I am working with several coachees at the moment, and one area that is a common focus, particularly for women, is self-advocacy. This topic can be problematic for people, especially those of us who prefer our work to speak for itself. When is it appropriate to make our needs, wants and accomplishments known, and what is the best way to do it?
The need for self-advocacy isn’t always apparent, particularly in the early stages of our careers. When our work is highly task-focused, tied to a delivery schedule or otherwise clearly bounded, it is easier to see how well or poorly we are completing it. To an extent, the work does speak for itself. As we move further along the career path and opportunities become more contested, the people who deliver good quality work and are known and visible for the right reasons are the ones who are more likely to advance. When the challenges become difficult to quantify, and deliverables can be multi-year, it can be much harder to tell the superstars from the outside. People need to raise their own profiles, either directly or indirectly, to stand out.
One person I’m coaching at the moment has put the situation this way:
I have done everything I’m supposed to. I have put in the work, I’ve studied. Even with all of that, I’m not getting the results I expect in my career.
This feedback is common, not just with coachees, but also with people I’m mentoring at work.
I have been in this situation myself. I put a lot of time and effort into my day job. I want to be known for high-quality work. I want to be known as a good manager. I previously held five roles simultaneously, delivering across the board on all of them. Yet, despite this, not only was I not advancing, I wasn’t being acknowledged, compensated or even thanked for it by the people I reported to.
This sort of situation can be deeply demoralising. In order to have different results, we need to be clear firstly on what we want to achieve. We need to have outcomes to aim for, so we can adjust our approach to get there. This clarity of thinking is the basis of self-advocacy and coaching. Without clear goals, we cannot have a point of aim.
Once we are clear on what we want, we have to have an approach to get us there. In my case, I wanted to be doing exciting work with supportive colleagues and be compensated for it. To achieve those aims, I had multiple, straightforward conversations with my leadership and senior leaders in other parts of the organisation. I also explored options outside of the company. Then, when I chose my next role, I continued the transparent conversations with my new management on what I wanted to achieve and what outcomes I wanted to deliver for myself and them.
These conversations can be deeply uncomfortable if we are not used to making it clear what we want to achieve. It can be helpful to use your network to challenge you when you have a position you want to advocate for. Having people who help you practice saying what you want and how to say it can take much of the fear and discomfort out of the “real” discussions. Note that the focus is not on self-promotion but self-advocacy. While rabid self-promoters often do advance quickly in certain cultures, I believe it is ultimately a self-limiting behaviour.
As managers and leaders, we have to make it easier for people to have these sometimes difficult conversations with us. We must provide the time and space for our teams to be clear about what they want and ask them often. We also have to advocate for others – particularly those who are not as practised or as empowered to advocate for themselves. The funny thing is, by advocating for others, we are also advocating for ourselves. Supporting the growth of others helps both us and the organisations we work for achieve our overall goals.