Do you think self-promotion is a dirty word?  If you are uncomfortable tooting your own horn with the fear of being seen as “too arrogant” or think your work just speaks for itself, perhaps it’s time to reframe your thinking about this self-promotion thing.

Earlier in my career, I worked on the corporate staff of a large Fortune 200 publishing company.  My role was to offer internal organizational and leadership development program design, facilitation, and consulting.  It was a strategic position serving executive stakeholders across the enterprise.

For much of my tenure in this role, my boss, the corporate Vice-President of Learning and Development for the company, was on prolonged medical leave that lasted just shy of two and a half years.  During that time, a male peer and I shared the responsibility for leading the function and filling the gap of her absence.  We jointly shared all the responsibilities of her role, attending the executive meetings she would normally attend, offering input on key succession planning decisions, shaping the leadership development strategy for the organization, and consulting with key stakeholders on key culture change initiatives.

We established credibility for the entire function and made her absence appear seamless to the organization.  We both quickly moved to new, progressive roles as a result of the success of our work.

So several years later, my male colleague described his role during that time as was the truth—he had led the Learning & Development function (well, co-led) for this large company acting in a vice-president role for two and a half years.

How did I frame it?

I didn’t even mention it.  Didn’t put it on my resume and didn’t include it in my bio.  (I still haven’t…)  I just stated my title and the responsibilities of my internal consultant role.

Why not?

Well, it wasn’t “official” now, was it?

No-one had changed my title so I assumed it would seem like self-promotion if I acknowledged the reality of the responsibilities in my “unofficial” role now, wouldn’t it?

As I talked with this former colleague a few years later when we both had moved on to new roles (He into a Vice-president role at another company, mind you), he said something to me that I am now reminded of even to this day.

“You are one of the most visionary and brilliant people I have ever worked with.  I am in awe of your talent and skills.  If you ever decide to start your own business, however, I want you to hire me to be your marketer and promoter, because you fail miserably in promoting what you do.  You don’t toot your horn enough—and you are someone who has the substance to back up the tooting!”

It was profound feedback from a trusted and dear male peer.

Does this story sound all too familiar to you?

As I work with leaders as an executive coach, I see this fear of self-promoting dynamic far too often, most frequently with my women clients.  They are doing unbelievable things and having remarkable results that either no-one knows about or that they downplay when they describe them.  This leads to the fact that:

1.  People don’t realize the magnitude of their contribution

2.  Others have no idea the extent of their skills and experience


So when I ask why they do this, some of the answers I get are:

  • My work should speak for itself
  • People should realize the contribution I make without me telling them
  • I don’t want to appear arrogant or boastful
  • I have high expectations so what I did wasn’t really that great

Self-promotion is a dirty word to them.

So here’s what I know from watching this dynamic and from personally experiencing it myself over the years:

  • Your work doesn’t speak for itself.
  • People are NOT dialed into the intricacies of what you are doing.
  • A job title doesn’t describe your experience.
  • People don’t know what you’ve done unless you tell them.
  • Framing your accomplishments and experience for others to understand is as important as the experience itself.
  • Self-promotion is NOT a dirty word.

Here are four things to change immediately in your behavior.

  • Stop qualifying or minimizing your accomplishments and making them seem less significant than they are
  • Stop worrying about being seen as arrogant or boastful when you talk about a success or accomplishment
  • Stop focusing on semantics and “official” titles and summarize the actual experiences and contributions instead
  • Own your talents and contributions and be proud to talk about them

Yes, it’s hard to do this when you are not used to doing it.  It takes practice to become habit.

But consider this key reframe in your head—how can you be of service to others when they don’t really realize what you bring to the table and how you can contribute?

I’d love to hear your own experiences and stories in this area.  Please drop me a note or share a comment with your own observations.