The Painful Collective Thesaurus

I have made the decision to drive a new path in my career. I quit a great job working with great people because I want to add new colors and shapes to my career, including other companies in my future. Now I embark on “The Job Hunt,” and I have to write about myself, of course, in this process. Ugh.

I can create pretty damn interesting stories about others. I can find threads that others didn’t notice and paint mental pictures that cause others to course correct. People have said to me, “The way you put things into words is always just so perfect!” Enter stage right, the task of writing my own story. And let’s just be real: when you’re looking for a new job, that story has to tell the best story of you!

Buzzwords are my current enemy. One by one, buzzwords dilute our collective mental thesaurus into meaningless crap. Hyper-utilization of the words in the list below means I can’t use them to describe my own experience, expertise, or practice without engaging the mental “buzzword alarm” as any astute resume-reader should. Here are my entries:


I recently wrote about my view on Being Authentic in your Career, which happened to coincide with a fabulous open dialog between Adam Grant and Brene Brown. The heart of their conversation is about the misinterpretation or misuse of the word itself! Authentic assessment in the K-12 education space is another great example. While start-ups try to claim the world using the term, business leaders and education leaders roll their eyes. The reality is that if you have a chance to observe this in practice, you see great teachers being the facilitator, guide, coach, friend, and practitioner that every parent hopes their child will experience in just one of the many classrooms they will experience for 13 years.

In my experience, I have built confidence and conviction in others because of operating with authenticity. People believe me when I give them a vision, because they have seen me in action; they know I’ll take the hill with them, and I won’t do it without good reason. I take the time to build trust and I make the effort to leverage an honest point of view of myself and others, while respecting boundaries. I empathize with others to help create a plan for action; I bring others with me in my success, and I protect those who come with me. And probably most importantly, if I fail to uphold any of the aforementioned responsibilities, I apologize and course correct.

If, as an individual or business, you can deliver on that, the good news is that you will no longer have to rely upon this buzzword; your results will speak for themselves.

Team Builder

This one is interesting because of both words: team and build.

In a company, it basically only takes permission and an org chart to be called a team. A function is distinct from the employees, and employees in the same function are not a team until they are. A manager may be responsible for the output of multiple people, but until they can actually produce something together that is more powerful than individually, then they are simply all reporting to the same person. That thing they produce together may be a product, but it is more likely a feeling first. When colleagues begin to truly feed off of one another and support each other's ideas, A+B can equal C instead of just A+B. What’s more, this feeling that leads to innovation can be created with people who do not report within the same hierarchical structure. I have put energy into creating teams of both types. I have brought people together across department lines who didn’t previously realize the power of their teamwork, and I have created structural organizations that felt like a family (only with less baggage and more drinking).

Building “team” and growing an organization also differ. I have experienced both. A manager may step into a role with a fully (or at least nearly fully) staffed group. It is the manager’s job to create a new dynamic that elevates whatever was there before. Even if they functioned as a team previously, management change creates a new energy that must be intentionally designed from the start. In other cases, a manager’s objective is to bring in new talent and increase the size of the group, or possibly replace staff to up-level the quality output. The process of staff additions and of staff replacement are pivotal moments in team building. If the original remaining team members have a positive view about how these actions are handled, it will establish a bench strength that you can build upon. I know this firsthand. When I formed a user experience team with 4 acquired UI designers and 3 product designers, I knew they had to feel it. And they did, because I genuinely cared about them as individuals and as a team, and I helped them find ways to make their own contributions even more powerful by combining their strengths. Those original three have grown into company leaders and 9 years later still talk about those formative years with love.

But, hey… go do some “team building” with motivational posters around your office, huh? Maybe a trust fall? Fabulous.

Change Agent

I’ve written quite a bit on the topic of getting others to come along with change you’ve envisioned. Leading change is a specialized skill, and it does not happen by speaking over others, informing others of what they should think, or sending out a memo. It does include conviction, clarity, empathy, and repetition. It is sustained work and you have to believe in the vision.

The list goes on…

Some of my least favorite buzzwords in the painful collective thesaurus also include, in no particular order:

  • Trail Blazer — let’s just be clear, “blazing” must happen. Knocking down a few branches along the way is valuable, but making a new path for others to easily follow is an entirely different task.
  • Learner — having learned something does not make one a learner. Someone who craves context, perspective and knowledge at a near constant pace is a learner. Frankly, it has some downsides. It can create distraction (I know this firsthand!) unless well-managed, but can be incredibly powerful when combined with other talents such as team building and (wait for it…) innovation.
  • Innovator — this one is tough to grumble about. One one hand, I strongly agree with the value of small innovations. I do not believe that innovation only comes in the form of full-blown first-in-market concepts. For companies, the measurement of innovation should be externally applied, not internally. Doing better than you did last quarter is meaningless. Did you achieve something that can reasonably be defended as top-notch in its category?

Many professionals have truly accomplished the feats of these descriptors and deserve recognition. Let’s give it to them by using the right word for the job. If you want to be an innovative, trail-blazing change agent, do it!! Just take care in how you describe it — focus on the impact. That’s my goal.

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