How Veterans Can Overcome Their Aversion to Self-Promotion

Job interview in a white office.

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for veterans transitioning to a civilian career," due to be released in December 2013.

In speaking with so many veterans and military leaders, I've learned that the culture you were taught in did not value or support self-promotion. For many of you, this concept (How can I be sure I'm not sounding arrogant, like I'm bragging about how great I am?) will be challenging.

I had a Lieutenant Colonel tell me once, "In the face of battle, we aren't fighting for the President of the United States. We're fighting for the person next to us." The sense of connection and loyalty you realized during your military service might feel in contrast to the idea that now you need to learn to promote yourself and your skills.

This does not mean you're not supporting your fellow comrades. You are now learning a narrative and language that is needed to compete effectively in the civilian sector. Without the ability to speak clearly and confidently about your skills, values and passions, you risk being invisible and irrelevant to hiring managers and future employers. I will help you craft that positioning without crossing the line to arrogance and bragging.

When I speak of self-promotion and self-marketing, I am not suggesting you push yourself out front at the expense and to the detriment of those alongside you. Rather, you need to learn how to articulate your value to a potential employer to get them to notice you and find you relevant.

This is a competitive advantage, not cutting others off at the knees to serve yourself. If you sound boring, you will come across as irrelevant. If you can create a narrative about your experience that is unique and compelling, you can highlight your talents and successes without bragging.

One recruiter explains it this way: "I had a veteran candidate tell me, 'I just did what I was told. ...' I looked at her and said, 'Would you read a boring book?' The veteran replied, 'No, I would not.' I said to her, 'Then why would you tell me about yourself in such a boring and uninspiring way?'" This recruiter encouraged veteran candidates to practice and rehearse how they explain their successes and accomplishments to get more comfortable with self-promotion.

The reality of civilian-side work is that being able to stand apart from others, being known as valuable and relevant for a specific job/skill/quality, is critical to sustainability on the job. Being able to ace the interview is only half the battle. You are trained to know how to adapt and overcome. But on the job, you will be required, on a consistent basis, to be able to articulate why you are valuable and relevant, and help others see the value in your skills and abilities.

Instead of bragging, become focused and intentional. This book is your first step! The company that will hire you needs you to be clear about your contribution to the project or the team. You are not bragging when you can share your personal brand and value to others in ways that create better alignment, systems and efficiencies for the group.

Here's how that looks:

Bragging: "I'm so great. Everyone wants me on their team!"

Personal branding: "I am passionate about bringing out the best in my team. When I'm leading a team, I call upon my ability to make everyone feel valued and relevant to be a good leader."

Bragging: "I led my teams through more complex scenarios than any business can offer. Hire me, and you won't regret it."

Personal branding: "Using the leadership skills I gained in my military service, I will apply my sharp listening skills, empathy and training to create efficiencies and collaboration throughout the organization."

Know, too, that other cultures also struggle with self-marketing and promotion. Years ago, I worked with Aimee, an accomplished account executive in the tourism industry. She had been personally responsible for major campaigns and initiatives to attract tourist interest and dollars to areas such as the Middle East and Singapore.

Based in Abu Dhabi, Aimee now wanted to pursue similar job opportunities in the U.S. tourism market and realized she had cultural norms to overcome in learning how to market herself effectively in America.

We worked together on her personal branding over Skype (much as I would have loved to travel to the Middle East!) and quickly identified several of the issues with which she struggled. Aimee's issues were common to other clients, many who are Asian executives, who I've worked with. They all had strong cultural connections to navigate when amplifying their personal brand power.

First, Aimee needed to embrace a "self-focusing" approach to positioning herself. She was raised with the understanding that the team, company, community or family is more important than the individual. While this is valid, the premise of personal branding begins with a deep understanding and appreciation for the unique qualities of the individual, not the team, and what that individual has to offer to the team, company, community and family.

I helped Aimee see that putting her needs and values out front enabled her to understand how she could add value to the organization. This is a good thing! This makes the company and the community better. She learned that focusing first on herself meant she was able to contribute at a higher level.

Next, we looked at how we could package and promote Aimee's unique qualities and skills in a way that differentiated her from her competitors. She was now competing in an American marketplace, where terminology, reputation and skills are very important.

We needed to package her international experience in a way that created a unique value proposition and made her stand apart. This kind of "self-promotion" was foreign to Aimee and made her uncomfortable at times.

We spent a lot of time understanding the functional and emotional needs of her American audiences. Through research, interviews, discussion and surveys, we learned what we needed to do to meld her audiences' needs and her abilities and experience in a marketing approach.

Our targeted and focused strategy meant she would position herself more effectively and proactively, projecting confidence and humility at the same time. Contrary to her previous approach of sending resumes and waiting, we were now going on the offensive and marketing Aimee as a unique asset who was highly sought-after.

Aimee is a very authentic, approachable person, and when she saw how her genuineness could still shine through while she aggressively marketed herself, she felt more empowered and in control of her job-search process.

At the time of this writing, Aimee is considering whether the move to the U.S. is, in fact, her passion. Either way, she is designing a legacy and reputation for herself that is authentic and compelling, in whatever country she decides to call home.

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