How to Raise Your Profile Without Raising a Ruckus

The road to thought leadership is fraught with peril. Here are some things to consider before you get behind the lectern.

Rodney Masney took some heat from his company when his comments recently appeared in a national newspaper.

He was speaking on general trends to a reporter on behalf of the Americas' SAP Users' Group, but when his comments appeared in print, they seemed to stem more from his position as global director of IT infrastructure services at Owens-Illinois Inc., a Perrysburg, Ohio-based maker of packaging materials.

"The executive team saw that and wanted to know why I was speaking on behalf of the company," says Masney. "There wasn't a tremendous amount of damage, but I got called out."

Masney learned from the experience. "All you can say is, 'I'm sorry, and next time around, I'll be more careful to be clear about what organization I'm representing when speaking,'" he says -- noting that for this article, he's speaking from his own broad range of personal experiences.

That incident aside, Masney says his work in the spotlight has been positive, bringing him new challenges and skills.

Career counselors and IT leaders alike say that cultivating a reputation as an expert in your industry can be extremely beneficial, creating increased job security, valuable contacts and personal satisfaction.

"It sets you up for long-term career management. And there's a satisfaction that your hard work is paying off -- that you're getting recognition for all your expertise," says Pam Lassiter, principal of Lassiter Consulting in Boston.

But as Masney's experience shows, such activities carry risks that can trip up even experienced professionals.

You can manage those risks using old-fashioned business skills -- such as time management, career planning and relationship-building techniques -- as well as healthy doses of cultural awareness and common sense. And it's best to know how to use them before you get behind the lectern.

Bide your time

"You're talking about stepping into the spotlight, so it's very important to think about how you do this and where, to understand what your opportunities are today and what you want for the future," says Marian F. Cook, CEO of Ageos Enterprises Inc., a management consulting firm in Wheaton, Ill.

Cook knows. She started to seek speaking gigs in the late 1990s as a way to build her reputation and the contact list she needed to launch her own business. But those speaking commitments soon took up more and more time without delivering significant value to her.

"I thought I had to say yes to every opportunity, and it took away from my work-life balance. I was spending too much time, too many nights, doing [presentations] that weren't furthering my own goals," says Cook, who was working in IT strategy for a Chicago-based dot-com at that time.

After several years of this, Cook reassessed her strategy. She became more particular about the speaking opportunities she sought and accepted, judging them by the topics to be discussed as well as the venues where they were scheduled.

Her selectiveness paid off. Cook says she nearly halved the 20 hours she had been spending every month on such activities while managing to get better contacts and increased visibility from the work she did do.

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