27 September 2023

When story-time should be all about you

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May Busch* says we are often told as children that it is not polite to ‘blow your own trumpet’, but in the course of a career a few sweet notes do no harm at all.

Having met my father’s colleague, Juan many times, I knew he was an amazing person.

So when I read Juan’s obituary I didn’t think I would learn much new.

Instead, I was surprised to discover that Juan was even more amazing than I thought.

There was so much I didn’t know and never asked about. Being humble, he didn’t tell us.

He had to go back home from first-year university to provide for his family when his father died unexpectedly.

Yet Juan still managed to graduate at the top of his class.

I’m sure Juan didn’t try to hide this and if I had asked, he would have told me — but most people don’t ask, and he wasn’t one to engage in self-promotion.

By the time I met Juan, he was already a giant in his field and didn’t need the extra advantage that comes with people knowing more about what made him special.

However, when you’re earlier on in your career and still looking to advance, it’s essential that people know who you are and what makes you tick.

Sometimes, the only way is for you to tell them yourself. It’s called self-promotion.

Self-promotion isn’t about bragging, and talking about yourself doesn’t mean telling people the good, the bad and the ugly.

It is about giving people insights and information that can help them figure out what opportunities would make sense for you, and to help them see you in the best, most accurate light.

When people lack information, they make assumptions — often unfavourable ones.

Like people assuming I wouldn’t want to travel for work because I had three young children.

The opposite was true — my husband’s schedule was flexible and he loved taking care of our daughters.

Also, they may promote you into seemingly prestigious roles without realising they don’t suit your interests.

For example, you might love being a product specialist but get promoted into a role where you manage other product specialists.

Without realising it, they’ve pulled you away from what you love and placed you into a role that sucks the joy out of your work.

Clients, managers, colleagues and team members will be trying to figure out some combination of what drives you, whether they can trust you and how they can make use of your best talents.

You can help them by revealing part of your background — your ‘back story’ or a vignette about key turning points and situations in your life that have made you who you are.

You may not see these incidents or facts as significant or special because they’re just part of what’s normal for you.

Sometimes you’ll discover their importance only after you’ve said them without thinking and then see others’ reactions.

There are critical moments when sharing those key facts about yourself can make a huge difference.

Like in interviews or conversations with your sponsor or others who could advocate for you if they only knew more.

There are also natural openings that will come up — casual moments during a team building activity, at an offsite or over a meal.

Either way, when you have your thoughts ready, you’ll be better able to recognise those key moments and feel prepared to share them.

In a final round interview for one of my first jobs I could tell the interviewer was sizing me up, trying to figure out whether I had the drive and toughness to succeed.

None of my prepared answers seemed to work, so in frustration, I blurted out the truth.

That I have a lot to prove since my family is full of achievers — my father is a prominent scientist, my uncles were Government Ministers, my grandfather was president of a university — and that’s what drives me.

What I had thought was too much information was the glimpse they needed into who I really was deep inside.

It helped differentiate me from the dozens of other candidates.

If anyone was raised to be humble and avoid any form of self-promotion, that was me.

In the Western business world, it meant I blended into the background like part of the wallpaper.

What helped me get past my cultural conditioning was thinking about my values and what motivated me.

Then identifying the slice-of-life examples I could try out in conversations.

This reframe helped me see that I wasn’t over-sharing or self-promoting.

Instead, I was judiciously providing key insights in specific moments when people needed to see that particular aspect of me to feel comfortable with and trust me.

To understand what I’m all about.

*May Busch helps leaders and their organisations achieve their full potential. She works with smart entrepreneurs and top managements to build their businesses. She can be contacted at [email protected].

This article first appeared at maybusch.com.

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