Career Corner: How to Promote Yourself Without Sounding Like a Jerk

(“In Case You Missed It Monday” is my chance to showcase something that I wrote and published in another venue, but is still relevant. This week’s post originally appeared on OrangeMatter)

Have you ever had a colleague who waited year after year for a promotion that never came? Or worse, have you BEEN that person? You’re not alone. Many IT professionals are convinced their bosses will notice their great work simply because it’s great work. But as anyone who’s worked in the industry knows, IT pros are heroes, but the word that almost always comes before “hero” is “unsung.” To make matters worse, oftentimes, the work we do is great specifically because it’s unnoticeable. If we succeed at ensuring nothing is burning down, who will know? And even though IT pros know they’ve worked hard to make sure everything’s running smoothly, their bosses may see everything working fine and think of it as “business as usual.” Then, when IT pros learn they haven’t gotten the promotion they wanted, they’re livid. After all, they’ve done everything expected of them (and more). They confront their bosses, who inevitably say, “I didn’t even know you wanted a promotion.” At this point, the damage might be too far gone, with the IT pro labeled an “uncommunicative complainer.”

The alternative—making sure management is aware of every success, every extra hour worked, every mitigated risk, and every crisis avoided—is equally fraught. Send one too many emails along the lines of “Hey boss, did you notice how quiet the change control went last night?” and it’s likely to generate a “Do you want a medal for remembering to put on pants this morning, too? Gold star, I guess,” in response.

So, what can you do to prevent this miscommunication without coming across as a either a whiny non-communicator or a showboating braggart?

The first step to promoting yourself is accepting without bitterness or fatalistic sarcasm that you and only you are the only one who can drive your career. It’s nice when you receive help (and you will, to be sure), but at the end of the day, your career is your responsibility, and it’s a big one. But remember, with great responsibility comes great power. You can effectively communicate what you want, talk about your accomplishments, and achieve your goals, but you have to take the lead. No one’s going to waltz in, offer you a hand, and take you down the road to promotion. You have to own what you want, which means finding out what it takes to get to the next level and understanding the consequences of a new role.

Know What You Want

Be careful what you wish for—the standard path of going from an entry-level position to a standard one, moving on to a senior-level position, and eventually “graduating” to management doesn’t work for all IT pros. This career track means managing a team, which can sometimes be the bane of IT pros’ existence. One IT friend of mine took a management job he was offered after doing amazing work with some high-level projects. On his first day in the new position, he went to a manager roundtable he’d never had access to before. During the meeting, someone asked about upgrades to the system he’d been working on, and when he jumped on the question to give his insights, they told him, “Oh, you can’t answer that one for us. You need to have your technical staff approve these suggestions.” Twenty-four hours before, he was the technical staff—but in his new managerial position, he couldn’t make changes without having his staff members back them up. My friend walked out of the meeting, went down to HR, and told them to take the promotion back.

Of course, what happened to my friend isn’t going to happen to everyone, but it highlights something important: before you can tell your boss your goals, you have to know what you want. Maybe your goal isn’t to go down a standard managerial track—maybe instead you want to be responsible for larger or higher-profile projects. Either way, knowing what you want to get out of your career is half the battle.

Know Your Worth (And Have the Data to Back It Up)

If half the battle is communicating what you want, the other half is showing your boss you deserve it. First, you need to be able to list your achievements. You shouldn’t be jotting down everything you’ve done over the last year 10 minutes before your performance review. There’s no way you’ll remember everything. Instead, keep track of your accomplishments as they happen. I’m not talking about writing it down every time you get out of bed on time or wear the right shoes to work, but whenever you do something not on your list of job responsibilities, you should be keeping track of it. (This, of course, involves knowing what your responsibilities are. If you don’t, it’s possible you’re going above and beyond the call of duty without realizing it.)

So now you have a list of your accomplishments, and you’re ready to take it into your performance review. But there’s even more you can do to prepare: we IT pros love our data, and you can use this love (not to mention access) of data to your advantage. Have the data to back up your accomplishments and show you didn’t just satisfy expectations—you had an impact on the business. If you set up 15 alerts and they saved the company $30,000 in cost avoidance, you should know this and be ready to share. Even if you’re just presenting your boss with the number of times the company exceeded bandwidth utilization, having the metrics to quantify your achievements can make a big difference. You don’t collect bandwidth metrics to hold on to them yourself. And if you collect the data and find out your work had no impact, it’s something you can bring to your boss and ask, “Why do we do this?”

Your customers are another great resource you can tap—each “thank you” is another achievement you can take to your boss during your review. Check with your customers at least once every 6 months (though once a quarter is even better) just to say, “Hey, you’ve got these monitors, reports, and alerts—how are they working for you?” Odds are they aren’t going to say, “Everything’s perfect, thanks!” They’re more likely to tell you, “They’re great, but could you make one small tweak for us?” In doing so, you show your customers you’re engaged with them, and they can help you quantify your worth—if they tell you, “The alert you set up for us saved us 300 hours of work,” it’s one more thing you can add to your list of achievements.

Talk About Your Achievements the Right Way

But what do you do once you have all this information? How should you talk about it? There’s two ways to go about this. You can text your boss at 3 a.m. in all caps to let them know the server’s still up and running (spoiler: don’t), or you can take your list of data-backed achievements into your quarterly/yearly review and tell your boss, “Hey, I did these 15 things since our last review, and I didn’t want you to lose track of them.” This shows your boss you know what your work is worth, and it ensures they can talk about it, which your boss can take to THEIR boss to look good too. It’s a win-win situation.

It’s also important to know how often to bring up your accomplishments. If you’re knocking on your boss’s door twice a day and sending them emails every time you fix something, you’re back to sounding like a showboat. Like so many other tricks of this business, communication is key. Ask your boss how often they want to be updated on your accomplishments. They might say “every Monday morning” or “during our quarterly meeting,” but at least you’ll know you aren’t bringing them up too often.

More than anything else, you have to take charge of your career. Nobody’s going to spontaneously tell you, “You’ve been here long enough; now we’re going to let you into the secret club and give you a promotion.” If you appear to be happy doing your technical work at the level and pay you’re at, no one is going to disabuse you of your position. You need to tell your boss what you want, understand what a new position will entail, and have the data to back up your current achievements. Doing it the right way will help you avoid showboating as you promote your hard work.

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