red tulip in a field of yellow tulips

[The following was originally delivered as a presentation at the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. — Ed.]


Many people believe one or more of the following myths about getting ahead:

  • If you do your job well, you will be “discovered” (like a barista in Hollywood that gets discovered by a movie director?)
  • Your work speaks for itself (Sure, to your boss, but you need a wider audience!)
  • Getting ahead requires constant self-promotion (We all know this kind of person, right?)
  • It’s all about relationships (Not if your work isn’t great.)
  • It’s all about what you deliver (Not if nobody sees or knows about it.)

If the only people seeing your good work are your peers and your boss, you’re leaving so much opportunity on the table. The fact is, doing your job well is table stakes. Don’t wait to be discovered. Get yourself noticed and be seen doing what you do best!

But how?

Make yourself visible

Here are 10 tips that you can start putting to use today.

1. Be the messenger

The messenger of good news gets the “halo” of credit. Announce your team’s successes (but not your own). Celebrate and promote those around you at every opportunity.

All of those celebratory mails that get sent out for major releases actually achieve more than the stated purpose of celebrating the team’s success. They also give positive visibility to the person who sends the note. As a leader, I try not to be the person to send these mails, because I want to give that credit and visibility to the team members who achieved the success. If you’re looking to increase your visibility, find ways to announce the successes of your team members and colleagues. Don’t do this too often, as this hand can easily be overplayed. And NEVER be seen congratulating yourself or your own achievements – that’s not a good look on anyone.

2. Speak up

When you speak at meetings (and you really must) make sure what you say is concise, on-point, and interesting. Be brief and bold!

Some time ago, there was a meeting at American Express that brought together a collection of senior technology leaders to listen to and interact with a well-known tech thought leader from outside of the company. I participated in the spirited conversation that took place, and enjoyed watching my colleagues in action, debating and sharing. An hour after that meeting, I had a one-on-one meeting with one of the leaders in my own organization. She asked me what I thought of the conversation that just took place, and I hadn’t even realized she was in the room. This leader told me that she didn’t feel it was her place to speak up among those senior leaders, and she preferred just to listen and learn. But by not speaking up, she missed an opportunity to be seen by her peers and leaders. Opportunities like that are rare, and you should make the most of them. When you look and act like a leader, people treat you like a leader.

3. Make friends

How’s your small talk? The ability to engage strangers in conversation is one of the best ways to expand your network.

This was one of the hardest skills for me to work on, personally. I’m awkward and uncomfortable with strangers. I don’t know what to talk about. I’d far rather sit in the corner and play with my phone than engage with a room full of strangers or even colleagues. But those conversations create the relationships you need. Each one by itself may not feel particularly important, but over the course of a year, the dozens or hundreds of conversations end up building visibility and followership. So, how do you practice this skill without wanting to run and hide? My coach gave me this advice that changed the way I think about the interaction. She said, “Imagine that the person you are talking to is a guest at YOUR dinner party. One of your friends brought a pal you’ve never met. What is your role here? It’s to make him comfortable. You are on your turf, in your house, at your party, and this person is a guest. Make him feel at home!” Framing the interaction this way really helped me put the focus on the other person rather than on myself. I used to be worried about how I felt, what I would say, what I looked like. But now I am focused on my “guest”. How can I make him feel at home? Try this, and I bet you’ll be amazed at how much easier it gets to talk to strangers.

4. Sign up

Volunteer for extra-credit projects that nobody else wants to take on, and then ROCK them.

Every company has something that needs to be done, but nobody wants to do it. Become the expert at these kinds of assignments. Use them to demonstrate how even boring work can be made interesting. Show off your organizational skills, your visual representations, and use this side-job to create relationships outside of your immediate organization. If you demonstrate how you bring enthusiasm and creativity to a boring, tedious project, you’ll more readily come to mind when leadership has something critically important that needs the same loving care and attention. You’ll be seen as someone dependable and who excels without oversight. That’s what you want, right?

5. Fix it

Take the initiative to fix the “broken” things that people have just gotten used to. You’ll be a hero if you succeed, and you’ll get to meet folks outside of your immediate team.

This particular technique has worked really well for me. So here’s my suggestion: when you notice things that you think could be better, help people around you see what the world could be like if the problem was fixed. There’s no need to denigrate the problem or speak negatively about how it came to be. In fact, that’s more likely to give you a reputation as a complainer – a kind of visibility you don’t want. Instead, build a vision, communicate that vision, and then work persistently and respectfully to bring it about. Talk about the benefits it will bring, and find like-minded colleagues to fight the good fight alongside you as a coalition (many voices are stronger than one). If you fail, there’s no downside, because nobody believed you could succeed anyway. If you succeed, you’ll develop a reputation as someone who can execute against a vision and gather and lead a team to get things done.

6. How am I doing?

Ask for feedback and advice from people you admire, and then take that feedback graciously.

Here’s a surprisingly useful tip: start asking for advice rather than feedback. Feedback is something you give to correct someone’s behavior, but advice is something you give to friends because you want them to be better. If you frame the question this way, it should be comfortable for you to ask for advice from your employees, your peers, or your leaders. Often! Really often! If you can get used to doing this frequently, you’ll be seen as someone who is interested in constant improvement, and you’ll earn the right to give advice to others. Being specific is key here. Not just, “Do you have any advice for me?” but rather, “How did you think that meeting with the boss went? Do you have advice for how I might have been more convincing?”

7. Share it

Become a subject matter expert. Find others in your company who need your expertise and offer it freely and generously. Create a discussion channel around your interest and invite others to discuss.

We use a discussion forum at work, and it’s one of the very best ways to create a larger network beyond your immediate team. Every person is a subject matter expert at something, or has a deep interest and desire to learn. I have created channels for #food, #meditation, and #influence. What is your calling? I once had an engineer on my team who was the only person in my organization who used a particularly rare and specific technology. When she brought this to my attention, I suggested that she create a discussion channel about this tech, so she invited everyone we could find who was using this tech to join the channel. After a few weeks, she had dozens of members on her channel, and they were discussing the fine points of different implementations. Now, think about this: When she’s ready for another role with more responsibility, don’t you think this network will be useful? She now knows every other place in the organization where this tech is used, and by whom. Pretty much exactly the same network she’ll need to find her next role!

8. Get help

Ask for a mentor, career sponsor or advocate. Having one or more advocates can help you stay aware of roles you might otherwise have missed.

Many of the people I coach are afraid to ask someone they admire for mentoring or coaching. But think about it: How often have you seen someone say “No” when you’ve asked them for help? It’s quite rare. Ask for what you want, and you will very likely get it! But be prepared with a specific question or problem, and once you’ve discussed it, don’t waste the rest of the time you have with the leader. Thank them, and then go think about what they said. You’re free to follow up in a subsequent visit. For example, I don’t set up regular meetings, but instead encourage people to meet me on an ad-hoc basis when they actually need something.

9. Speak out

Look for opportunities to speak externally at meetups, schools and events. If you’re not comfortable with speaking, start practicing!

Not only will it broaden your network beyond the boundaries of your team and your company, it’s also good practice for the more senior roles you might be craving. As an example, I started sharing the information in this presentation internally at my company before I ever knew I’d share it externally. That simple act generated a HUGE amount of visibility and goodwill across the organization, including with product teams, engineers, colleague networks and more.

The positive response surprised me, even though I was following my own advice!

10. Observe

Watch the people in your organization who ARE well-known. What do they do that you could learn from? Compare different styles.

This last tip may sound simple, but it’s a practice you should begin now and hone over the course of your career. When you’re fortunate enough to be in a meeting with leaders in your organization, watch them. Watch how they act and choose a behavior or two to model yourself. Trying on behaviors that leaders do is a way to learn how to wield that skill. See what works for you. See who moves the room, who looks reserved, who looks like they have power or authority. Why do they look that way, and can you integrate some of that into your own way of being? You’ll be amazed at what you can learn!

Last words of advice

Stick with assignments you can have fun with and that you are passionate about. Nobody likes a Grumpy Gus who is doing things just to get ahead. Make allies who agree with you to build a coalition – they might be your peers as you move up in the organization. Don’t make enemies, but don’t shy away from (respectfully) being on the other side of the argument when it’s the right thing.

And don’t take things too seriously! Have fun! It’s contagious!