Based upon the observations of Jack Schmitt and others, it would seem that self-promotion is not usually a means to professional invincibility and often sows the seeds of failure. But here is where the tension lies. Not less than ten of the top executives I interviewed said words to the effect that "you cannot be successful unless people know you are doing a good job." Many competent people toil away in oblivion because others get credit for their successes. That leads to a simple question: how can you make your accomplishments known without becoming a despised self-promoter?
The answer is "entity embodiment." Several CEOs and CFOs told me that you have to become the symbol of the organization. You do not promote yourself; rather, you are chosen to represent the talents, abilities, and accomplishments of the company or organization as a whole. For example, both William C. Ford Jr. and August Busch IV are featured prominently in advertising campaigns for their companies. They of course can get away with it because their families founded the business. But, more important, they use their platform to discuss the history and heritage of their companies, the processes by which their products are made, and the importance of the people who work there. They come across as low-key, soft-spoken, and very modest spokespeople for the product and the people whom they embody. They are not promoting themselves; they have become symbols of their companies. That is the critical difference between a successful self-promoter and an unsuccessful one.
This philosophy applies to everyone else who aspires to be a top manager or professional. People who are the driving force behind a company's success always ensure that they are the spokesperson through whom the success is recognized, but they never mention themselves. They always give credit to others—particularly their bosses, according to leading banker and St. Louis Cardinals owner Drew Baur. They mention their company name often when interviewed. They freely refer to others in the organization—often giving them more credit than they really deserve. "They substitute the word 'we' for the word 'me' wherever possible," as Congressman Richard Gephardt put it.
The person giving the credit to others always benefits the most because that person (1) delivers the message and (2) ingratiates himself or herself to others by giving them credit. As long as you visualize yourself as the embodiment of the positive aspects of your company, you will naturally become the center of attention and will never have to force the issue with overt self-promotion.
Similarly, effective self-promoters never develop protective relationships with customers, clients, or suppliers, according to Bill Stowers, a top Boeing vice president in charge of managing hundreds of supplier relationships. Rather, they manage a relationship between their company and the other companies. For example, they volunteer to participate in training and presentations, to organize joint marketing sessions and award ceremonies, and they use these opportunities to introduce other employees of their company to the customer.
Norma Clayton, the top Boeing official we met earlier, never sits at the head of the table in a meeting with customers, suppliers, or the people who report to her. "In fact, I always lower my chair down a level," she said, so that her head is below everyone else's. They know she is the boss, so she uses these tactics to create better "transparency and dialogue" during her meetings. Earl Graves, the publisher of Black Enterprise magazine and a member of the board of directors of several major companies, also said that he will not sit at the head of a table during a meeting. That makes him more a part of the "entity," not an island of authority.
"You want to be the switching station that gets information and people from your company to theirs and vice versa; but you can never become a roadblock or the tension within your organization will build until that block is broken—usually at your expense," says Jack Schmitt. "I call it 'flipping the M.' Turn the Me into We, and that kind of self-promotion is just fine."
What you cannot do, confirms Doug Bain of Boeing, is "talk about yourself and take credit for the team." That approach might make you feel like you are doing well, but ultimately it will shorten your career, according to Bain—among others. They all agree that self-promoters can do well at the lower and middle rungs of the organization because standing out is half the battle. Once the spotlight turns to you, however, you better be a team player all the way. "If your actions are good enough, people will notice them, and they will not need your embellishment and your constant spin on them," Bain adds.