Blow your own horn without being a blowhard

Being recognized for your work often requires that you speak up for yourself, but what if you don't want to brag? Fortune's Anne Fisher offers up five tips for getting credit where credit is due.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: My boss, who is also a longtime mentor and friend, will be retiring at the end of the year, and he's trying to help me position myself to take over his job. He's been telling me that, if I want to keep moving up, I have to do a better job of self-promotion -- that is, I have to try harder to make sure that higher-ups in the company are aware of my accomplishments. The trouble is, I was raised not to blow my own horn, and it's very hard for me to boast about what I've done, especially when other team members deserve some of the credit. Do you have any suggestions? -- Mr. Modesty

Dear MM: "If you don't speak up about your accomplishments, who will?," asks Gina Hernez-Broome, a researcher and leadership-development coach with the Center for Creative Leadership (, a nonprofit leadership-training and research organization based in Greensboro, N.C. "Recognition is the reward we all seek for our hard work. Eliminate it, and you eliminate the incentive to go the extra mile."

But how do you pursue that recognition without bragging, showing off, or generally being the kind of person that others want to kick under the conference table? Along with colleagues Cindy McLaughlin and Stephanie Trovas, Hernez-Broome has published Selling Yourself Without Selling Out: A Leader's Guide to Ethical Self-Promotion, downloadable for $9.95 from the CCL web site. The authors' research confirms that plenty of managers are, like you, uncomfortable with self-promotion; they think good work should speak for itself. In an ideal world, that would be true, but in this one, you'd be smart to take your boss's advice and make sure you get noticed.

To do that, try changing the way you think about speaking up. The authors note that many of us are hobbled by what they call "limiting beliefs" that you can overcome by "reframing" them in your mind. Five examples:

1) Limiting belief: Accomplishments should speak for themselves.

Reframed: A lot of good work falls under the radar.

It would be nice if simply doing a great job guaranteed you visibility, but the fact is, plenty of notable achievements go unsung. The authors write, "Never assume that you will be noticed, given credit, or rewarded for your accomplishments if you don't share them."

2) Limiting belief: Team players don't take individual credit.

Reframed: Visibility benefits the whole team.

One thing your boss has no doubt learned over his long career is that effective leaders need to be skilled at communicating both the value of the work the team is doing and the talents of the people who are doing it. At times you may want to highlight your own role, and at other times it may be more appropriate to point out something terrific a teammate (or the whole team) has done. If you're generous about giving credit, no one will mind if you take some.

3) Limiting belief: Senior management doesn't want to hear about me.

Reframed: Senior management cares about both information and talent.

Obviously, the bigwigs upstairs don't need to know every detail about you and your current task, but it's a good idea to have a clear statement in mind about how what you're doing fits into the company's goals. That way, you can speak up when the opportunity arises.

4) Limiting belief: I'm very uncomfortable promoting myself.

Reframed: I can get the recognition I deserve and still maintain my integrity.

People who have trouble blowing their own horn "may want to find a colleague with a similar struggle," the authors suggest. "That way, coworkers can promote each other, and each gains greater visibility." Got a buddy you can enlist?

5) Limiting belief: I don't want to brag.

Reframed: I need to inform.

Talking about your work, your successes, and your team, the authors note, doesn't necessarily come across as bragging. Try describing what you've done in an informative way that might help others who are working on similar projects or wrestling with challenges you've figured out how to resolve.

Notes Hernez-Broome, "You need to find the 'sweet spot' between bragging and being overly modest. Stay focused on the value of the work." Like almost every other skill worth cultivating, this takes some practice. And hey -- here's hoping you get that promotion!

Readers, how easy (or not) is it to get recognized where you work? Have you managed to take credit for a job well done without coming across as a know-it-all? How did you do it? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog! To top of page

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