Shameless Self-Promotion Or Canny Personal Branding?

You’re reading this blog, so I’m guessing you think personal branding has something to offer you. But what’s your view on how far you should go in using your brand? Or more specifically:

At what point does personal branding flip from positive profile raising to shameless self-promotion?

It’s a subject being discussed more and more frequently on my workshops and I have a theory why.

Let me set the scene

I’ll start by recounting a situation a delegate on one of my workshops found herself in:

This woman was in her 30s and had previously worked in the media, where her colleagues included a woman in her early 20s who she described as a “shameless self-promoter”.

The older woman listed the younger woman’s misdemeanours, which centred on getting herself in front of the boss by attending every meeting he would be at, replying to every email he might see and volunteering to work on any projects he was involved in.

The delegate – and apparently many others in the team – felt this was a crass bit of profile-raising and instead of making them buy into this young woman’s brand, it turned them right off. “So if, as you say Jennifer, people buy people and what they’re buying is your personal brand, hers definitely wasn’t working.”

Well…maybe it was

There was another way to look at it, so I asked the delegate, “Do you think she was ambitious and wanted to get ahead in the company?”


“And when it came to her getting ahead, who would have more influence in that happening – you or your boss?”

“Well, our boss, obviously.”

“So to achieve what she wanted, her primary focus wasn’t your buy-in, it was his. Looking at it that way, you could say what she was doing was actually a canny piece of personal branding, aimed at getting buy-in from her key audience. The fact you weren’t buying her brand didn’t necessarily matter in her grand scheme of things.”

Now here’s my theory…

It’s somewhat obvious, but worth saying:

Perceptions of what is considered shameless self-promotion and what’s considered positive profile raising is directly related to the age of the person perceiving it.

In actuality, I had a lot of sympathy for the older woman. If I’d seen a colleague doing what that younger woman was doing, I’d have also perceived it as arse kissing on an epic scale.

That’s because I’m from an older generation and when I started my career over 30 years ago, things were pretty different:

  • I worked 9am til 5pm, Monday til Friday, in the same office, with a small, unchanging team of people, who I got to know well and with whom I formed strong relationships.
  • We didn’t have the internet, let alone social media, so I had much less idea a) what other jobs I could be doing and b) what other jobs my friends and peers were doing (nor how well they were doing in them).
  • Career progression was down more to whether you did a good job or not, than how high a profile you had.

Based on that frame of reference, people of my era are likely to frown on self-promotion.

Let’s get a younger generation’s view

I’m obviously a long way past being a millennial. So to give that side of the story, I’m going to quote Megan Greenwell. She had a piece in the New York Times responding to a reader’s letter, the title of which was Is My Millennial Co-Worker A Narcissist, Or Am I A Jealous Jerk?

The person penning the letter explained their co-worker seemed to work more for their personal brand than for the company. It annoyed the heck out of them, though they suspected they might simply be jealous, so approached Megan for her view.

Her reply was: ‘I am impressed by your colleague’s savvy brand-building, which I strongly suspect has less to do with narcissism than with their experiences making a career in a post-financial crisis world. [As a millennial myself] I have never had a job that didn’t feel tenuous, which means I have never had the freedom to not obsess over my personal brand and whether I’m doing enough to burnish it through work, social media, skill-building and networking. 

Of course we would rather quit Twitter and stop going to conferences and professional mixers and take all our vacation days and develop real hobbies and deeper human connections, but the entire economic system has shown us over and over that we cannot, because we will end up broke disappointments to everyone we know.’

It’s certainly a different view, eh?

As generations have progressed, the goalposts defining what is and isn’t self-promotion have moved. I’d already started to view others’ actions through a different lens (hence my conversation with that delegate). But since reading that article, I’ve moved my mental goalposts even further.

It still grates on me when I see the sort of shameless self-promotion that would fall under the schmoozy, toadying flunky banner. But the rest seems more and more like it might be canny personal branding.

Where are you in the generations and what is your view of others’ actions? Is my theory right that our perceptions are largely based on our age or is there another reason? I’d love to get your insight if you’d be so kind as to leave a comment.

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5 responses to “Shameless Self-Promotion Or Canny Personal Branding?”

  1. Denis Kaye says:

    What an interesting subject! Having started working 45 years ago I certainly recognise the shameless self-promoter who, in my experience, often failed to succeed because they may have won a promotion but often then failed to deliver because, in part, they had p****d off their team members. My advice to ambitious colleagues has always been to self-promote in a quiet way – make it easy for your bosses to do their jobs, but don’t act as if you are the boss.

    I am not sure that my advice would be different in today’s environment where there is little job security. You can increase your ability to withstand losing your job by being well networked, particularly outside your workplace but surely your reputation will always be based ultimately on what you can do and how you have done it rather than by what you say you can and will do?

  2. G says:

    I like to think of it as a balance. If you’re doing lots of self-promotion you need to have lots to promote to back it up. Attending every meeting someone else attends and contributing to it in a useful way: canny personal branding, attending a meeting just to be seen: shameless self promotion. Replying to every email with some useful insight: canny personal branding, replying to every email with pointless fluff: shameless self-promotion. If people remember your name and face and recognise you instantly but have no idea what you’re good at that’s a result of self-promotion, if they can’t always remember the exact spelling of your name but know that you’re the one they want to speak to when they need a certain skill that’s personal branding. Both can result in the promotions and opportunities sought but as Denis points out above those with a reputation built on skills and delivering are often more successful than just the self-promotion.

  3. Meg Burton says:

    Love this Jennifer and I often get the same discussions and challenges in my groups. I agree with G, the self promotion has to be backed up with proven capability to be seen as credible and has to be genuine to be believable if not you risk been seen as fake. I am not sure it is purely generational though – I think some professions have embraced the idea of personal branding whereas others are more resistant to it, some are really seeing the value of thinking consciously about their branding to help their careers and others are reluctant to because of the fear of been seen as a shameless self promoter. A lot of introverts use this as an excuse for their lack of self promotion but there are so many different ways to create your personal brand it doesn’t have to be shouting about yourself does it? We talk about how as Brits we dislike self promotion and this is when I recommend they read your book!

  4. Gary King says:

    Sometime you have to do what you have to do to get noticed (within reason/ within rules obviously).

    If the boss is okay with it and doesn’t see it at OTT, then job done.

    Anybody finding the methods inappropriate is their issue.

  5. Jennifer Holloway says:

    Love those comments – thanks for adding to my perspective and I couldn’t agree more with all that you’ve put. I think the word ‘balance’ is the key theme here.

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