

I asked what was making him so uncomfortable. He responded, “Well, on one hand, I’ve made a lot of key contributions to the department that seem to go unnoticed. They won’t be visible unless I make them visible. On the other hand, I hate the thought of becoming the new ‘Mark.’” Mark was a notorious self-promoter in Sam’s department. Mark made a big deal out of even small achievements. It had gotten to the point that everyone dreaded his updates in team meetings because it became a predictable laundry list of the “great” things Mark had done that week. And Mark was oblivious to the fact that he was hurting his own credibility, and annoying his coworkers.

A Better Approach

Many high-tech professionals rising up the ranks struggle with this. We’ve all seen our share of “Marks.” In the best case, they’re boring. In the worst case, they’re distracting, obnoxious, and even malicious. But high-tech companies are full of smart, competitive, hard-working people who sometimes go unnoticed. Hoping that your accomplishments “speak for themselves” is a recipe for slow progression, and possibly even a pink-slip.

Here are five suggestions that will increase your visibility without suffering from “Mark-itis”:

1. Don’t mistake “Necessary” for “Important” – If you’re working on something that your boss or her boss don’t care about, they also won’t care whether you’re doing it well or not. “Jack” was the Product Marketing Director on my team  who maintained the pricing guidelines for our enterprise software company. He worked hard but was frustrated that the CMO never paid any attention to him or recognized the results of his work. Without question, the price list was necessary – Sales couldn’t quote deals without it. But what was most important to the CMO was positioning, competition, and lead volume. The CMO never woke up in the middle of the night worrying about pricing, and he never ran around the office high-fiving people because of a great change to the pricing guidelines. Jack moved to another Marketing function where his hard work and talent would be “on the radar” with the CMO and his professional “stock” began to rise quickly.

2. Align with your manager on your career development plan (CDP) – Most managers like to promote the achievements of people on their team, which is another good reason to make sure you and your manager are aligned on your CDP. If you and your manager agree that your next step is to become a Senior QA Engineer, and that one of the key components is for you to demonstrate process improvements, it’s highly likely that she’ll  “advertise it” when you deliver. She wants her boss, your peers, and her peers to be aware of your achievements so that when she recommends you for promotion, those same people will think “Of course he’s being promoted. Look at all of the process improvements he’s delivered!

3. Shift from “Me” to “We” – Good news tends to spread virally in high-tech companies. The best way to make it easy for people to advertise your accomplishments is to make it about their accomplishments. Consider these two emails:

Version 1:

From: Mark

To: Sales Team

My social media tactics are paying off! We passed 5,000 views on our blog last month! I’ve been watching our competition, and I think they’re starting to copy my moves. Oh well, I guess it’s the “sincerest form of flattery,” right? ;-)


Version 2:

From: Sam

To: Sales Team

CC: VP of Engineering, VP of Public Relations

Good news. We passed 5,000 views on our blog last month. Blog traffic is now contributing more than 10% of our Sales leads.

Kudos to the PR and Engineering teams. Our product innovations and steady stream of interesting news are really getting people to “tune in” to our blog. Let’s keep it up!


The second email celebrates a team accomplishment, puts the accomplishment in terms that theaudience cares about (Sales cares about leads, not  blog views), and explicitly recognizes thecontributions of others. Note the CC: to the heads of PR and Engineering, who will probably forward this good news to their teams (or maybe even to the CEO). “Sam” will be associated with a big success on something he owns (the corporate blog), lots of people will hear about it, and Sam hasn’t annoyed his co-workers with clumsy self-promotion. Score!

4. Focus on results, not your “hard work” – You led the project team through dozens of meetings over 6 months. You worked over the weekend to prepare the project summary. You even canceled a planned vacation when the project started to slip early on. Nobody cares. The right people will know what you did behind the scenes – calling it out just makes you a self-promoter. Quantify the results in the context of your department or company KPIs.

5. Take a long-term view – If you’re worried that celebrating a “team” win will mean that you don’t get enough “credit” for the critical role that you played, you’re missing the point. Career advancement, raises, bonuses, equity grants and other rewards rarely come from one single, heroic achievement. They come from continuous achievement, being a team player, and delivering bigger and bigger wins for the business over time. Being associated with a big win is enough, whether your efforts drove 80% or 20% of the results.  You’ll get the recognition and rewards that your contributions deserve without having to “apportion credit” across the team.

What strategies have you used to make your contributions more visible? Please share your experience. If you found this interesting, please use the toolbar below to share it with your network.


Written by

The ExecCatalyst blog covers topics related to leadership, career advancement, hiring, finding the right job, company cultures and office politics, and general management. The authors have extensive experience in high-tech in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and have gained experience at small, fast-moving startups as well as large, global technology firms.

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