Success Without Self-Promotion

The Rise of the Invisibles

Pop quiz: does this sound like someone at the top of her field?

  • Doesn’t seek attention
  • Prefers collaboration to competition
  • Is quick to give credit to others on her team
  • More interested in the end result and in the challenge of the work than in promoting herself

You may be surprised to learn that all these traits, indeed, correlate with success. I should know: I spent several years meeting with highly accomplished professionals, across a wide range of fields, who embody these exact traits. I call these people “Invisibles.”

The work of Invisibles is critical to whatever enterprise they’re a part of, yet they often go unnoticed by the public. It’s only when something goes wrong that they’re thought of at all. Not only are they fine with such obscurity, they often prefer it: for many of them, invisibility is a mark of honor.

But how do these people achieve so much when their mindsets are essentially the opposite of today’s ethos, telling them that gaining attention is more valuable than nearly everything else?

You’ve probably been told that to get ahead in business, you need to “raise your profile” or “build a platform.” We live in the era of the “branded self,” with marketing gurus telling you that to excel, you have to manage your persona, the appearance of your work, and your online profile, making these tasks more important than the work itself.

If you’re at all like the Invisibles, you might feel that living in a culture upholding these values is like being on a horrific carnival ride spinning wildly, where every passenger is blaring his or her own air horn.

I’m here to tell you something the marketing folks don’t want you to hear: it’s okay to step off the wheel.

Sure, there will always be people who fail upwards, who politic their way through the ranks and dazzle bosses with their flash. But the success of Invisibles illustrates that you can excel while remaining largely under the radar.

I say “largely” because at some point, you have to make yourself or your work known. We all need to promote ourselves and our work at different times and in different circumstances. But the Invisibles I’ve profiled reached their elevated positions not by focusing on self-promotion but by doing excellent work and seeing themselves and their work as part of a larger endeavor.

I found it heartening that this attitude, however counterintuitive, was not an impediment to their success but one of the keys—perhaps the key—to it.

Dennis Poon is the lead structural engineer on many of the world’s tallest skyscrapers. The general public never thinks of him or his work; after all, it’s the “starchitects” who gain all the renown. But without Poon’s calculations, these towers—icons of civic, even national, pride—would never exist. His role in these billion-dollar projects is essential, and he’s in charge of vast teams of workers. Yet, whenever I asked him about himself, he invariably replied with “we” instead of “I.” His sole concern is achieving an excellent result—not viewing himself apart from the team (even though he clearly is a leader).

Research from top business schools, such as Wharton, Stanford, and Cornell, supports what I observed firsthand. Studies show that when people are intrinsically motivated (by the work itself), they tend to outperform those motivated by extrinsic factors (external rewards such as attention).

Research also suggests that exhibiting a high degree of altruism in a work environment correlates with leadership positions and advanced personal achievement. This mindset correlates not only with success but also with less strain and more fulfillment on the job.

Remaining behind the scenes or melding into the links of a team’s chain is not the same as hiding due to lack of self-confidence in yourself or the quality of your work. In order to thrive, you must truly care about the work you do and its end result.

The problem for many of us, however, is that we do care about our work, but we also feel compelled to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on shaping the perception of our work to others. It’s not that outward appearances have no bearing on one’s advancement, but it’s far lower than the prevailing business culture would lead you to believe.

When I lecture at conferences and corporations, I ask my audiences to imagine a business whose marketing department receives the lion’s share of the company’s budget while R&D is drastically understaffed and underfunded. Perhaps some businesses would survive under this model, but if they did, it would likely be only for a brief time.

The businesses that not only excel but inspire and prosper concentrate on creating great products and services. Sure, they still have a marketing department to help them advertise, but what fuels their success is what they offer, not how they promote it. Not that I advocate equating oneself to a business, but if you entertain this metaphor, you may see the need to restructure your own approach to self-promotion. Dial down the marketing, and focus on your work.

What strategies can you use to focus on your work and not your marketing?