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Humility, Self-Preservation, and the Art of the Humblebrag

Category : 2019

“Nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility,”

(Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

The Oxford English Dictionary contains more than 829,000 words, senses, and compounds. Over 2,000 words were added to this tome in 2018. Business evolution gave us new terms like e-signature, biohacking, force quit, and airplane mode. Shifts in culture produced notables like vape, binge-watch, a new meaning for the word snowflake, and humblebrag.

A humblebrag is making “an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement with the actual intention of drawing attention to something of which one is proud,” (Oxford Dictionary). Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn provide a wide platform for executive humblebragging. Search #humblebrag on Twitter and the results are endless.

  • A well-known comedian wrote, “Being famous and having a fender bender is weird. You want to be upset but the other driver’s (sic) just thrilled & giddy that it’s you.”
  • One Hollywood celebrity shared, “Totally walked down the wrong escalator at the airport from the flash of the cameras. Go me . . . “
  • A former White House Press Secretary bemoaned, “They just announced my flight at LaGuardia is number 15 for takeoff. I miss Air Force One!!”

Popular web articles attempt to help people traverse the humblebrag minefield with –

  • How to Brag at Work (Without Sounding Like a Jerk)
  • How to Humblebrag at Work to Get Ahead
  • The Tricks to Bragging at Work Without Sounding Arrogant

The obvious implication is that regardless of what floor your elevator stops at, when you humblebrag you may not get ahead, you can sound like a jerk, and you may be perceived as arrogant. Life is full of trade-offs . . .

The Shakespearian question to brag or not to brag pops up in an executive interview with the oft-repeated, “Tell me about your biggest weakness.” The candidate is faced with deciding to be genuinely transparent about something he or she doesn’t do well, or choosing to feign humility while engaging in blatant self-promotion with a line like-

  • So much international travel makes it difficult to build relationships with executives at my club.
  • My drive for perfection makes me impatient with underperformers.
  • I’ve been told my intellect makes it hard for people to relate to me.
  • I’ve found I need to be more deliberate when discussing financials with my team-they don’t seem to grasp numbers as quickly as I do.

A famous 19th century orator noted, “I do hate, of all things, that humility which lives in the face.” Valid research concludes when you try wearing humility on your face, you need to leave room for the egg.

Francesca Gina and Michael Norton at Harvard teamed up with Ovul Sezer at the University of North Carolina to conduct a series of studies into humblebragging, presenting their findings in a paper titled Humblebragging: A Distinct-and Ineffective-Self-Presentation Strategy. Their experiments produced a straightforward conclusion-humblebragging doesn’t get you liked or respected because it is overshadowed by insincerity.

“Perceived sincerity is a critical factor in determining the success of self-presentation . . . We suggest that despite its prevalence, humblebragging may be ineffective in making a favorable impression due to the perceived insincerity it generates . . .” (Gina, Norton, & Sezer). The research went a step farther, noting that humblebraggers are not only considered less sincere, they are considered less competent than those who outwardly brag.

Here are four actions that will keep you out of the humblebrag vortex.

  • Own who you are. No executive is omnicompetent and every executive has one or more areas of weakness. Glossing over a valid competence gap with a humblebrag redirect makes the executive look more like Houdini than a leader. People trust-and follow someone they know tells the truth-even when it doesn’t make the leader’s image shine. Don’t worry about what people think of you . . . they rarely do.
  • Promote your contributions-not yourself. A brand is built on results, not rhetoric. There is nothing wrong with owning and talking about how you helped a company (if it isn’t all you talk about). If you bring on board a record of accomplishment-sell it. Just don’t try to disguise your obvious competence in a ruse of feigned humility or cloaked in a humblebrag.
  • Pursue genuine humility. While rarely chosen as a corporate competence, humility is a quality we highly value in those who aren’t aware they have it. Humility isn’t denying one’s abilities or hiding one’s faults. Humility is leveraging your abilities every way possible while staying keenly aware of when you need others to complement your gaps. Ken Blanchard wisely notes that, “People with humility don’t think less of themselves, they just think of themselves less.”
  • Be candid-and discreet. Avoiding humblebragging isn’t an invitation to be a walking tabloid about your life. Transparency expects truthfulness but doesn’t require full disclosure about every detail.

Author Gene Brown is right. “The really tough thing about humility is you can’t brag about it.”

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Still Flying … Lessons In Resilience

Category : 2019

Resilience is making a comeback in our corporate vocabulary. From Angela Duckworth’s best-selling Grit to the U.S. Army’s Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Program to companies trying to ensure their own cyber survival, resilience is gaining new ground.

Resilience, perseverance, and tenacity were frequent themes during memorial events remembering Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher. Between tears of appreciation and laughter over Kelleher’s unconventional and often edgy approach to anything he did, celebrating the life of this Texas legend became a testimony to the resilience of the company he founded.

A market disruptor before disruption was cool, Southwest began in 1969, but didn’t take off until 1971. Before they could put a plane in the air, three competing airlines filed suit to end Southwest before it began. Kelleher fought the suit to the U.S. Supreme Court and in December 1970, the high court sided with Southwest. Even with the Wright Amendment clipping their wings for 35 years, perseverance and resilience enabled Southwest to become the largest domestic carrier in the United States. In January 2018, the airline announced a 45th consecutive year of profitability.

What makes a person or a company of people resilient? What does it take to recover quickly from a set-back, to spring back into shape after getting hit, or to bounce back again and again from a series of adverse events or stressful circumstances?

The U.S. Army’s resilience initiative includes three training components-mental toughness, signature strengths, and strong relationships. Psychology Today identifies factors of resilience as a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to regulate emotions, and the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback.

Resilience isn’t being smarter than everyone. A study of West Point cadets that make it through their initial training found no correlation between aptitude and grit. And resilience is more than staying at a task after all your resources are depleted. Studies find resilience is developed, not decreed. It is a set of thoughts, behaviors, and deliberate actions that enable a person to recover, reinvent, and return to a goal.

How do we develop this valuable trait? Resilient people are –


In a 2015 article in Harvard Business Review, Shawn Anchor reported 10 years of research found, “when the brain can think positively, productivity improves by 31%, sales increase by 37%, and creativity and revenues can triple.” Anchor went on to say, “the greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain.”


Research from Texas A&M University found the key to resilience is working hard and then stopping, recovering, and trying again. Building resilience requires adequate moments of recovery. A scheduled short break during an intense push, shifting attention to a different subject or task, or carving out time for genuine relaxation on a weekend all contribute to a rested and resilient executive. Resilient executives know that to be fully engaged, the brain needs space to gain new perspectives and regain energy.


When William Casey was the Army Chief of Staff, he launched the Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program to proactively address the challenges impacting soldiers and their families resulting from multiple deployments. The goal was to provide preventative skills that would enable soldiers and their families to face adversity and bounce back stronger than when they started. While not without critics, the program had found building resilience and enhancing performance needs to equally address the physical, social, emotional, family and spiritual dimensions of a soldier’s life. Soldiers weather combat best when they have a solid network of strong relationships.


Resilient leaders are self-aware, accept their limitations, and recognize the fallacies in a plan before they invest more time in something that is designed to fail. These leaders reject the learned helplessness that comes from hiding personal uncertainty under the guise of “risk management.” They own failure as an honest and valued instructor and engage in self-corrective action to find a better road to success.

One final caveat. The downside of cultivating resilience is that you must face situations requiring it to develop it. Considered by many to be a political wash-out in his 50’s, twenty years later Winston Churchill led England through some of the most difficult days in its history. The resilience he called for in the British people was the same resilience he developed in his life, discovering in the crucible of difficulty that, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

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NFL Game Balls

Category : 2019

Are Companies Wisest to Buy Results or Potential?
(or, why is a NFL football broken in before play begins)

(Somewhat Related Preamble: have you noticed that NFL game balls are not used right out of the box? The shiny, slick surface has been removed so that the balls perform in the intended fashion and at the highest level.)

At age 32, Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay made history when he was hired as the youngest NFL coach in modern history. He is joined by six other NFL head coaches under the age of 45. Over the past 20 years, the average NFL coaching hire was 48 years old.

So, what was John Elway thinking when he gave 60-year-old Vic Fangio a four-year contract to lead the Denver Broncos? While other NFL franchises are hiring for the future, Elway chose to leverage the past. When announcing his choice, Elway noted, “There are few things that Vic has not seen in 40 years of coaching. He’s been great on the defensive side of the ball . . . with a simple, detailed approach that gets results. With his intelligence and experience, Vic is as good of a football coach as you can find.”

Many companies think the only place to find qualified candidates is at the fountain of youth. At age 32, Mark Zuckerberg heads the list of the youngest Fortune 500 CEOs. Warren Buffett carries the distinction of the oldest Fortune 500 top executive at age 85. That translates to Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway giving the market 96 quarters of earnings as a Fortune 500 and a stock price around $300,000 per share. Zuckerberg can market 16 quarters of earnings and a stock price closer to $150 per share.

Progressive employers are re-thinking their strategy and hiring professionals with broad resumes of contributions and expertise. How does an executive position his/herself for longevity in a competitive market?

Build the brand around miles traveled, not how long you’ve been on the road.

Many executives on the back half of their career journey aren’t considered for a senior role because they attempt to sell their experience, not expertise and value. Companies are hiring for where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, and what you’ve done-not for how long you’ve been traveling. When an executive talks about “experience” to someone young enough to be their child, the leader unconsciously promotes ageism stereotypes.

Maintain your relevance and transferability.

Being the guardian of a legacy system or proprietary process is a liability, not insurance. Some people mistakenly think creating indispensability is a sure way to ensure career longevity. In a market propelled by disruptive innovation and emerging technologies, refusing to reinvent oneself is a sure way to bring a career journey to an abrupt end. Executives at former telecom giants painfully discovered failing to keep up with industry evolutions was a fast way to look like a dinosaur.

Headline your brand, not your title.

Scan LinkedIn and you see many executives use their headline (the most important part of a profile) to list a current title, not a value contribution. Executives that successfully extend their career journeys demonstrate versatility by clearly communicating how they impact cash, growth, profitability, etc. A solid brand positions someone in the market by promoting results and value. A title promotes an expectation that may have little to do with impact.

Show you have the energy to keep up with the team.

The pace of business and the frequency of change are staggering. Even young professionals are, at times, overwhelmed with employer expectations and job demands. An executive wanting to stay in the game demonstrates he/she has the stamina and energy to keep playing when others want to sit out an inning. Trying to hide greying hair with a poor dye-job or talking about how many hours you played golf over the weekend isn’t how a leader communicates youthfulness. Taking care of your health, losing that extra 20 pounds, and maintaining a pace of work that parallels younger colleagues is a better formula for longevity.

John Elway isn’t the only person hiring someone who brings 40 years of success to a role. Branding, positioning, and engaging with all you bring a potential employer attracts the attention of companies that want results, not potential.

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The Importance of White Space

Category : 2018

How much does your life resemble a webpage designed by an amateur? Competition, short attention spans, distractions, and the fear people won’t stay on a page compel inexperienced web designers to fill every available inch of screen space with content. Parallel factors push executives to fill their lives in a similar way.

Experienced designers know effective design balances images, graphics, or text (positive elements) with white space (negative elements) to ensure the important isn’t crowded out by the insignificant.

 White Space 

Makes it easier to call attention to what is important.
Keeps the unrelated separate.
Engages people more fully.
Creates balance.

White space does for design what white space does in an executive’s life. It creates the room needed to ensure balance, keep the focus on what’s important, and it allows the executive to fully engage with life. Too much white space and we become inefficient and scattered. Too little white space and we follow Henry Kissinger’s playbook when he said, “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.”

The early days of a new year are often marked by commitments, resolutions, and promises to do more, not less. Maybe the key to a more productive 2019 is planning as seriously for what you won’t do as for what will receive your time and energy.

An executive finds desperately needed white space in life the same way a designer creates white space on a page.

Be deliberate.

Designers know white space is created as deliberately as every other element on a page. Good executives engage with a broad spectrum of people and absorb huge amounts of information every day. They are expected to do that, and it takes time-a lot of it. The most effective executives have developed the maturity to no longer evaluate their worth by how many appointments are on a schedule or how many meetings they attend. Their sense of who they are is secure, so they judiciously choose what gets onto the calendar. They naturally create white space by ensuring that purpose determines priorities. They are comfortable saying, “I’m sorry, that time on my calendar is already filled (with white space),” and they offer no explanation or excuse.

Figure out what is primary and keep it that way.

Good designers determine the principal element on a page and they use white space to keep that importance clear. Executives short on white space often haven’t given up trying to prove they can be good at what they aren’t good at. The best leaders have dropped the ruse of omnicompetece and they target their energies toward leveraging strengths, not compensating for gaps.

Use spacing and padding.

Designers know text needs spacing and images need padding-extra room that allows a word or picture to do its work. Knowing a day rarely unfolds as anticipated, a wise executive wanting to maximize his/her impact creates margins of space around important events in a day that allow the leader to mentally shift from one topic (or decision) to another. We gain clarity in decision-making when we aren’t peering through the lingering fog of a previous meeting.

Replace borders with color.

From our first experience with a crayon to learning to drive a car we are told to “stay in the lines.” Many executives advance to senior levels “staying in their lanes” and believing the expertise they developed early in a career will ensure success at higher levels of responsibility. Borrowing from Marshall Goldsmith, “What got you here, won’t get you (or make you successful) there.” Forward-thinking executives recognize that lasting career growth demands no longer operating within the staid border of expertise and leveraging white space to make time to interact with a broad spectrum of people and ideas in the unpredictable color of relational engagement. White space in a life creates white space in the mind where thoughts are challenged, new options are considered, and innovation proliferates.

Jan Tschichold, a pioneer in the world of graphic design was right. “White space is . . . an active element, not a passive background.”

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Brand Velocity

Category : 2018

The end of year brings with it two extremes – times of reflection as we enjoy Christmas carols,

mistletoe, lights, and one more glass of eggnog. This season also brings tremendous velocity with end-of-year deadlines, lists of things to do, and invitations from people we don’t know to events we don’t think we can miss.

The final days of a year are also when career trajectories get a more thorough review. This reflection often prompts a desire for change-a new role, a compensation increase, a promotion, a move to a different employer.

Savvy professionals leverage these moments of reflection to assess their brand velocity. The word velocity comes from velox, the Latin word for swift, and implies movement in one direction. The elements of velocity are also the blocks of a solid end-of the-year brand strategy-a destination, a path, speed, and lift

A Destination:

Unfortunately, some professionals approach their careers like “Alice” in Lewis Carroll’s famous story.  Meeting the Cheshire Cat, Alice asks, “Would you please tell me which way I ought to go from here?”  The Cat replies, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” Alice responds that she doesn’t much care where she goes, to which the cat responds, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

With brand clarity an executive doesn’t waste time considering career options that only offer more cash and a bigger title. An executive with a clear picture of how he/she contributes value and impacts results can more readily move past an opportunity that is interesting to one that is engaging.

A Path:

Even a clear destination, needs an intentional path to get there. Over the next several weeks gyms fill with people convinced they need to “get into shape.” By mid-March attendance returns to normal because well-intended excitement about health lacked a plan and the fortitude to sustain the effort, severely limiting the outcome.

Brands emerge as a positive outcome of consistent, intentional, and sustained action built around an executive’s strengths and unique differentiators. You can’t expect to achieve the goal of a desirable first quarter or midyear career shift without designing and implementing a brand strategy–now. Brands and careers develop in tandem as you build your reputation for results, refine your marketing message, and clearly communicate your impact on what matters to CEOs and Boards.


“We’re lost, but we’re making good time,” makes for an amusing Yogi Berra quote-and a very poor brand strategy. In a competitive market, tempo is critical, and it is effective when aimed at a clear destination using a defined path. The origin of our word “speed” means to succeed or prosper. No one moves ahead unless they move forward. Speed creates the energy that is required for the last component of velocity.


Something flowing over the surface of a body generally exerts an upward force that overcomes the force of gravity and creates lift. Dynamic lift (as in aerodynamic or hydrodynamic) requires movement to occur. A clear destination, a reliable path, and the appropriate amount of speed combine to create the lift required to propel a brand and career to new heights. Any executive looking hard enough will find a plethora of negative reasons for not embracing the risk inherent in any change. Career lift overcomes those resisting forces, allowing a leader to move to brand-expanding options.

A healthy combination of reflection and activity can create the velocity needed to move your career to a new place. Make the most of the holidays by defining and implementing your brand strategy and initiating the actions that will give you reasons to reflect with gratitude at this time next year.

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Digital Technology and the Executive’s Brand

Category : 2018

From big data to analytics to artificial intelligence, digital transformation is driving a seismic shift in the corporate landscape. Executives who leverage the potential of cyber technologies will accelerate rapid growth in their companies while creating dynamic career opportunities for themselves. Leaders adopting a “give it time” mentality will see their professional lives take a trajectory similar to that of companies ignoring this new reality.

The majority of digital transformations fail. A poll last year by technology giant Wipro found that one in five executives say digital transformation is a waste of time. An August 2018 issue of CIO magazine cited the lack of CEO sponsorship, resistance to change, and lack of pace as “specific impediments” to an enterprise becoming a digital leader.

Enterprises are not designed for rapid and adaptive change. As companies grow, they must develop systems and processes that ensure consistent delivery of quality goods and services. The need for systematizing business as it is, fuels a tendency for an executive to embrace change to the degree it doesn’t upset his or her current world.

It’s difficult if not impossible to sponsor a dynamic you don’t understand. Korn Ferry reports that across industries, the average age of a C-suite executive is 58 years old. It is safe to assume the average age of board members is higher. While remembering the day their first personal computer appeared on their desks, these leaders now carry in their pockets more computing power than found in their first PCs. Technology is an addition to their lives, not an ever-present conduit for personal agility.

PayPal CEO Dan Schulman says, “The biggest impediment to a company’s future success is its past success. The same could be said of C-suite executives. This group needs to embrace Marshall Goldsmith’s axiom, “What got you here, won’t get you there.” Senior executives cannot settle with trying to incorporate digital transformation “where it fits” in a current skill set or career strategy any more than they can cautiously engage with the digitization of their businesses. C-suite leaders who want a meaningful role and a credible voice five years from now, will find and use the coordinates for digital transformation to plot a path for lasting relevance.

In a recent report, consulting giant KPMG noted, “True digital transformation starts with the customer and works inwards, connecting capabilities to ensure that every part of the organization is built around delivering great customer experiences.” An executive wanting to build a strong personal brand around digital transformation will look at customers both outside and inside the enterprise. He or she will move beyond accommodating digital transformation to leveraging it to improve communication, create greater transparency, and accelerate responsiveness in every direction.

While speaking of businesses, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also speaks to leaders when he says, “In today’s era of volatility, there is no other way but to re-invent. The only sustainable advantage you can have over others is agility . . . nothing else is sustainable, everything else you create, someone else will replicate.”

Branding is about differentiation. Digital transformation across the globe creates an unmatched opportunity for leaders who are willing to create a unique and highly-valued brand for themselves.