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Self-promotion at work: It’s a must, here’s how to do it

October 17, 2015, 1:00 PM UTC
job interview
Business people being measured by large hand holding tape measure
Photograph by Gary Waters—Getty Images/Ikon Images

Dear Annie: I have two questions. First, I’m looking for a new job, so I’m updating my resume, and trying to decide what to include. I keep reading that it’s important to quantify one’s accomplishments (increased sales X%, cut costs by $Y, etc.) and, up to a point, I can do that. As a benefits specialist in human resources, I’ve been responsible for some real cost savings. But I really feel my main strength is in mentoring, informal coaching, and advising interns (most of whom were later hired here. Also, several of my former mentees are now senior managers, and one is CFO.) Can “people skills” be quantified? If not, should I even put them on my resume?

My second question is, I realize I have to promote my accomplishments to employers and networking contacts, but I really hate doing it. I haven’t been very good at it where I work now, and talking about my achievements in job interviews just seems like bragging. Is there some way to get over this feeling? Should I just grit my teeth and do it anyway? — Charlotte in Chicago

Dear C.C.: If you were determined to try, you could probably come up with a credible estimate of what your “people skills” have contributed to your company. “Let’s say your coaching helped your employer bring on interns who are stellar employees, for instance. Someone has already put a dollar value on those hires,” points out career coach Rick Gillis. “Otherwise, how would [the company] know what to pay them?”

Even so, not everything can be quantified — and it doesn’t need to be. “Most people in any enterprise don’t contribute directly to its revenues. They provide support for the people who do. No company is a solo act,” notes Gillis. A talent for helping other people succeed “is extremely valuable to employers. It certainly belongs on your resume.”

In the section on work experience, along with your other achievements, add a few lines that succinctly describe the outcome of your coaching and mentoring, including how many interns were hired, especially if they’ve stayed for more than a year or two, and what your mentees went on to achieve.

Then, when you ask for references from past and current bosses and peers, mention that you’re hoping to emphasize not just quantifiable results but your “soft” skills too. Suggests Gillis, “Choose references who have seen your ‘people skills’ in action” — including, perhaps, that CFO you helped on his way up.

As for how to talk up your accomplishments without feeling like a blowhard, Gillis wrote a book about it, called Promote! It’s Who Knows What You Know that Makes a Career. In his coaching practice, he often works with people who, like you, don’t want to brag. “But when it’s done correctly, self-promotion isn’t bragging,” he says. “It’s informing.”

By his lights, you owe it to your current employer, as well as hiring managers elsewhere, to describe what you’ve been up to. “It’s your professional responsibility to make decision-makers aware of the value you bring to the organization,” Gillis says. “It’s part of your job.”


One mistake people often make, he adds, is to “assume that the person you report to knows everything you do. Bosses now have so many different things on their plates, it’s unlikely that yours has more than a general idea of what you’re doing, unless you consistently keep him or her up to date.”

Looking at it that way makes reporting your wins seem less like blowing your own horn, and more like simply conveying useful facts. Take the same approach to rewriting your resume. “Don’t forget to briefly touch on successes from past jobs,” says Gillis. You may need to track down the details by reaching out to former managers and coworkers. If so, he says, “Email won’t work here. To bypass generic responses, you must do this by phone.”

One exercise that may help you get past a reluctance to talk up your own achievements: Pretend you’re describing someone else’s. As a mentor, you probably have some experience with this. If you’ve recommended that someone be hired, promoted, or given a special project, think back on why you thought so, and exactly how you expressed your support. Then apply some of that enthusiasm to yourself. “Young women in particular often find it difficult to ‘sell’ themselves,” observes Gillis. “However, women are very good at doing it for each other.” He points to some intriguing recent research about that.

“But mostly, becoming adept at self-promotion takes practice,” he adds. Your current job hunt is a good place to start — and, in your next job, “just keep at it.”

Good luck!

Talkback: Are you comfortable describing your own achievements at work? Why or why not? Leave a comment below.

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