The Cure for People Who Hate to Self-Promote

IMF's Christine Lagarde

I have been sitting in a stew of self-promotion lately. And like many of you, this feels like a hot seat.

With a book coming out, I’m required to promote myself to a greater degree, and in different ways, than ever before. Sure, I’ve promoted my own company, and coach leaders to build influence by playing on a larger stage. I used to own a PR firm, and have promoted others for decades. I intimately know what’s required to communicate successfully and why.

But when the promotion is all about you, it can be hard. There’s no use ignoring that fact. It’s better to answer the question:

How can you self-promote more comfortably, with grace and confidence?

There’s a definite, but hard to personally determine, line in self-promotion. We’re all striving to be on the side of savvy assertiveness, and not on the other side where cheesy, self-absorbed shysters hang out. The trick to being more comfortable is to better understand where the line is and why, so we can feel confident that our actions are steering us virtuously.

I decided to embark on a little research, and this month’s Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women list provided a neat sample. There are of course, many icons on here, and this year’s top 10 includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, IMF Head Christine Lagarde, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. It’s a formidable group.

All of these women have had to navigate tough environments, face harsh critics, and get comfortable being in the spotlight. No shrinking violets on this list.

However, when looking at the top names on the list from the lens of self-promotion, one point is clear: none are known as self-promoters. In fact, they  have used their positions to be known as idea promoters. Even Lady Gaga (#11) uses her celebrity to provocatively push social causes. (Though I realize she’s a harder case to make, but stay with me here.)

There’s a lesson for all professionals, and certainly leaders, who need to more aggressively brand themselves for the sake of their companies, causes or careers. You don’t have to self promote. Instead, use your presence and platform to promote ideas that matter. Consider yourself the vehicle — albeit a critical one — and not the primary beneficiary.

Getting slightly more comfortable?

Now try these steps to see how you can stop worrying about self-promoting and start idea promoting instead.

1. Find a cause that combines your career and your passion.

Determine what you value about your career, industry, and profession. What would benefit others to have more of? What practices should be stopped? Consider what you talk about to your close colleagues or dream of changing with your co-workers. For example, Facebook’s Sandberg talks often about the importance of women to forge ahead in ambitious leadership roles, and IMF’s Lagarde is tackling ethics in the financial sector.

2. Put yourself in places to take advantage of your position and provide a larger platform.

In my book, Power of Presence, I call these shining moments in the daily grind. Now that you have your ideas, you have to find opportunities to express them. If you’re lucky enough to work in a company that has a PR department, offer to speak at conferences or with reporters on your chosen topics.

If you don’t have available resources, check out associations to which you belong and offer to be on panels, or list yourself as an expert for reporters with sources like Profnet. Write a blog, author articles online, or develop a Twitter following. Or you can head up an initiative right inside your company. As I wrote in a previous post about reinvigorating your job, you can make thought leadership a professional side project by starting a small think tank or industry watch group.  This is easier than it sounds with social media platforms.

3. Extend your reach.

This may be the most uncomfortable part, but it’s also where the leverage lies. This is beyond professional networking; it’s idea networking. Find others who share your ideas and figure out ways to work together. Who is already a thought leader on this topic? How could you contribute to an existing community?

This requires you to make brave requests because you may not know the other people, or may hold them in considerable esteem. Ask for introductions wherever possible, and offer your help. For example, a colleague of mine blogs about social media, and just joined forces with an entrepreneur group to talk to members about building their businesses through social media marketing. A few years ago, a friend invited a well-known CEO speaking at a conference to grab coffee and discuss a shared interest, and ended up getting a coveted seat on a high-profile industry board. You never know what can happen.

Some of you may be thinking, “Isn’t this self-promotion in another form?” And of course you are promoting yourself alongside your ideas. But remember that this is about becoming more comfortable, and to that end, consider others you respect who put themselves out there for causes they genuinely care about. There’s a reason that nearly every book on career building discusses the need to promote yourself — if you don’t, it’s unlikely that anyone will do it for you.

So figure out a way to be more visible and feel most comfortable, and go for it. I’ll be right there with you talking about my passion: helping leaders communicate powerfully and authentically.

How do you feel about self-promotion? Comment here or on Twitter @kristihedges.

This post first appeared on Forbes.com.

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About kristihedges
Executive coach, leadership development consultant, Forbes.com blogger, Entrepreneur.com contributor, author of Power of Presence (AMACOM).

One Response to The Cure for People Who Hate to Self-Promote

  1. Excellent post, Kristi, thank you.

    If I could add a little variation to your third point, Extend Your Reach. This advice is right on, and I’m sure you and everyone else feels like I do–“Who, me? I couldn’t call him/her, they’re too big/important, they might say no, they wouldn’t reply to me,” etc. etc. etc.

    When I start thinking this way, I have to lecture myself (or go to one of several friends I can depend on to lecture me), in the following manner:

    “What? Who do you think you are? First of all, it’s arrogant of you to withhold the possible information that you could bring to this issue just because you’re afraid of someone not answering your email. Second of all, you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket–send the damn email! Third, what’s the worst that can happen–they don’t reply; so, deal with that! Fourth, if you’re worried about them being too busy, then give them an out–tell them that they may be too busy and you’d understand if they were. Fifth, do you actually have a solid, good reason to inquire of them–if so, fire away, and if not, get back to work and get one; either way, do something!”

    Pick your argument. Personally, I like the first one–accusing myself of being arrogant when I’m feeling all self-conscious is always shocking, like throwing cold water on my face. But whatever works for you. It’s all about replacing the idea of “self-promotion” with promoting the cause; which if you have a cause greater than self-promotion is the whole idea in the first place. (And if self-promotion is your only cause, well you’ve got issues bigger than this one).

    Thanks Kristi!

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