'Tactful self-promotion' can go a long way to help advance a career

Nancy Burke and Richard Dodson, the authors of the book "The Art of Tactful Self-Promotion at Work" are photographed in the atrium of the Capella Tower in Minneapolis, Minn.

MINNEAPOLIS — With decades of experience in human resources and having worked together for years at the Twin Cities office of Lee Hecht Harrison, a career services firm, Nancy Burke and Richard Dodson always joked they should write a book. That joke became a reality in 2013 when they decided it was time to put their years of expertise in career consulting on paper. The two decided to specifically focus on an area they felt was seldom discussed but that a lot of clients struggled with: how to promote yourself in the workplace. In January 2016, they published the book “Power Your Career: The Art of Tactful Self-Promotion at Work.” It provides tips for employers, jobseekers, and recent graduates on how to show themselves off in the workplace. Even after deciding to write, the process wasn’t easy, as Burke and Dodson described in an interview. Some excerpts:

Question: What inspired you to decide that it was time to actually sit down and write the book?

Burke: The genesis of the idea was Richard’s initially. It’s actually explained in the first couple paragraphs of the book. He and his coworker (Laura) were walking down the hall and they see the boss. And he asked, “How is it going?” and Laura says, “It’s great. We just finished the designs for the interviewing skills and beta-tested it. I think it’s going to be great.” The boss asks Richard how he was and Richard said, “Fine.” When the boss left, Laura said, “How do you expect the boss to know what you are doing if you don’t tell him?” That whole idea of having to promote yourself came from that.

Dodson: Nancy and I worked together for a number of years with people who were struggling with their careers and trying to get ahead but weren’t succeeding. Turned out that it’s not that they aren’t talented or don’t deliver great value to their companies, but nobody knew who they were. So we started speaking a lot on that topic and started calling it tactful self-promotion. We’ve harvested stories over the years from real people.

Q: How did you decide what would be in the book?

Burke: What we did was, we started with an outline of what we were talking about — basically taking all the PowerPoints of what we were talking about and creating stories around them. The first time we thought it would be easy and just write down the stories we tell people. We got the first draft done, about 150 pages, and were feeling good about ourselves. We sent it to a developmental editor. And it was brutal — it was good feedback, but it was brutal.

Q: Was that a turning point for the book?

Burke: Yes. We rewrote the book after that.

Dodson: It was a make-it-or-break-it moment. We had to deliver content in book form that wasn’t preachy and (that) people could relate to. He gave us feedback where it felt like we were just filling in the blanks. We had to decide if we were going to dump the project.

Burke: We licked our wounds for a couple of months and rewrote it completely. I sat in front of the computer one day and I didn’t know what to write, I put all my stuff in there and I didn’t know what to do. We started brainstorming. We came up with the idea to have four characters throughout the book to follow and put stories we have experienced in the four characters in the book. That got us started again writing the book.

Dodson: It gave us the ability to organize our content around four key audiences. The consultant who is just starting off, somebody who just lost their job, a female executive who is bouncing off the glass ceiling and she needs to promote herself, and a college grad who is working as a waitress for her first job. Every chapter revisits each of these characters. We were able to create four narratives that play out throughout the book.

Q: What do you say to people who think self-promotion is common sense and don’t need advice?

Burke: One question for them is, do you ever want to make a change in your career or stay where you are? If you want to make a change, well, how robust is your network? How many people do you know that could really go to bat for you, that you could go to for help? I might start saying, do you know how to promote yourself and talk about yourself, do you have a resume that promotes yourself?

Dodson: I haven’t found someone who hasn’t thought they could do a better job at self-promotion. It’s more of a resistance to the idea of self-promotion that it seems braggy. I would say, if you’re not going to promote yourself, who is going to do it for you?

Q: What’s the biggest component readers can take away from the book?

Dodson: Because everybody is approaching the content in this book from a different point in their career, I think what’s valuable about the book is the overarching model. It’s a place to start; each of the strategies can be applied to wherever you’re sitting in your career. It gives a road map of what kind of things you should be thinking about. You don’t have to do everything in this book; it’s a bunch of ingredients for how you create a dish or a career for what you need. You are able to pick and choose what works for you, and there are a lot of ingredients in here.

Burke: If you pick one or two things from the book, you can really make a difference. It can be extremely helpful for someone coming out of school because you’re on your own.