Walking a tightropeLast week, I participated on a panel discussion about the changing landscape of women entrepreneurship with Susan Penta and Rudi Scheiber-Kurtz at the NAWBO Boston chapter event. That’s not the cool part.

The cool part was during the question and answer part of the presentation. Susan Penta of Midior Consulting and adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Northeastern University strongly urged us to consider that women are too humble and struggle with self-promotion. During the conversation, participants noted that sometimes their ethnic backgrounds had rules about how much attention you draw to yourself while others noted that they were given gender-based messages. You know, the “nice girls don’t do that sort of thing” message. 

There was a great deal of energy during this conversation as it spoke about an experience that many of us struggle with when we have an opportunity to sell our businesses. This is the tight rope that many women entrepreneurs walk. However, if your venture is going to succeed, you must promote it. Since entrepreneurs start small, promoting one’s business is really self-promotion too. Really small businesses know the old sales adage about people doing business with those they like, know, and trust. This is about the sole proprietor. But being aware of promoting oneself is not limited to small business. In large corporations, there is a trend to treat one’s career as if it is a small business. Highlighting your talents and accomplishments is important to moving into your desired position. One participant who is a C-level executive noted that she is in a larger organization that works in teams. It is not her style to point out publicly her performance within the team and she asked if she was making the right choice by subsuming her performance into the team’s performance. Another tightrope.

The conversation seemed to dance around the dilemmas of balancing one’s ethnicity (which is perhaps more of an American dilemma than anywhere else), one’s gender identity, and where one is in the organizational system. The  antidote, according to Ms. Penta, is to be passionate, honest, and act with integrity as this is truly what brings people to want to do business with you. 

Yes, Michael, we talk about this sort of thing in Boston. Just imagine!

But what is humility really? When I think of humility, it is usually in a religous context but I suppose it serves. Real, true humility has little to do with one’s confidence levels. Neither men nor women have a lock on humility. It seems to come from a deeper, more sure type of confidence. I am often inspired by my clients who speak of their businesses as its own entity and less about their prodigious skills at creating a valuable and stable business. They are confident in their promotional messages and the quality of their work but have a detachment that it is not a referendum on their person whether or not someone buys their products or services. These same intentions go into all of their conversations.

On sites like Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn, we are given a stage to present our expertise if we desire. Some people take the stage and ham it up. Or perhaps I should say spam it up. A lot of others take the stage, say their piece, and go onto engage with their followers in conversation. This way the self-promotion carries more weight. There are several on-going conversations on transparency and authenticity on Twitter but a blog post seemed to describe the tightrope between humility and self-promotion in a pretty funny way. In The Great Gatsby’s Last Tweet, Michael Benidt (@michaelbenidt) noted that there were many people who really ought to know better were just jamming their tweets with messages of how awesome they are. 

So, I left a comment:

In a different and yet not so different vein, Shakespeare wrote the line about “all sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

This blog post is part of a theme I’ve been experiencing this week. There is the on-going discussion about transparency. This past week , at the NAWBO Boston chapter event, we had a great discussion about humility and self-promotion. The crux of the conversation was to eliminate hyperbole and be yourself.

Integrity, particularly when one is not face to face, becomes important currency.

Michael Benidt (@michaelbenidt) of Hidden Treasures of the Internet (www.goldencompass.com) was so taken with my comment, he urged me to write a blog post about the conversation at NAWBO about humility and self-promotion. So, what’s really the point about humility and self-promotion? I think Kneale Mann of YouIntegrate (@knealemann) may have gotten it right in his comment in Shakespeare and Shelley Take On Twitter ,

“To butcher the cliché, humility and starvation make strange bedfellows. I wrote recently about trust – do you trust your social network? That’s another tricky one. And it was best answered by someone who commented that our online trust network is no different than the one in person – it depends on the situation. With specific regards to social networking, we often see the “salesman” get attacked immediately if he/she “sells their wares” but how do we let others know what we do or what we are good at? It’s a delicate dance and humility cannot be forgotten – but neither can confidence.”

Over-confidence is really arrogance and contains a high level of insensitivity. There is most certainly a tightrope when promoting on-line. You cannot see with whom you are speaking. It can be difficult to meaure the effectiveness of your message. So what are the rules of promoting oneself in social networking? Well, it seems pretty straightforward. Do what you would do if you were face to face.

What does humility mean to you?

How do you define self-promotion?

What role does authenticity and integrity play in how you conduct business?

Would you throw your business card at everyone you meet without qualifying them in some way?