Women and the Art of Self-Marketing

For many women, self-marketing can be a challenge. This is because women often underplay the value of what they bring to the table—their skills, their insights, their achievements, their capacity to lead. This kind of modesty has often held women back in organizations, but the need to use social media professionally makes it overcoming a reluctance to self-market more important.
I first got a picture of how this reluctance created problems when I worked on a study of women partners in professional service firms, such as law, accounting, investment banking and consulting. When I asked the women partners about the strengths of younger women in their firms, most of them said that the younger women did outstanding work: meticulous, dependable, A-plus” were typical descriptions.

When I asked the women partners what the younger women were worst at, their responses were also consistent: “They are worst at letting people know about the quality of the work they do.’
I tested this out on the younger women to see if it resonated for them. Most agreed that it did. “I’m just not comfortable blowing my own horn” was a typical response. Though I see evidence that this is improving in my work with women in organizations, I still routinely hear women describe themselves as poor self promoters.

I’ve been pretty good at helping clients address this roadblock because I too have a voice in my head which suggests that promoting myself is somehow unbecoming. A part of me is always hoping that other people will recognize my contributions without my having to do the work of drawing their notice.

It would be nice if the world worked this way, but it rarely does. If we want to be recognized in an increasingly crowded and hectic environment, we have to take responsibility for making it happen.
This has always been true in organizations, but now it’s also true in a much bigger arena—the expanded professional space that social media provides. Social media offers every one of us a forum for letting the world know what we have to offer, a means for building a public professional profile based on our actual achievements and blasting it out to the world.

Empty bragging of course gets notoriously punished in the social media space, sometimes in withering comments and sometimes by generating a lot of “hide this post” clicks. But digital hot-dogging is not the same as reality-based representation of real achievements, skills and legitimate honors.

They key is finding the midpoint between overly modest self-effacement and tiresome and relentless self-congratulation. It’s a tough sweet spot to find but we can do so if we make a clear distinction between self-marketing and self-promotion.

My friend Marshall Goldsmith, the famous coach, talks a lot about self-marketing. He points out that if you had a product you thought was terrific, you’d want people to know about it because you’d figure that knowing about it would be of benefit to them. If Frontline Plus got rid of your dog’s ticks you wouldn’t be shy about sharing the news—you’d want people to have the information so they could do what’s right for their dogs.

And if you were the manufacturer of Frontline Plus, you wouldn’t just hope people found out about it on their own, you’d want to help them do so. You’d need to be accurate and avoid ridiculous claims—and you’d need to avoid bombarding people with unwanted solicitations and information. But you’d want to make sure people got the message.

The same principal applies to what we are genuinely good at in our professional lives. Giving people accurate information is a kind of service. Sharing what we have to offer with the world in an honest and straightforward way that keeps it real is both a responsibility and a good thing. It’s not just blowing our own horn, it’s adding to the sum of the world’s information. As Ina Garten would say, what’s not to like?

2 thoughts on “Women and the Art of Self-Marketing”

  1. If the horn-tooting is framed as contributing something of value that changes the way we think, or behave, you take the focus off yourself and onto the value. This kind of self-promotion will rarely be mistaken for bragging. So like you Sally, I advise my clients to stop thinking about themselves, and look instead at what they’re doing that’s making a difference in the lives of others.

  2. Bravo Sally! Great post. I’d add that part of the problem is in an outmoded view of marketing that men AND women have. Fernando Flores nailed it: “Marketing is a conversation.” Bragging is not a conversation. One of the best ways to self market, IMHO, is to 1) engage in more conversations, more powerful public conversations and 2) make requests and offers based on the services/ideas/products that are of value. To wit, my favorite self marketing phrase is…”I have an idea for you.” And, sometimes it’s just enough to “show up.” I spent two days at a working group for the DoD recently — that allowed me to meet, connect, be part of, a whole new network of conversations. It wasn’t self marketing — it was being in a relevant eco-system and working on a common problem — but I guarantee I am having lots of NEW conversations as a result. :-)

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