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3 Ways to Advocate for Yourself and Unlock Your Career Potential

Kate Reed

Tips from IBM’s Kate Reed

In high school, some people were voted “Most Athletic,” others “Most Likely to Be Famous.” I claimed the prize for “Most Talkative” and have been proudly continuing down that path ever since.

I am a total and complete extrovert. I love being in groups and meeting new people. I could pretty much carry on a conversation with a wall. But it gets awkward when I have to talk about myself. Whether it’s initiating networking conversations or speaking up in a meeting, there have been moments throughout my career when I’ve hesitated to advocate for myself, wondering how to walk the line between confidence and conceit.

Introvert or extrovert, self-promotion can be challenging. It’s also necessary for career development in so many ways, from increasing your earning potential to landing the next job opportunity. Advocating for yourself helps you stay competitive, build your personal brand, and make more professional connections.

If this isn’t something that comes naturally to you, the good news is that it can be learned like any other skill. I’ve found these three approaches to advocating for myself have helped me throughout my career.

1. Lead with your skills and take risks on learning new ones. I once had someone interrupt me in an interview and say, “Stop telling me what you can’t do and tell me what you can do.” I was completely caught off guard. My interviewer explained that I could learn the industry. What I knew was marketing, and that’s why he brought me in for the job. That day I learned to lead with my expertise and take risks on skill-building opportunities.

There appears to be an assumption, especially among women, that you need to check every box on a job description. Men apply for a job when they meet 60% of the qualifications while women apply only if they meet 100% of the qualifications, according to a Hewlett Packard report. In reality, employers are looking for candidates who both add value and are adaptable, able to learn what they don’t know, not candidates who check every box on the job listing. Spoiler alert: I got that job once I majored on what I could bring to the table.

2. Build your brand. Think of this as an extension of leading with your skills. By demonstrating a talent or curiosity about something you’re passionate about, you can start to become known for it.And that something can be absolutely anything. I use my talkative streak to form connections and base my personal brand around creating strong teams. I have coworkers who bring their passion about the environment to the office, others their affinity for cultivating community. I work with people who are known for their unique abilities in skills like video production, writing, and social media.

Sometimes actions are enough to let people know what you stand for, but often it’s necessary to step out of your comfort zone and vocalize your achievements. Volunteering to take on new projects and sharing posts on social media–and resisting the urge to humblebrag–are great ways to express your interests and shape your personal brand.

3. Come prepared. I often receive requests from colleagues for informal networking conversations. I love these kinds of meetings (more talking!) where I can get to know my peers. Sometimes they’re the spark that sets off the happy process of bringing on new talent to the team. And from the perspective of the person setting up the meeting, they’re a fantastic opportunity to showcase personal brand.

That said, I should probably add a qualification: I love these kinds of meetings when people come prepared. The most productive discussions are ones where the other person is genuinely curious, armed with questions and topics to cover. I try and take the same approach when setting up these kinds of conversations with my own leadership. Advocating for yourself shouldn’t come at the expense of someone else’s time. Even though “self” is in the word, successful self-promotion should have a positive impact on the people around you.

Why you’re not the only one who wins through self-promotion. When you move to another level in your career, you have an opportunity to raise the bar for your peers. One of the positive side effects of better self-promotion is a bigger network, which in turn means familiarity with even more talented people (see the above confession to some minor and well-intentioned talent-poaching).

For all the people who have helped me on my journey of advocating for myself, there’s an opportunity for me to pay it forward to someone else. By starting with an inward focus on how we can stand up for ourselves, we can work towards more chances to help the people around us stand even taller.

Kate Reed is the CMO for IBM Security, the world’s largest enterprise security company, and leads an agile team of more than 150 marketing professionals around the globe. Her team is responsible for creating memorable, innovative end-to-end journeys for clients through campaigns, digital experiences and events. 

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