Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff

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Mar
25

Are You a Shameless Self-Promoter? Perhaps You Should Be

My general view of business (and life) is that humility is a big part of success.  But that’s almost assuredly more representative of my value system than of any generally accepted business wisdom.  In fact, there may be strong evidence to the contrary.  There are of course many quiet, humble people who have run successful enterprises.  Those heroes are hardly household names, though.  The business leaders that we know of, quote and point to as examples are usually the ones that make the most noise about what they do and what they have achieved. 

If you can be successful either way, why does it matter?  Generally speaking, the more people you know and, more importantly, know you, the more access you have to resources, investment, supporters, partners, the media and customers.  This access opens doors and reveals paths that may not have been obvious or even available to you otherwise.  Again, this is not to say that you can’t make it fly if you’re not an active, outgoing promoter of yourself and your business; but increasing your visibility simply makes many aspects of creating and running a successful business easier and isn’t easier something we all seek? 

I found myself thinking a lot about this topic recently when I read the story of Reginald Fessenden, who is actually responsible for the first two-way, transatlantic radio transmissions and being the first to correctly described how radio signals actually work.  No wait, wasn’t it Marconi who did that?  Guglielmo Marconi is generally credited with the invention and discovery of most radio technologies.  As it turns out, while Marconi was brilliant and clearly responsible for some of the most important discoveries of his time, he was also good at playing the patent and publicity game.  Fessenden, a brilliantly but much quieter and humble scientist, was overshadowed by Marconi (and others).  Apparently more interested in the science, Fessenden’s company went under while Marconi’s companies were, in general, very successful.

Reading the story of Fessenden, then got me thinking of Philo Farnsworth and Nikola Tesla.  Both brilliant scientists who were steamrolled by brash, self-promoting contemporaries.  Farnsworth invented not only the television, but the first real camera and broadcast mechanism.  Of course, David Sarnoff of RCA fame is generally remembered to have played this role in history (although Sarnoff really hired Vladimir Zworykin to do RCA’s work on television).  Farnsworth did most of his work in obscurity and the companies that he (and others) created around his work failed.  Sarnoff, on the other hand, had already made RCA into a large and successful enterprise and used that platform as well as his strong personality to take credit (in the name of the company) for the creation of television.

Tesla, who is considered one of the most brilliant scientists and engineers of all time is well known for many discoveries and inventions.  However, with respect to one of his greatest creations, large-scale power generation, he remains in the shadow of another brilliant, but much more vocal scientist, Thomas Edison.  While Edison was doing his damndest to get DC power transmission to work, Tesla created the first simple and reliable AC power generation facilities (including the first hydroelectric power generators) as well as AC motors to utilize his new form of power transmission.  Edison spent much of his highly visible career discrediting Tesla and is generally given credit for what we take for granted today.

In the end, what’s the correlation between strong self-promotion and success?  There are too many subjective components to quantify it, but empirically there is more upside to brash self-promotion than to the lack of it.  None of this means that you should be an asshole, of course, but spending more time increasing the world’s awareness of you and your company will likely offer benefits that will far outweigh the energy you put in to making yourself more visible and more closely associated with your solution and market.

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 March 25th, 2007  
 Will  
 General Business, Leadership  
   
 12 Comments

12 Responses to Are You a Shameless Self-Promoter? Perhaps You Should Be

  1. Actually, Jim Collins’ Built to Last (or maybe it was Good to Great) apparently (I haven’t read either) showed, using quantitative methods, that the humble CEOs did better in creating great companies over the long term.

  2. Actually, Jim Collins’ Built to Last (or maybe it was Good to Great) apparently (I haven’t read either) showed, using quantitative methods, that the humble CEOs did better in creating great companies over the long term.

  3. Ah yes, Collins’ Built to Last, I believe. Creating Level-5 leaders. A great book which I truly believe in. As Collins says, though, it’s not clear how to build Level-5 leaders. He sites examples and shows how a Level-5 leader acts, but if I recall correctly, he admits that it’s not clear how you get there. He is also referring to corporate greatness in the way that John Akers at IBM used to refer to it – “I don’t want to be a big company, I want to be a great company.” As you state, greatness is over the long haul and should definitely be aspired to.

    I guess I never made the point that my thinking here is that for entrepreneurial companies trying to break through the noise, being loud is an advantage. I am not that type of person, but I recognized what my companies missed because of it. The path to greatness has to start with some success. My feeling is that especially these days, some extra promotion is required to get moving along that path.

  4. Ah yes, Collins’ Built to Last, I believe. Creating Level-5 leaders. A great book which I truly believe in. As Collins says, though, it’s not clear how to build Level-5 leaders. He sites examples and shows how a Level-5 leader acts, but if I recall correctly, he admits that it’s not clear how you get there. He is also referring to corporate greatness in the way that John Akers at IBM used to refer to it – “I don’t want to be a big company, I want to be a great company.” As you state, greatness is over the long haul and should definitely be aspired to.

    I guess I never made the point that my thinking here is that for entrepreneurial companies trying to break through the noise, being loud is an advantage. I am not that type of person, but I recognized what my companies missed because of it. The path to greatness has to start with some success. My feeling is that especially these days, some extra promotion is required to get moving along that path.

  5. Will
    somewhat related, but its the network you know more than the self promotion I think. I think you probably remember the Paul Revere and Will Dawes story. It was Paul that was more effective NOT because he promoted himself but he promoted others within his network.

    BTW I got to your blog via Feld.

  6. Will
    somewhat related, but its the network you know more than the self promotion I think. I think you probably remember the Paul Revere and Will Dawes story. It was Paul that was more effective NOT because he promoted himself but he promoted others within his network.

    BTW I got to your blog via Feld.

  7. Mukund,

    Perfect story, you’re right. It’s actually one of the stories I use to teach my kids about who you know over what you know. Of course, I’m sure Paul Revere built that network by being a promoter of himself. He was quite well known. As opposed to Dawes . . .

    Thanks!

  8. Mukund,

    Perfect story, you’re right. It’s actually one of the stories I use to teach my kids about who you know over what you know. Of course, I’m sure Paul Revere built that network by being a promoter of himself. He was quite well known. As opposed to Dawes . . .

    Thanks!

  9. Thanks for the great post. I couldn’t agree more. However, I find it difficult to put this knowledge to good use day in and day out. I think it’s especially difficult for an engineer. For example, I’m a software engineer. While my work has won me the respect of my team mates, I find it difficult to relate these achievements to others especially my management. Also, as an engineer I tend to interact with a small fairly stable group of people. Which makes it difficult for me to grow my network. I suspect that a lot of engineers, who yearn for something more, run into similar problems. What have you seen people do to overcome the isolation of an engineering career, grow their networks, and successful promote them selfs.

  10. Thanks for the great post. I couldn’t agree more. However, I find it difficult to put this knowledge to good use day in and day out. I think it’s especially difficult for an engineer. For example, I’m a software engineer. While my work has won me the respect of my team mates, I find it difficult to relate these achievements to others especially my management. Also, as an engineer I tend to interact with a small fairly stable group of people. Which makes it difficult for me to grow my network. I suspect that a lot of engineers, who yearn for something more, run into similar problems. What have you seen people do to overcome the isolation of an engineering career, grow their networks, and successful promote them selfs.

  11. Karthik,

    Good question. I am an engineer, too, and I understand the dilemma you feel that you’re in. Being a brash self-promoter in front of you cohorts can leave you in a difficult place. Who wants to seem like they’re taking credit for everyone else’s work, right? A good manager would see that you’re doing a great job and would also see that your teammates respect your work and a doing great. Since good managers are often difficult to find, sometimes you need to help educate them. When you have a one-on-one meeting with them, let him/her know that you think your work isn’t being recognized. If they disagree, they’ll probably tell you. The likely situation, though, is that they’ve been too focused on other things and haven’t given your efforts their due.

    The way things work in most companies, if you don’t get your immediate manager to recognize your efforts and success, it’s difficult to get anywhere else. This can create a lousy situation where you won’t be counted among the elite when new projects and opportunities come along. This should be unacceptable. If you really feel that your work is very good, your peers support you AND your manager still doesn’t recognize it after you’ve pointed it out, it may be time to move on and find a place where you get the love you deserve.

    I don’t know where you live, but in most technical communities there are a wealth of organizations, conferences and meetings where you can get together with other engineers, hear their stories and talk about cool stuff. Many of these are informal or have informal parts that will give you the opportunity to talk about what others are doing and to share what you are working on. You’d be surprised at how many interesting things you can learn. You may also get involved in a chain-reaction of ideas and advice that may lead you to a new and exciting place.

    The bottom line is that you should play offense (check out my post on that topic). Stagnation is no good for anyone and there is certainly no reason for a strong technical person to move slowly for any reason.

    Hope that helps.

  12. Karthik,

    Good question. I am an engineer, too, and I understand the dilemma you feel that you’re in. Being a brash self-promoter in front of you cohorts can leave you in a difficult place. Who wants to seem like they’re taking credit for everyone else’s work, right? A good manager would see that you’re doing a great job and would also see that your teammates respect your work and a doing great. Since good managers are often difficult to find, sometimes you need to help educate them. When you have a one-on-one meeting with them, let him/her know that you think your work isn’t being recognized. If they disagree, they’ll probably tell you. The likely situation, though, is that they’ve been too focused on other things and haven’t given your efforts their due.

    The way things work in most companies, if you don’t get your immediate manager to recognize your efforts and success, it’s difficult to get anywhere else. This can create a lousy situation where you won’t be counted among the elite when new projects and opportunities come along. This should be unacceptable. If you really feel that your work is very good, your peers support you AND your manager still doesn’t recognize it after you’ve pointed it out, it may be time to move on and find a place where you get the love you deserve.

    I don’t know where you live, but in most technical communities there are a wealth of organizations, conferences and meetings where you can get together with other engineers, hear their stories and talk about cool stuff. Many of these are informal or have informal parts that will give you the opportunity to talk about what others are doing and to share what you are working on. You’d be surprised at how many interesting things you can learn. You may also get involved in a chain-reaction of ideas and advice that may lead you to a new and exciting place.

    The bottom line is that you should play offense (check out my post on that topic). Stagnation is no good for anyone and there is certainly no reason for a strong technical person to move slowly for any reason.

    Hope that helps.

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