3 ways to shed that icky feeling about self-promotion

A couple months ago, I attended a Levo League book club event for the book, Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn without Blowing It, by Peggy Klaus.  The book was a great primer on strategies you can use to promote your accomplishments in an authentic way, and I thought the book club was going to be a great forum to practice some of those strategies.  Instead, there was a lot of discussion around why it is so important to learn the art of self-promotion, but no one stepped up to actually try it.  Finally, the facilitator asked, “Why do we have such a hard time talking about ourselves?”  


It’s not because we don’t recognize its importance.  It’s not because we don’t know how.  It’s because of how it makes us feel.


Bragging.  Self-promotion.  Talking about your accomplishments.  How do you feel after reading these phrases?  Do you feel icky?  Do you feel disgust?  Maybe there’s a thread of frustrated obligation in there, too, like you know it’s something you should do, but for some reason you still resist it.  Why do all of these negative feelings come up?  I polled a number of people, and one response came up over and over again: “I don’t want to be so self-serving.”


Bingo.  No one wants to be a self-serving brag who talks about him/herself simply to promote their own agenda, and even worse, makes others feel less-than.  So how can you approach talking about yourself without turning into that kind of person?


Here are three mindset shifts that can show you how talking about yourself can be more about supporting others than about serving yourself.


Sharing more about yourself creates opportunities for deeper connection.  Countless times I’ve heard people answer the “So, what do you do?” question with just their job title.  That answer gives your listener very little fuel to propel the conversation further.  It’s almost like slamming a door in their face.  Don’t be rude; invite them in.  Go beyond your job title to talk about the impact your work makes.  Give them something they can get curious about, so that they can get to know you better.  Who knows, you may be the perfect person to help them in an area they need help with.  But neither of you may know that until you open the door.


Achievement is not a zero sum game.  When someone succeeds, there isn’t suddenly less success to go around.  When someone is good at something, it doesn’t make everyone else around them worse.  And yet, some people feel this way when they hear others talk about what they’ve done.  It is that myth that keeps people silent about their accomplishments.  So, help bust the myth.  The next time someone shares about what they’ve accomplished, understand that it doesn’t take anything away from you.  And when you fear how others may feel if you share about your success, understand that it doesn’t necessarily take anything away from them.  Give yourself permission to shine, and you’ll give others permission as well.


Being open about your accomplishments will ultimately pave the way to opportunities to help more people.  Maybe you have a unique message to share.  Or you have valuable expertise that can help others in their work.  Whatever your genius is, there are people out there that need it.  But no one will know to give you the stage unless you share about your genius.  Your manager won’t know to give you more responsibility until you share stories about what you’ve done to build her trust in you.  You may be the exact change-maker your organization needs, but you won’t land the job or the promotion to lead more people unless you are vocal about what you are capable of.  There are people out there who need you.  Talking about what you can contribute will be the key to earning the platform to connect with them.


You were put here to make a difference.  You have some gift that can help others.  However, no one will know how you can help or what difference you can make unless you tell them.  In marketing, that’s called positioning.  So, have the courage to position yourself as the resource that you are.

What to do when you feel like you are not moving forward

If you had to point in the direction of progress, which direction would you point? If you had to draw it on a piece of paper, what would it look like? It might look like an arrow pointing to the right, or diagonally up and to the right. Forward. Onward. Upward.

Alison Levine, a woman who has climbed to the highest peak on every continent and skied to both the north and south poles, thinks differently.  Alison was sharing some of the leadership lessons she learned from climbing Mount Everest at yesterday’s Invent Your Future conference in Silicon Valley.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

There are multiple camps along the path to the summit, but Alison explained that climbing to the top is not a matter of starting at the bottom and then progressively climbing higher and higher, stopping at each subsequent camp. In fact, it looks more like this.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

So, even though the objective is to climb to the top, a significant proportion of your time is spent going back down to basecamp. The first time you reach one of the camps, the purpose is to help your body acclimate itself to the altitude. But, at that altitude, the human body begins deteriorating, so you need to go back down to base camp in order to rest and regain your strength to climb even higher.

“Even though you are going backwards, you are still making progress.”

This is a difficult lesson to digest for those who are used to always moving onward and upward. My clients often talk about how they are dissatisfied with their lack of forward movement, want to make the best use of their time, or don’t want to waste their time.

It may sound counter-intuitive to have to climb back down the mountain after reaching each camp. But it is only counter-intuitive if you think that reaching the summit is the singular objective. However, there is another, more important objective in play: to stay alive, both before and after reaching the summit. When you bring that objective into focus, taking the time to keep climbing back down to basecamp makes sense.

Sometimes we Type-A folks forget that there are other objectives in play. It’s easy to cling to objectives that are visible and measurable, like ascending titles, degrees earned, or salary. It can be more difficult to retain a focus on other objectives like health, fulfillment, and nurturing our relationships with loved ones, until we are sick, unhappy, or painfully absent.

So, if you don’t feel like you’re moving forward, I encourage you to take some time to examine your objectives. Ask yourself:
1) What is the objective you don’t feel like you’re making progress against?
Is the way you’re currently spending your time helping to make you better able to achieve that objective? (If not, then ask)
2) Is that truly the only goal you are working toward right now? What are the other things that are important to you?
Is what you’re doing now fulfilling these other areas of your life that are important? (If not, then ask:)
3) What can you do right now to nurture your ability to achieve any of these objectives going forward?

“Progress is not just one direction. It can happen in many different directions.” It really depends on your objective, that thing which you are trying to achieve. And, it depends on what you need personally to cultivate the strength to go after your goals.

Want to read more about Alison’s lessons learned from climbing Mt. Everest? Check out her book, On The Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership

A low-risk way to stop selling yourself short

For years, I refrained from disclosing details about my education unless asked directly.  I was always afraid someone would think I was “bragging” and wouldn’t like me if I mentioned that I have an engineering degree from Stanford and an MBA from UC Berkeley.

It wasn’t until I attended a conference in Lean Startup principles that I decided to do something different.

“Oh, I’m sorry.  I thought you were younger than you must be.”

It was the thousandth time I’ve heard that.  Over the course of the conversation it came out that I had earned my MBA four years ago, which would put me in my thirties, instead of the barely-drinking-age that I look.

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Walking away from being unhealthy, unhappy, and fat

ImageMy neighbor: I was unhappy, unhealthy, and fat. But I still didn’t leave. I couldn’t.

My neighbor was telling me how she finally decided to take a sabbatical from her job.

My neighbor: I knew things were bad. Really bad. I was working crazy hours, I was stressed out all the time, I barely saw my partner or my kids, and when I did, I wasn’t really there with them. The stress of my job would follow me home. I dreamed of leaving my job, but I didn’t. How could I? I was C-level exec at a major pharmaceutical company. It wasn’t until my doctor told me that my job was slowly killing me, like literally, my health was at stake, that I decided I had to do something different. Continue reading

5 Secrets to Getting Promoted

The goal of any university’s career counseling centers is simple: ensure that students find a job after graduation.  But what happens after students get that first job?  What do they need to do to next?


Thank goodness the first company I worked for had a week-long orientation for new hires in order to help set us up for success once we started work.  Yet, despite the 40+ hours of training I sat through that week, the most valuable training I received came to me at the happy hour at the end of the week.  One of the managers gathered a handful of new hires around him to tell us exactly what we would need to do to move up in the company.

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How to find a mentor

Mentorship has been popping up in my life a lot lately.  In the past two weeks, I’ve attended the 10-year anniversary for Stanford’s alumni-student mentoring program, met with my own mentor of 16 years, had dinner with my mentee of 6 years, and volunteered to be a mentor at UC Berkeley’s Women Empowerment Day.

It was at that last event that one of the young women asked a great question:  In the absence of formal mentoring programs, how do I find a mentor?


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Universally useful skills that you should develop

“Knowing what you know now about the skills required to do your job, what would you advise students to learn while they are still in school?”

I was at an alumni-student networking event geared toward humanities and science majors who were interested in careers in the public service sector.  Most of the other people in the room had studied things like psychology, history, biology, and literature.  I felt a little out of place, as the lone engineering alum in the room, but I had come as a representative from industries that do hire humanities majors.

I’m used to answering this question for students interested in pursuing a career in the fields in which I have experience, consulting, marketing, general management, and non-profit.  However, there were students at my table who were interested in paths I had no experience in, like healthcare and research.  I quickly tried to think of an answer that would be relevant to this particular audience.  The next alum to speak, agreed wholeheartedly that the skills I mentioned were extremely useful in her daily work.  This surprised me, as her work as a mental health counselor is very different from what I do on a daily basis as an operations manager.  Maybe I really had hit on some universally useful skills.  Here is what I had told the audience.

There are a handful of skills that have served me well throughout the different jobs I’ve held in the past 10 years:

Listen to what people need.  Dig for the issues that really matter.  Know how to break big things into smaller manageable pieces.  Be able to communicate with people outside of your peer group.


These are some of the basic blocks of problem solving.  No matter where you go, nor matter what you do, you will encounter problems.  And at some point in time, someone will look to you to solve them.  Regardless of what type of problem it is, taking the time to hone these skills will help you in your career.

Listen to what people need.  Most of the time, you will need perspectives other than your own to comprehensively evaluate a situation.  Talk to others to view the problem from multiple different angles.  What are the pain points they face?  Solutions are of no use if the don’t address actual needs felt by the people involved.

Dig for the issues that really matter.  My college advisor once told me, “What people say they want and what they actually need are not necessarily the same thing.”  Often it’s because it’s impossible to give everyone what they want.  But it’s much more feasible to get most people what they need.  Zoom in on what’s really important.

Know how to break big things into smaller manageable pieces.  If the problem feels overwhelmingly large, it’s difficult to move forward.  Divide it into chunks.  The pieces will be easier to tackle, because you can either take them on one at a time by yourself or delegate them out to others.

Be able to communicate with people outside of your peer group.  More specifically, learn to communicate with the folks two levels above you.  There will be times when you will seek their input, approval, and/or recognition, and you will need to present your case clearly and concisely.

How to impress your boss

Shortly after I started working, someone gave me one of the most useful pieces of advice I received early on in my career:

If you really want to please your boss, make their job easier.

Being recognized as a good employee takes more than just working hard and doing what you’re asked.  This became especially clear to me when I became and manager and had different kinds of people reporting to me.  As your manager, my job is to provide you with the guidance and resources you need to produce quality work, which I am ultimately responsible for.  Sure, you could be a hard worker. 

But if I have to expend a lot of time, effort, and extra thought to get you to do the job I need you to do, you can be a pain to manage.

So, how do you become the worker that is pleasant to manage?  There are a few things you can do.

Save them time.   Do you have regular check-in meetings?  Come with an agenda.  Have a lot of questions?  Consolidate them into a list and get them answered all at once instead of peppering your boss with questions throughout the day.  If you’re accompanying them to a meeting, offer to take notes.  Record major points made, key questions raised, and next steps, then send them your notes.  Your boss is a busy person, and they will appreciate your organization and efficiency.

Tell them what you need.  Your boss is ultimately responsible for the quality and completeness of your work.  If you aren’t making adequate progress, identify what’s holding you up.  You could need more clarification, guidance, training, input, feedback, or a decision?  It’s better to proactively ask for what you need than to leave them wondering why you haven’t gotten the job done.

Come with an answer.  Where possible,offer a hypothesis and ask whether they agree instead of asking open-ended questions.  For example, “I think I should do x,y,z.  Do you agree?” is a lot easier to answer than “What should I do?”  By coming with a point of view, you relieve them from the burden of having to fully think through something from scratch.

Keep them in the loop.  If something has gone wrong, or if you think you won’t hit a deadline, raise the issue sooner rather than later.  Your boss will be a lot more forgiving when they have enough time to react to problems rather than when it’s too late to do anything.

Speaking from a manager’s point of view, if you are the employee who makes your boss’ job easy, you become the person they enjoy working with.  You are the one they always want on their team.  You are invaluable.  There’s a high likelihood that they will do what they can to keep you happy, so that they can keep you.  And that’s a good place to be.

How to answer the question “What kind of job are you looking for?”

***DISCLAIMER: The following dialogue is a dramatization, and in no way reflects how much whining my boyfriend did in the early stages of his job search.***

“So, what kind of job are you looking for?”

“Arrrrrrrrrgh!  I don’t know.  Why do you keep asking me that?”

My boyfriend, now employed, told me that getting him to answer that question was the single most helpful thing I did during the months I coached him through his search for a full-time job.

“So, what kind of job are you looking for?”

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.  I just want to find a job.”

Well, babe, it’s kinda hard to find something when you don’t know what you’re looking for.  More importantly, it’s especially hard for someone to help you find something when you can’t define what it is you want to find.  Continue reading

Putting it out there

About a month ago, my little sister came over to hang out and tell me “something big” about what she has planned for this year.

“So, how’s your job?”

“It’s great.  I’m loving my job!”

“You’re loving it?  But, aren’t you back working the same job you quit 6 months ago?”

“Yeah, but it’s a little different.  It’s always different when I come back from quitting.  They change all of the things I didn’t like about the job before I quit.”

This was the third time my sister has quit that job, and the third time she’s gone back to it.  She’s really good at her job, and her boss knows it.  I’m not sure he would know what to do if she were to quit for real.

“Ok, so what’s you’re big news?”
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