The Art of Workplace Self-Promotion for Executives

Focus on your potential (not just past accomplishments) and enlist the help of trusted third parties

By Nadine Greiner November 28, 2022
The Art of Workplace Self-Promotion for Executives

Whether you like it or not, self-promotion is essential to your career advancement—and even more so for underrepresented groups. Whatever your intention, you need to position yourself as an indispensable asset. As an executive, there are several tactics you can leverage to position yourself in the most favorable light:

1. Be the change you want to see

Unconscious bias plays a major role in how self-promotion is received. Unconscious bias is our gut reaction, so the best way to ensure it doesn’t affect your perception is to take additional time to assess and process the situation. The same words, body language and tone may be put forth by two colleagues, but the reaction from the recipient can be very different based on who is self-promoting. If you are having a negative (or positive) reaction to a colleague’s self-promotion, pause for a moment to give yourself time to consider why. Would you still feel this way regardless of a person’s color, age, gender, ethnicity, etc.?. Being the change you want to see will help people see you in a favorable light.

Keep in mind that our differences can sometimes be our strengths. An executive who had immigrated from another country said, “I just want to sound and be like everybody else.” However, the uniqueness of her cultural background and journey is a huge asset in how she leads. 

2. Toot your horn, but don't blow it

Self-promotion is rife with difficulties. It is easy to come across as a blow-hard or braggart, and it’s additionally complicated if you belong to one or more groups that are underrepresented in your work culture. A study published in Psychological Science, aptly titled “You Call It ‘Self-Exuberance’; I Call It ‘Bragging’” found that people tend to promote themselves excessively in an attempt to make a favorable impression on others. The researchers concluded that self-promotion efforts often backfire, causing self-promoters to be perceived as braggarts and less likable. And the study notes that there are immense differences between cultures.

How then do you toot your own horn without blowing it? One way is to incorporate your accomplishments into an engaging story. This will humanize your accomplishments and highlight your values without coming across as pompous. It’s also critical to read the room for reactions on how you are coming across.

3. Enlist trusted third parties

Even with a multitude of conscious and unconscious biases, one of the most effective ways to overcome the self-promotion dilemma (the need to convey your value while, at the same time, avoiding being perceived as a braggart) is to enlist the help of third parties. Research found that when positive information is presented by third parties, it shields the self-promoter from the negative effects of self-promotion. Remarkably, even when third parties aren’t neutral and even when they are seen to be complicit with the self-promoter, the benefits endure. As part of your self-promotion efforts, it’s advantageous to recruit trusted mentors and organizational sponsors who appreciate your potential and can sing your praises. 

And, as an executive, make sure that you, in turn, sponsor others. In fact, one of the markers of a forward-thinking executive is the practice of consistently sponsoring underrepresented colleagues across the organization.

4. Focus on your potential

When selling yourself, it’s crucial to highlight your previous accomplishments. However, it is even more critical to emphasize your potential. For underrepresented leaders, it’s important to stretch the listener’s imagination and help them picture potential. More concretely, many people of all colors found it hard to picture a black president in the U.S. until it happened. 

Researchers conjecture that we prefer the potential for success over actual success because it is less certain. When human brains come across uncertainty, they tend to pay attention to information more because they want to figure it out, which leads to longer and more in-depth processing. High-potential candidates make us think harder than proven ones do.

As part of your self-promotion efforts, it’s essential to underscore your potential. Focus your pitch on your future, as an individual or as a company, rather than on your past—even if that past is impressive. It’s what you could be that makes people sit up and take notice—learn to use the power of potential to your advantage. 

In the same way that sponsorship of others is important, emphasizing potential in others is key. It benefits them and you, as you will be viewed as being astute.

Self-promotion is an art. Your ability to effectively sell yourself is essential to your ultimate success as a leader. In addition to adhering to the aforementioned strategies, a friend, colleague, sponsor, mentor or executive coach can help you master the art of self-promotion. They can assist you in framing your accomplishments and potential in authentic and compelling ways. As an underrepresented leader myself, I have found that a good support system has helped me tremendously in my career, and in turn I have been able to fight bias by helping others. You can’t afford to leave it to others to recognize your value. 

As ballet phenom Misty Copeland reminds us, “You have to be the one promoting yourself. If you don't think that you're worthy, you're never going to make it.”

Nadine Greiner, Ph.D., has been the chief human resources officer at several private and public companies, including the Institute on Aging. She is also author of Stress-Less Leadership: How to Lead in Business and Life.

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