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When 240 senior leaders of a Silicon Valley tech company were asked to name the factors that got them promoted to their level, one eclipsed all others, and it wasn’t professional expertise, delivering business results or leadership skills.
Visibility was the most important factor in their advancement.
Another study found that women who were the most proactive in making their achievements visible advanced further, had greater career satisfaction and were more likely to attract sponsors. And making achievements known was the only career advancement strategy associated with pay increases.
So why is visibility so hard to get right?
Of 1,200 workshop participants I surveyed, almost all women, only 60 percent were actively taking steps to make people aware of their accomplishments. And it wasn’t for lack of desire.
Having their value and contributions recognized was the No. 1 most common challenge my workshop participants cited. Hands down, end of story.
On the other hand, we’ve all worked with people who, to put it mildly, overdid the self-promotion. They hog the limelight, inflate their contributions, claim others’ work as their own and divert attention away from the people who make real, substantive contributions.
But the gravest injustice of all this? They create the impression that it’s somehow sleazy to celebrate your own excellence and achievements.
So it’s understandable if you decided “I never wanted to be like that” and stopped drawing attention to your work. Finding the right, balanced approach can be confusing as heck.
Making achievements visible is a vital advancement strategy, especially for women, who often need to go to greater lengths to prove their competence.
There’s a further complication, though, and it’s more fraught because it’s gender specific.
It’s been well documented that women tend to be reluctant to share their own accomplishments, and at the same time they are eager to celebrate and promote someone else’s.
This reluctance is not a personal failing as much as it is a rational response to cultural norms.
While assertive self-advocacy lines up nicely with the long-standing stereotype of the ambitious male go-getter, some studies show that when women demonstrate identical behaviors, they elicit negative reactions for failing to show stereotypical “feminine traits” — such as being humble, nurturing, and collaborative.
As a result of this disapproval, some women miss out on leadership opportunities.
In some organizations, women face an exasperating double bind: self-advocate, and be sidelined for lacking social skills. Fail to self-advocate, and have your competence questioned.
Not surprisingly women who fear this backlash are less vocal in claiming credit for their work.
If you’ve become wary of spotlighting your successes, this gender-bias penalty might be the culprit. Evaluate whether this backlash is your reality.
If you suspect the problem is not you, it’s the culture, I’ve included a list of nine workaround strategies below for ways to raise your visibility without the backlash.
And if you’re someone who’s accrued some significant influence and respect in your organization, you’re in a strong position to become a game changer, by using your clout to publicly recognize other women and what they’ve done.
If you’re willing to stick your neck out, you can make a difference, bust biases and shift your organization’s culture.
When influential women lead by example and encourage others to assertively call attention to their performance, it becomes expected, rewarded and normalized.
Amplify your accomplishments
In a perfect world, we’d all be unapologetically vocal about what we do well, but that’s not always possible.
If your gut or your real-world experience tells you that’s not going to fly, or if it feels awkward or inauthentic, that’s OK. I trust your judgment, and you should, too.
There are plenty of ways to make your value visible without triggering the backlash some women face when they overtly self-promote.
How? Don’t cave to cultural expectations.
Weaponize them by taking full advantage of the stereotype of women as selfless and communal workers. Call it “stealth-promotion,” not “self-promotion.”
Here are nine ways to ensure that your voice is heard, your brand is visible and your accomplishments get acknowledged.
- Create a presentation on best practices to share with other teams.
- Ask for a spot on a meeting agenda to share updates, knowledge or lessons learned.
- Give a webinar or lunchtime talk, and include examples of your work.
- Remind people you’re always happy to answer questions about your area of expertise.
- Team up with a group of colleagues and nominate each other for awards and recognition.
- Create “forwardable praise,” a glowing email about team accomplishments to forward up the management chain.
- Start meetings by asking each individual to share a recent accomplishment or best practice.
- Write five recommendations for others on LinkedIn. (I can pretty much guarantee someone will write one for you in return.)
- Put together a presentation on a team win or best practices. Bring others along to co-present it to management, in a learning session or to other groups.
Adapted from “Woman of Influence: 9 Steps to Build Your Brand, Establish Your Legacy and Thrive,” (McGraw-Hill, 2019) by Jo Miller, CEO of Be Lederly; @jo_miller.