Bragging Myths We Live and Die By
It ain't bragging if you done it.
A JOB WELL DONE
SPEAKS FOR ITSELF
It's not my father's workplace anymore, or even the one many of your
mothers may have entered in the 1970s or '80s. The days of job
security in exchange for loyalty and hard work are long gone. For
most, this isn't news. Yet many of us fail to recognize the value of
self-promotion in maneuvering today's volatile and unpredictable
Given the constant changes-mergers, management shifts,
downsizing-you simply must let people in the organization know who
you are and what you are accomplishing. Otherwise you'll be passed
over for promotions, in succession planning, or when the company is
determining the best performers during layoffs.
Even if you're an ace at keeping your boss up to speed, remember, he
or she might be gone tomorrow. You need to cover all your bases and
stand out in the eyes of your boss' boss and that boss' boss and all
the bosses right up to the big boss. Your mission is made even more
challenging when you consider what the Information Age has wrought:
people who are overwhelmed by the daily on-slaught of e-mails, voice
mails, faxes, phone calls, and meetings upon meetings. They have
little-to-no time or any real need to pay special attention to you.
Planting for the Future
As important as those on the inside of your company are for your
survival, those on the outside are just as significant: recruiters,
industry associates, personal friends and acquaintances, even your
competitors. Even seemingly stable companies can collapse overnight.
Just look at Enron and Arthur Andersen, among many others.
Good self-promoters know this: They're always planting seeds for the
future. Karen, forty-two, a division head for a major global food
corporation, is a good example. At an informal gathering, when asked
how long she had been in the business and what she did, instead of
the typical "I've worked with my company for fifteen years and run
its dairy division," she responded:
Who ever thought I'd be in the food industry, especially after my
mom forced me all those years to eat Cheez Whiz? [Everyone at the
table erupted with laughter.] It must have been fate, but after I
graduated with my MBA from Columbia, I got a call from a friend who
told me about a few interesting openings. I began working for my
company in 1985 in brand management, working my way up to marketing
Two years ago, one of the company's other divisions was really in
the hole and they gave me the assignment of turning it around. I
didn't really know where to start, so I began talking to people on
the floor. A lot of them had great ideas. From there, I got
everyone involved and formed teams to pull in the various
disciplines and put together a strategic vision. Today, I am the
proud head of a dairy division that is number two in profitability
Smart self-promoters show up prepared. They value face time with
others and are always ready with stories about themselves that break
through the verbal clutter. They know that positive regard from
others isn't going to "just happen" on job interviews, at
performance appraisals, during presentations, or at networking
functions. And it's unlikely to "just happen" by marching into the
CEO's office and asking for an appointment to discuss how wonderful
you are. It's not going to happen unless you make it happen, and the
crhme-de-la-crhme opportunities to self-promote are going to come
your way when you least expect them.
BRAGGING IS SOMETHING YOU DO DURING
April 5, 2002: I am on a plane bound from New York to San Francisco
and the thirty-something guy sitting next to me just blew it: He
missed a golden opportunity to sell himself and his company.
We had struck up a conversation and were happily chatting away about
living in San Francisco when I asked him, "So what is it that you
do?" "I'm a management consultant," he replied. He didn't continue,
so I tried to engage him more by asking, "What's your specialty in
management consulting?" "Telecommunications," he responded, followed
again by dead silence. I took on the exercise of seeing if I could
pull out some more information asking, "Who do you do it for?" He
named one of the top five management-consulting firms, then stopped
cold. I was just about to ask another question when something inside
me snapped. I thought to myself, I'm not asking a fourth question.
I've done enough digging. He's not making it interesting or fun for
me to talk with him.
The first response from many clients hearing about this casual
airplane encounter is to rattle off possible reasons why this fellow
wasn't more forthcoming. Maybe he was tired, or reluctant to start
tooting his own horn on an airplane, afraid that he might divulge
sensitive information to prying ears, possibly a competitor's. While
sometimes that may be true, in this case we were already having a
conversation. So the point is, the road traveled by a lackluster
self-promoter is paved with missed opportunities. You need to act
like your best self even with strangers on airplanes and even when
you don't feel like it. Before you quickly slam shut the book
claiming this is exactly the reason you didn't go into sales,
consider the following: Mr. Telecommunications didn't know who I
I might have been a CTO of a company that could have used his
consulting services. I might have been a recruiter who could come in
handy one day when he'd gotten axed or one who was currently placing
a specialist in the hottest new company in Silicon Valley. He didn't
know that, in fact, I am a consultant who works with Fortune 500
firms and could possibly introduce him to an executive of a company
that could have become a major new account. He never found out.
I wasn't asking him to reveal the location of the Holy Grail. I was
simply asking that he tell me more about himself. If he had engaged
me and talked about what he did and got me excited about it, I might
have been a good future contact. I might have handed him some
business. At the very least, I would have remembered his story.
HUMILITY GETS YOU NOTICED
I've gone to spend a few days with my friend in the hinterlands of
western Massachusetts and I find myself in an unlikely place: a tae
kwon do class that her five-year-old son is enrolled in. The grand
master, a Korean black belt, begins the class by asking the students
to recite in unison the five themes by which to live. Lined up in
military-style precision, each child exhibiting impeccable posture,
There it is. That last one. Don't brag about yourself. Stating your
value and accomplishments is risky because you might come across as
pompous or make other people feel uncomfortable. It's safer and much
more appealing to be humble and understated. But will you get ahead?
Humility is a virtue with biblical and spiritual roots that is
taught the world over. In some areas of the world, such as Asia,
humility is prized much the way we in America prize our freedom of
speech. Early on we are taught humility for good reason. We haven't
developed the social skills to talk about our accomplishments and
ourselves gracefully. Instead, as children we blurt out, "My daddy
has lots of money," "I'm better than you because ..." or in the
case of my friend's son, "I have more land than anyone," which he
proudly proclaimed one morning between mouthfuls of Cheerios as his
mother cringed. Our parents and mentors know it's important to
squelch this behavior right from the get-go or people aren't going
to like us. And they're right.
But the problem is this: Very few of us ever learn how to reconcile
the virtue of humility with the need to promote ourselves in the
workplace. When education and training do focus on selling
ourselves, we're taught to pay the greatest care and attention to
our wardrobe, our hair, our hygiene, our table manners, and our
risumi. Get those things right, it's a slam dunk! There's very
little instruction on selling ourselves with ease and sincerity.
Somehow we think if we personalize our message or get too excited,
we are not being professional, when in fact this is exactly what
makes us effective self-promoters.
The tug-of-war between showing humility and showcasing our
accomplishments is played out daily across working America, even in
the brashest of industries. Recently, while conducting a workshop at
a major Wall Street investment bank, I asked a group of young men
and women to update me on any successes they had experienced since
we'd last met when we worked on crafting more compelling sales
From the back of the room, I overheard one guy encouraging Patty, a
twenty-six-year-old, perfectly coiffed junior banker to share her
success story. Even though she had just landed a $10 million
account, Patty seemed reluctant. With prodding from the whole group,
she finally stood up. With her eyes directed toward the floor, her
shoulders shaped like an orangutan's, and in a whispery voice that
barely rose above the white noise of the conference room, she said:
Oh, well, it's really nothing. It was a team effort. There was this
guy who I had read about in the paper, so I wrote him and later
called his assistant, who said he wanted to meet with me. I went in
and told him about the services of the bank and what we could do for
him. He said it sounded interesting and asked where do we go from
here? And I said, well, I'll bring the portfolio manager and my
senior banker with me and we'll make an appointment. So we went back
in two weeks. I led off the meeting, but the senior person did most
of the talking, and we got a call yesterday and he's giving us ten
million dollars. And then she sat down.
I asked the group for some feedback. The fellow who had initially
urged her on was flabbergasted. "Patty, what was that? You heard
about this guy, you called him up, you met with him, and he gave you
ten million dollars! You told it as if you had nothing to do with
it. Quite frankly, you sounded like a wimp."
Patty replied, "Yeah, well, you know, a lot of people helped out. I
didn't want to sound like I was bragging and taking all the credit."
An Ah-Ha Moment for Patty
Seeing that Patty was missing the point, I encouraged this co-worker
to get up and act as though the story had happened to him. He said:
Oh man, I read about this guy in the paper. I got really excited
about it. I wrote him a fabulous letter. I called his assistant to
set up a meeting with him. On the day of the appointment, I was
nervous but we still had a great conversation. I was really on my
game that day. And he said, "What's the next step?" And I said,
"I'll come back with my boss and portfolio manager. You're going to
love them." When we walked in two weeks later, I introduced everyone
to set the stage. Then they did their thing. Just yesterday the guy
contacted me to give us his ten-million-dollar account. I am so
psyched! I nursed this baby from beginning to end.
I asked the group to describe differences between the two versions
of the story. The remarks were revealing: "David really owned it. He
came across as excited about what happened. But he seemed authentic,
too. He didn't come off like he was stretching the truth. You could
tell he was really proud of what he had done."
Patty said, "Now that I've seen him do it and people respond so
positively, maybe it wouldn't feel as uncomfortable to promote
myself in this way." Like so many others I have coached, Patty was
learning to overcome the whispers from her past, those similar to my
father's, like "You're going to break an arm, patting yourself on
the back too much."
I DON'T HAVE TO BRAG;
PEOPLE WILL DO IT FOR ME
It's great if someone says something nice about you, but don't hold
your breath. Although letting others do the bragging for you is one
tool in your goody bag, it isn't your only tool. And it's no
substitute for you. No one is going to have your interests at heart
the way you do. No one will ever tell your story and get people
excited about you like you can. Plus, nine times out of ten, when
those to whom you report talk positively about your work to others,
it's usually because there is something in it for them.
Unfortunately, the accolade is often framed in such a way as to
bolster them, more than you!
Since most people rarely acquire the skills to promote and talk
about themselves, many come to rely on others to do the dirty work
and boast on their behalf. As children, most of us have at least one
adoring fan who pushes us along, builds our ego and self-esteem: a
parent, a coach, a favorite aunt or grandparent who takes us under a
wing, or a teacher who's convinced we're the next Einstein or
Michael Jordan. Where we start to really stumble is when we grow up.
When we no longer have our childhood cheerleading squad on hand,
many of us wrongly presume that others in the workplace will fill
their shoes and continue with unconditional support for our
accomplishments and us. And even then, when someone occasionally
sings our praises to others, we tend to deflect the compliments with
self-deprecating comments: "Oh, no, it wasn't anything," or like
Patty, in the preceding example, "It wasn't me. It was really the
Looking Out for #1
Bill, age twenty-one, a quiet, understated, no-nonsense type of guy,
has yet to grasp the most basic rules when it comes to
self-promotion. He's a go-getter salesman who has just placed first
in the Southwestern division for selling more of his company's
software than anyone. He believes that his numbers speak for
themselves and he assumes that his boss, who has praised him often
for his sales prowess, will let the higher-ups know.
When his boss presents his division's sales results and estimates to
senior management, here is what he says: "We've had an excellent
first half; we are up twenty-five percent, a remarkable feat
considering the tech downturn." When asked by the CEO what's
working, Bill's boss replies, "I've put a top-notch sales force in
place and I've trained them well. You know that problem we were
having with our fixed-pricing schedule? Well, I sat down with Fred,
the marketing director, and we determined that if we allowed our
sales guys some greater flexibility and let them customize some of
the pricing-within limits, of course-we'd sell substantially more
units. And that is exactly what happened."
When someone mentions that she heard about Bill getting the award
for the most sales in the Southwest, his boss says, "I knew the day
he walked in that I could whip him into shape. I worked hard to get
him on board, and it's paid off."
Even though Bill got the sales award, the boss took most of the
credit. Bill's lackluster bragging skills limited him on two levels.
Excerpted from "Brag!: The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn without Blowing It" by Peggy Klaus. Copyright © 2004 by Peggy Klaus. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.