Early in his advertising career, Ernest Lupinacci faced the ultimate paradox in corporate America: how to stand out while still being a "team player." A junior writer for the ad firm Weiss, Whitten, Carroll, Stagliano, he had dreamed up a little ad for Moosehead beer featuring Bill Clinton. The kicker: "Proof that President-elect Clinton didn't avoid the draft." The ad was pure gold—inexpensive, controversial, and true (Clinton did, in fact, drink Moosehead). But as reporters from outlets as varied as Modern Brewery Age and The New York Times lined up to get the story behind the campaign, Lupinacci's boss, the creative director, was the one who took the calls. "This is how it works," his boss assured him. "You're part of a team." Having his first big break muffled in the name of teamwork? "There's no denying it," Lupinacci admits. "A little bit of my soul died."
No question, teamwork is in and lone wolves are out in the modern organization, and that can make it tough for the individual to shine. Companies are loath to play up one employee's contribution over another's for fear of damaging morale or creating a star system. And coworkers hate a braggart.
But you don't have to sublimate personal glory in the name of the team. "Forget sacrificing the credit to others: Communism didn't work," says executive coach Marshall Goldsmith. "We live in a capitalist world—but when we go to work, we're supposed to pretend we have no self-interest?" Given that companies aren't likely to buck the team spirit anytime soon, we set out to discover how to take credit without coming off like a self-promoter.
In team-based cultures, highlighting your accomplishments does require a delicate balancing act. "I've been screamed at for using the word 'I' in emails and meetings," says Jennifer Handshew, a public-relations exec. "Even though you have a personal relationship with the client, agencies want to give the impression that clients are paying for a team." Handshew, who has 10 years of experience, has found that working with smaller clients lets her better spotlight her achievements. The highest-profile assignments, though nice, are the ones where the boss will invariably take the credit.
Even in a big-league situation, though, you can express what your contribution was, as long as you have the self-esteem to put yourself first. "Being confident means being a little egotistical," says John Palumbo, a marketing executive who has launched major campaigns for Nintendo and AT&T. "But be honest and upfront. Walk through your thought process—how you presented the idea and how it came to be. If your idea was just the spark, say you were just the spark." If you're concerned about how the team will react, remember to have a sense of humor. "When I claim a project, I'm always a bit tongue-in-cheek," he says.
There are real risks to disappearing inside a team. "Someone once told me to be a team player, to hide in the tall grass," says Blythe McGarvie, a former CFO at BIC Group, the pen maker, and at Hannaford Bros., a supermarket chain. "Later I learned that if you hide in the tall grass, you're going to get mowed under when it's time for a layoff or reduction. You have to stand out. Mowed around is better."
To make sure you stand out, establish a direct line of communication with someone above you, says Sunny Bates, media headhunter and author of How to Earn What You're Worth (McGraw-Hill, 2004). Follow up with summary notes to a direct report of meetings and personal achievements. "Don't hit people over the head with a laundry list of what you've done," she cautions. "Just recap now and then. It's amazing how rare that is." And if for whatever reason your boss isn't hearing it, try to find a mentor among your superiors. Regularly checking in, say every couple of weeks, will allow you to summarize your recent accomplishments while cultivating a personal advocate in the upper ranks.
When trying to convince upper management of your worth, you need to position your accomplishments strategically. Getting noticed isn't about hogging all the credit but claiming the right credit. "Remind them how your achievements benefit them, the company, and you," Goldsmith says. "A good team player can be someone who has lots of self-interest."
McGarvie, the author of Fit In, Stand Out (McGraw-Hill, October 31) remembers an IT worker at Hannaford who stood out from the team. The worker pointed out that steering shoppers to use debit cards rather than credit cards would save the company millions in fees. "He alerted us to the benefits, and he followed up and implemented it on the technology side," she says.
It's that willingness to take the lead, McGarvie says, that distinguishes team players who deserve individual acknowledgment from everyday team players. McGarvie didn't single him out for recognition over the team in their biweekly meetings, but when the project was near completion, she offered him a broader role in the company.
There are times, though, when you simply have to share the glory. Since his Moosehead days, ad man Lupinacci has gone on to write ads for Priceline.com (yep, those William Shatner ads were his) and to work for Wieden+ Kennedy, where he penned ads for ESPN's SportsCenter and Nike. He launched his own firm, Anomaly, last year, to early acclaim. And when Jay Leno asked Shatner, on The Tonight Show, if crooning the Priceline.com ads was his idea, Shatner essentially claimed the credit. Was Lupinacci upset? Not really. He says he got ahead over the years by touting the achievements of groups, not his individual role in them. Getting to the point where there is an achievement to tout at all, he claims, is the important part. "If it doesn't get produced and seen, it doesn't matter how much ownership you have in the idea," he says. "Better to be able to claim some involvement in a hit, rather than complete ownership of something that never saw the light of day."
A version of this article appeared in the November 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.