Getting Ahead in Business: Blowing Your Own Horn

Elizabeth Black

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Do you find yourself being passed over for promotions at work? Have you ever wondered why the person chosen for a special project was selected instead of you? Many people in today’s workforce find themselves in this position repeatedly. They wonder what to do about it. Sometimes they complain to a co-worker or talk to their spouse, but, over time, they just chalk it up to someone being better than they are or in the “inner circle. "

Is this truly what is happening? It may be that there are other forces at work here—forces under the control of anyone who wants to get ahead in business.

When Sam, an accounting clerk at a large financial institution learned that his colleague had been promoted to a team leader of a high-visibility project in the A/P department, Sam decided that he would try to understand why he wasn’t chosen for this role. He asked to speak to the department manager to understand why he wasn’t even considered for the role. The department manager was surprised to learn of Sam’s interest in the team leader role. He said, “Our perception of you, Sam, is that you are a dedicated employee, but other than that, we don’t know much about you. However, we always need strong team leaders, so here’s some advice if you want to be considered for the next opportunity. "

To begin with, Sam was advised to inventory his skills and experience. Too often, weeks, months and years pass, and we keep doing our work, never stepping back to think about or to document the new skills we are learning or the experiences, which demonstrate our capabilities. When Sam thought about it, he realized that he had taken several desktop application courses and had joined Toastmasters to hone his public speaking skills. However, Sam never thought to put these skills on his resume or even that they might be useful to him in his current role. Yet, a team leader must use spreadsheet programs and presentation software, and the ability to lead meetings would definitely allow Sam to demonstrate his public speaking skills.

Sam was also advised to think about his career desires. What did he think he would enjoy doing? This was the interesting part to Sam. When he thought about it, he could easily see how his knowledge of accounting coupled with his ability to produce presentations and his confidence in giving the presentations could lead to a role in helping managers prepare their budget presentations or a role in training non-financial managers to understand the basics of financial reporting.

As Sam began to take his personal inventory, he was becoming clearer on what he had accomplished and in what direction he might like to go. He also found that documenting his inventory helped him think about his work assignments in new ways, and he began to feel that he had really accomplished more than he ever thought.

Sam knew, though, that simply updating his resume or skill inventory in the company database or in his professional resume wouldn’t be enough to open up new opportunities. Others had to know, too, so Sam asked for a second meeting with the A/P manager.

Sam’s second meeting was as helpful as the first. This time they focused upon who knows Sam and what he has done. He asked Sam to think about a time when he had accomplished something significant and was not acknowledged for the work. It didn’t take long for Sam to recall the meeting he had had with an HR manager who didn’t understand how to read and understand the company’s online general ledger package. Sam explained the package and helped the HR manager determine the most significant fields to analyze. While the HR manager had been very complimentary to Sam after Sam had helped the manager put together her executive presentation, other than an email of thanks the HR manager sent to Sam, no one else knew Sam’s contribution to this project. It wasn’t that the HR manager was withholding the credit or deliberately not talking about Sam’s help. She simply didn’t give it a thought. Her goal was to finish the presentation and, after all, she did send Sam an email expressing her thanks.

When Sam provided this example to the A/P manager, he said, “How do you expect anyone to know what you have done if you don’t tell them?" He went on to explain that he wouldn’t expect Sam to tell everyone that he had helped the HR manager, but that Sam should have let his direct manager know. He told Sam that it would have been appropriate for Sam to forward the thank you email to his manager, indicating what he had been asked to do to support the HR manager and explaining specifically and briefly what he had done. Sam would be letting his manager know that he enjoyed helping other colleagues in this way, and that he would be happy to get involved in working with and training other non-financial managers as well. He could also indicate that he had been taking additional training and that his career desires might make him a good candidate for other projects which he might not currently know about.

In hindsight, Sam might also have acknowledged the thank you email by sending a return email asking the HR manager to tell anyone else who may be looking for help in understanding the financial systems and turning them into presentations, that Sam would be a good person to reach out to. The A/P manager explained that this was sort of like getting a testimonial about your work from someone with whom you worked and who can speak about the quality of your work or your work habits. If he had truly done a good job, the recommendation should be easy to provide.

A few weeks later, Sam was surprised to see an email from his manager inviting him to a career discussion meeting. Sam’s manager had been in a meeting where he overheard two managers talking about how helpful Sam had been to the HR manager and recommending that anyone needing this type of help call Sam. Sam’s manager told Sam that he had no idea about these skills Sam had nor about Sam’s desire to take on projects other than what he was currently doing. During the meeting, Sam’s manager said, “If you don’t let your manager and others know that you are interested in other tasks and projects, how will we know?"

As Sam learned, people are often passed over for projects and even promotions because the right people do not know about their skills, desires and demonstrated successes. Many people, though, are shy of broadcasting what they can do or have done—blowing their own horn. They believe that if they do a good job, people will notice. If people notice, they will be asked to take on additional responsibilities, and, somehow, managers with job openings or new roles will find them. With the amount of work and the time pressures on everyone in the business world today, this is a bit like leaving your career up to chance.

Letting others know about what you can and want to do, if done right, is really personal marketing. Just as you wouldn’t try a new product, without hearing something about it or knowing some specifics about it, you wouldn’t ask someone to work on a project or take a new role, without some information. If you truly have skills that you wish to use and you take care not to broadcast with arrogance, you will have learned the art of “blowing your own horn" and you may just get ahead. Projects can lead to promotions—if only people know about you.


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