Rule 5: Promote the Organization, Not Yourself

Rule 5: Promote the Organization, Not Yourself


start sidebar

Do you actively seek personal recognition through self-promotion?

Yes: 28 percent

No: 72 percent

end sidebar

The question of self-promotion is a tricky one—and one about which there is less of a consensus than in other areas I investigated. There are a number of highly successful CEOs and top professionals who are shameless self-promoters. In business, Donald Trump and Hugh Hefner come to mind. In the legal arena, F. Lee Bailey and Johnny Cochran seem to fit the same bill. Don King, the boxing promoter, has publicly acknowledged and demonstrated (about a million times) that self-promotion is a very important part of his professional identity.

But not all self-promoters are flamboyant showmen like Donald Trump and Don King. Even the sincere, mild-mannered top medical researcher, Dr. Joshua Korzenik, acknowledged that in the field of medical research, self-promotion is critical because one key to success is getting grant money. And the art of "grantsmanship," as Dr. Korzenik puts it, necessarily involves a degree of self-promotion—as distasteful as it is to him. In fact, a sizeable percentage—over a quarter—of the people I interviewed for this book confided to me—some off the record—that self-promotion is an important part of professional success.

On the other hand, many top executives shun the spotlight and dislike those who seek it. "Those who promote themselves have got a strike against them even if they are good at what they do," says Sam Fox, the low-key owner of the Harbour Group, whom I discussed above. "Because the question becomes: Who is this guy, who is he really looking out for? Is he a fighter pilot looking out for himself, or is he a team player with the company's interests at heart?" Fox asks. Richard Bell, the longtime CEO of the highly successful international engineering firm HDR, Inc., puts it even more bluntly: "Self-promotion is a dead end. It destroys you. It destroys the opportunity that could be in front of you." Others who seem to fall into the camp of top executives who shun self-promotion include the late Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, and Ken Chenault, the CEO of American Express.

So what is the answer? There is a way to reconcile the apparent conflict between those who favor self-promotion and those who reject it. Let's analyze the situation in greater detail.

Only Owners and Founders Get Away with Self-Promotion

To understand the relationship between self-promotion and professional success, I went to one of the great anomalies I know in the business world, Jack Schmitt. He owns an impressive collection of automobile dealerships across Southern Illinois—Ford, Chevrolet, Nissan, Cadillac, you name it—the annual sales of which were $168 million in 2001. Yet, after more than forty years in the car business, he has never one time appeared in the thousands of television commercials for his dealerships—probably a first for an auto dealer.

I asked Jack about the importance of self-promotion in business, and he made a few valuable observations, which were echoed in whole or in part by many of the other top executives I interviewed. First, according to Jack, the only people who can get away with extensive self-promotion are those who founded and/or own their own businesses. If you own the company, those who depend upon you for their income will always encourage you to promote yourself. In fact, it is common wisdom among business owners that sooner or later your advertising agency is going to recommend that you, the owner (or your children), should appear in the television commercials promoting the company. It is always the safe route for outsiders to tell the owner that he or she or the owner's beautiful daughter should be on television. It strokes the owner's ego and it eliminates the need for more creative approaches to selling the product or service.

One ad executive told me—on condition of anonymity, for obvious reasons—that he deliberately crafted an ad campaign about a dog when he learned that his client and the client's wife were childless, but they were almost religiously devoted to their poodle. The ad executive told the owner about the dog idea and then let the client come up with the idea to cast his poodle as the dog in the campaign. So, sure, you see a lot of business owners engaged in blatant acts of self-promotion.

But is it really the route to the top? Not usually. Jack Schmitt noted that employees and customers generally react with smiling indifference to a business owner who constantly self-promotes. People laugh at the stories of Hugh Hefner appearing on camera every ten minutes in a bathrobe surrounded by three girlfriends with a combined age less than his, and they snicker at Donald Trump staging publicity stunts at just about every public event that he can. If you act like that, you get nicknames like "The Donald" but no one really hates you for it. Overt self-promotion by business founders and owners does not really help the business, but it doesn't hurt either. It is just a silly ego trip for the boss and his or her family.

Schmitt notes that if, on the other hand, you do not own your business—even if you are the CEO—the owners and the board of directors to whom you report will look less kindly on self-promotion. By plastering your own picture all over magazines or television, you appear to put your personal interests above those of the entity—a perception that has cost thousands of talented people their careers. This principle applies not only to CEOs, but to mid-level executives as well. If you are constantly trying to get in the company newsletter or take credit for a company success, those around you will resent the efforts you have made to be in the spotlight. The resentment will build to a point where people secretly hope that you fall from your perch, and, in those circumstances, no one will lift a finger to help you if you encounter some professional trouble.

In the case of professionals (as opposed to business owners or corporate employees), self-promotion can get you some notoriety, but often the process backfires miserably. For example, you frequently see publicity-hound lawyers on CNN. Check the court records and you will find that judges skewer them in court on a regular basis. The judges hold all the cards in litigation, and, as one federal judge recently confided to me, they often feel the need to put haughty celebrity lawyers in their place to remind them that the court of law and the court of the media are two very different places. As part of my research for this book, I studied court opinions relating to cases handled by a couple of celebrity lawyers, and found that these lawyers have lost an average of 75 percent of their cases in the last five years—statistical confirmation of the anecdotes that judges and lawyers have given me. Publicity is like a fire—bright and flashy, but difficult to contain and capable of consuming you.