When you start thinking about raising your professional profile, it's easy to end up with a laundry list of competing goals and no clear strategy: volunteer, get involved with in-house initiatives, write engaging pieces for publications, chair committees, build stronger networks, revamp CV, make insightful contributions at meetings, be more active on social media... sound familiar?
But quit focusing on what you should do and ask yourself: what's stopped me from doing it?
In my experience, many women pull back from actively raising their public profiles. As I hear the same reasons for this again and again, I know that tackling these associated fears is crucial for raising your profile.
1. Fear of being a 'shameless self-promoter'
Almost all of the women I've worked with recoil at the idea of engaging in 'shameless' self-promotion. This is partly because we've all witnessed examples (often from 'alpha male' colleagues) of people hyping themselves up relentlessly, sometimes obnoxiously.
But, not all self-promotion is created equal. It is only 'shameless' when it's all ego and no substance. So, take your ego out of the equation. Instead, focus on your purpose. Ask yourself: what am I offering to others I care about, or to my organisation? What's in it for them when I have a better profile? Raising your profile is part of the work, not an optional extra, or a self-indulgence.
2. Fear of being arrogant
This fear often manifests in compulsive modesty, as seen in the common habit of prefacing factual statements with, 'I'm sorry' or, 'This is probably stupid, but'. In our efforts to make sure that we don't seem like we think we're better than anyone else, women are notoriously talented (bad) at putting ourselves down. A colleague admires your finished report, and you reply, 'you should have seen the mess I made in the draft.'
Instead of worrying about talking yourself up, focus on not talking yourself down. Treat your work and achievements with as much respect as you would that of any colleague. Give credit when it's due, to others and to yourself.
As the title suggests, in her book Women Don't Ask, Linda Babcock argues that many women don't ask for what they deserve. When you wait around hopefully for someone to notice your achievements, you put yourself in a passive role. If you highlight your achievements honestly, with authority, and accept praise, you automatically boost your public profile. People will remember what you choose to tell them about yourself. Work out what you're most proud of, what you want to be well-known for, and talk about it.
3. Fear of lack of approval
All three of these fears are, at some level, a fear of what other people think. It's less that we fear we are secretly arrogant, and more that we fear seeming arrogant to others. It's natural to want your work to be admired, but if you focus too much on how other people might react, you're far less likely to risk taking actions that could raise your or your organisation's profile. But as Einstein (may have) said: 'The definition of insanity is repeating the same actions, and expecting different results.' If you want to raise your profile, you must try new things.
Ask yourself one simple question: 'can I live without their approval?' Disapproval can be uncomfortable, disappointing, and even upsetting, but our squeamishness towards it outweighs its possible consequences. Think of one step you could take to raise your public profile. Can you live if someone doesn't like it? (Have you ever done something before that someone didn't like? Are you still, somehow, alive?)
It can be hard to let go of a yearning for other people's approval. Start by realising that you don't need it every second of every day. Start a 'brag file' - a document into which you copy and paste every instance of positive feedback, praise, or support you receive from others. Then, when someone does, inevitably, have a criticism, you can dip into your stash of praise and revive your confidence.
Raising your profile can be a scary process. As you gain visibility, you attract attention. People will talk about you. Some will praise you and be inspired by you. Others will judge and dismiss you. Sometimes, these judgements will make you want to run away and hide. Often, you will be giddy with the sense of new possibilities, and thrilled to discover the impact of your work. You can't have one scenario without the other, and choosing to take the steps to raise your public profile takes courage. As you become more visible, both risk and reward are greater.
It's a shame that Franklin D Roosevelt's inaugural speech in which he said, 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself' is often misquoted as 'we have nothing to fear but fear itself.' Life might be more comfortable if we had nothing to fear, but with-out fear, we wouldn't be able to identify the risks we must take in order to grow. The beauty of FDR's original is that it suggests there are other things to fear (including disapproval and unkind comments) but the only thing you have to worry about, or have any control over, is your own behaviour.
What would you do if you stopped letting your fears dictate your profile-raising actions?