The Art of Self Promotion

...A necessary Competency (Evil?) in Corporate/Business life!

From where I sit "Politics" is the most negatively destructive force on earth compared to which nothing else runs close.

Reality is of course that whenever you gather a group of people together anywhere in the world, politics seems to become a natural disease which once caught quickly spreads its viral impact throughout the group. It happens in clubs, associations, special interest groups, industry and professional associations, in every aspect of the work place, in religions, in fact, everywhere people are drawn together supposedly to work for an agreed cause, purpose or to achieve articulated goals & objectives....it's a human thing! Generally speaking in a business situation, the larger the organisation the greater the impact politics plays in the lives of those who work there.

It's been said that Executives and Managers in very large organisations and businesses spend approximately 40% of their total working time protecting their patch, working the politics and self promoting to ensure they retain and/or enhance their positions.

One of the key attributes in building a successful career therefore is to quickly learn and develop the art of wholeheartedly embracing the culture of the company or organisation you are employed by, not by fighting against it or participating in the "grizzles & groans club"- staying as clear as you possibly can from the politics, and importantly setting the example to those around you through consistently high work standards and performance.

Easy right !!!??? ....no!!! At times it is actually quite hard, particularly when the behaviour of others (Often quite deliberate) negatively impacts upon you both personally and professionally and on your ability to think, act and perform at the level required to do well.

A long held belief used to be, that if you performed at a consistently high level and made a real contribution wherever you were working, your efforts and performance would be recognised, acknowledged and rewarded accordingly. "Promotion would surely follow".

Whilst that may still be partly correct, anecdotal evidence has taught me that time & place, working "smart" and ones  ability to self promote ( openly or with subtlety) are the keys to doing well, particularly in  large organisations or corporate environments.

Not that long ago I was employed by a large NASDAQ listed multinational as head of its business in Perth, Western Australia. During this period our company name changed three times and in the end, not quite knowing what to do with us, our worldwide business unit was subsequently "spun off" by the Holding company. This action created some interesting behaviours as people at all levels "jockeyed for position" in a culture which had since the initial "Merger" some three years earlier , progressively(more often than not) rewarded and promoted "flashy self promoters" not necessarily those  credible  leaders, performers and meaningful contributors to the company.

As the newly "spun off" organisation proceeded through the change process and as the best "Self Promoters" more often than not (Sometimes the very worst people for promotion) ended up in newly created or more senior roles, I made the following observations viz:

  • The company quickly developed a high degree of operational and administrative complexity which in turn created a disproportionate level of "Grey" within the business-large voids for which no-one appeared to have accountability or responsibility, confusion reigned, indeed it was actively encouraged by some!
  • The impact on those outstanding individuals (many of whom were not strong self promoters or were considered too modest) a number of who in my view should have been appointed to certain roles ahead of others and would have made a real difference was huge. This resulted in a very demoralised, confused and frustrated culture.
  • Staff Churn/Turnover climbed to a massive 46% at its worst and remained at around 40% for the next two years. Not a good look for a supposedly leading Recruitment and Human Capital Consulting business.
  • Experience, knowledge and a significant degree of the intellectual property of the company disappeared at an alarming rate as the exodus of talented Executives, Managers, Consultants and Support people continued.
  • It got so bad that the Executive subsequently turned its focus to and regularly reported on "retention rates" as opposed to Staff churn in order to disguise the reality.
  • Group revenues in Australasia rapidly slumped from close to $750m PA to less than $600m in a market which had not markedly changed.
  • Business units were blaming Corporate Office for poor results and Corporate Office were blaming the business units.
  • The inane focus on internal issues and micro managed reporting and financial requirements meant that everyone became so far removed from our clients that we almost had no time to provide them with the high level of service so essential in a professional services consulting firm.
  • I was struck by the time and how much of each day people throughout the entire business spent mired in internal meetings focussed on internal issues.
  • Decision making authority and the degree of operating autonomy which had made the company so successful in the past was quickly reigned in - "following instructions" as opposed to ‘leading" became the order of the day.
  • To get some reality around many of the decisions coming from New York required us slicing the announcements and the numbers in half and then dividing that figure by ten ...even then there were exaggerations! People will only put up with so much obvious corporate "fluff" and "spin".
  • "Keeping the analysts happy" appeared to take on more importance than keeping our clients happy! As a consequence we were rapidly losing touch with our clients and were too often working on initiatives clients did not want or need.
  • Those who questioned decisions or made suggestions for improvement were classified as being old fashioned, resistant to change, anti progress, negative or conservative.
  • No-one on the Executive seemed to stop to think why so many bright and knowledgeable people were questioning and/or challenging the way things were being done.
  • Decisions or courses of action were predominantly pre-determined and prescriptive. More often than not, those responsible for acting on and implementing those decisions were never asked for input or opinion let alone given the chance to put forward possible alternative options or variations.
  • The very few selected ideas, opinions or suggestions for improvement which were actually taken on board subsequently became claimed by those who would benefit most- usually without acknowledgment or recognition of the true initiator.
  • The company became so dominated by "the CFO and the Finance team" that many operational and client focussed decisions were made by what I believed were the wrong people. "Paralysis by Analysis "was alive and well.
  • Those who had won their appointments based purely on their ability to self promote (and believe me there were a disproportionate number of them) began to noticeably demonstrate significant defensive behaviours due to their own lack of business confidence and capability.
  • The "gifted self promoters" tended to be those working in closest proximity to the key decision makers who in turn continued to promote them; this of course progressively exacerbated the problem and the negative culture.
  • Alarmingly, the emergence and open endorsement of what I called "High Performing Inconsiderates" began to surface- these were people who achieved their results at any cost, very frequently at the expense of colleagues. These people compromised their own and the company's reputation through behaviours which were totally focused on ensuring that they would personally achieve high bonus levels! "Me-me-me ...to hell with everyone else be they clients or colleagues, to hell with integrity, to hell with the embedded values of the company, my remuneration is the only thing that matters to me" Obviously this behaviour became very destructive.
  • Many top performing people in the company-those who just put their heads down and quietly got on with the task at hand but who consistently overachieved in all areas of measurable performance, were subsequently taken for granted. Their results and contribution "became an assumed expectation" whilst at the same time, poor performers frequently went unchallenged or received a disproportionate level of support.
  • We tried to change too much and too fast which distracted us from running the everyday business with excellence.
  • As a result the Executive lost credibility due to their collective failure to "walk the walk and talk the talk ".
  • We had alarmingly and very quickly developed into what I described as: "A culture of corporate half wits!"

Phew!.........Sounds extreme doesn't it!

However, from experience and my anecdotal observations of business over many years, what I have described above is not uncommon at all; indeed; somewhat unfortunately it is all too common.

So, having said all of that, what recommendations do I have...after all the ability to self- promote is a very necessary competency at every level in today's business environment is it not?

Remember also, the world is not, never has been and never will be perfect or fair, therefore one's ability to put Politics into perspective, adopt a philosophical perspective and focus on what we can and do have control over -our attitude - is  most critical to success. 

Some thoughts and recommendations on the art of self promotion then:

  • Be confident, do not be afraid to confirm/ highlight your achievements and performance when asked or when the opportunity to do so arises.
  • Take care to quantify and explain these in simple terms around a framework and in a language which is meaningful to the company's business. That way any subsequent follow up check will readily confirm, verify and qualify the accuracy and validity of such achievement/s.( Don't get caught out by fabricating or exaggerating the facts or the situation).
  • Use selective subtlety where appropriate and do not be afraid to be assertive if the occasion demands it. E.G. This may mean asking a senior executive if they did in fact get to see or read "your report" (which was to be passed to them by a manager or person "more senior" than yourself).
  • Everyone has a responsibility to "stick up for themselves" when the occasion demands it. In any corporate or reasonably large working environment others will be only too happy to conveniently use you to advantage as part of their own self promotion strategy....when you see that happening act on it immediately do not let people do that to you!
  • Be pro-active in promoting your cause when you believe the situation requires .....But know how far to go and NEVER over do it! Get advice if you are unsure.
  • Identify and adopt a sponsor/supporter or mentor- life is too big to always go it on your own.
  • Be open to input & the suggestions of others, a GOOD idea of your own can be made into a GREAT outcome by a team! Promoting yourself as a team player can effectively double your career opportunities!
  • Do not sit back and "assume" that everybody is aware of or understands your achievements and/or capability. You need to be constantly alert in order to maximise any opportunity to explain yourself.
  • Associate with positive people, the right people in the organisation, those who make a difference, those who truly work diligently and constructively towards the best outcomes and results for the company.
  • Observe the behaviours of those around you who are successful in their careers and who you most admire and respect. Adopt and modify for yourself (Do not directly copy) where appropriate the characteristics and techniques they demonstrate. Again, do not be afraid to ask for advice or to seek direction.
  • Consistently demonstrate your energy and level of enthusiasm, enjoy and have fun doing what you do. Retaining a sense of humour is important.
  • Identify and make sure you truly understand and recognise your own strengths & weaknesses capitalise on how best your powers of persuasion can work for you. (Remember you cannot be good at everything!)
  • Focus on what you do well; do not concentrate on trying to "fix" those things you are not good at.
  • Above all else stay positive at all times, don't become susceptible to S.N.I.O.P syndrome (Subject to Negative Influences of Other People).
  • Avoid becoming a cynic -do not ever become bitter & twisted about anything-that approach impacts only upon you.
  • Either embrace the culture of and diligently work towards playing your part in assisting the organisation to achieve its business strategy, goals and objectives or leave your job and go and work somewhere else where there is a better fit.

The ability to self promote is an essential competency in any corporate or business environment, however, like everything else, it is the manner in which you go about it which makes the difference. Finally, self promotion will only take you so far, developing credibility through a demonstrably strong work ethic, setting high performance standards, making a contribution by embracing the value of teamwork and "earning the respect" of those around you are even more critical elements to success.

Barry T Knight


YSKER P.O. Box 27 Christchurch, New Zealand, Phone: +64 21 999 799
Email: barry.knight@ysker.com
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