They’re Talking About You
How do people describe you when you’re not there? Take control of the conversation — your next promotion will count on it.
“All major decisions about your career will be made when you are not in the room,” Harris said. “How do you want people to describe you when you aren’t in the room? Pick three adjectives that really describe who you are. Authenticity is important. However, pick three adjectives that are also valued in your organization.” — Carla Harris
Creative, Driven, Curious
That’s how people describe me in three adjectives. How do I know? I took it upon myself to conduct some anonymous research with my colleagues, current and former, as an extension of a self-reflection exercise from a career empowerment workshop.
I finished the career empowerment workshop, and one of the activities was to reflect about what 3 adjectives you want to have come to people’s minds when they think of you. In a true user research fashion, I’d love to get some feedback from you about what three adjectives you would currently use to describe me when I’m not in the room.
The Google Form below is anonymous, but you can also respond directly to this email if you want to start a conversation instead ☺
Why 3 Adjectives?
This exercise is based on the career advice from Carla Harris, about how all important decisions about your career are made when you’re not in the room. She recommends to pick three adjectives that describe you authentically and differentiate you from the next person (who is on the same career track). Ideally these adjectives also align with your organization’s goals — this alignment is like a super power to advance your career within that company.
During the career empowerment workshop I picked adjectives I wanted to come to people’s minds to describe me (which I’ll share later), however I wanted to understand how people actually would describe me and analyze the difference to understand where I needed to grow in order to change people’s perceptions of me.
You can do this too! In fact one of my colleagues did the same exercise after responding to mine. We both learned about gaps in how we want to be perceived and how we are currently perceived.
Step One: Do Your Research, Gather Adjectives
I sent out my request for feedback with a link to an anonymous Google Form to my current and former colleagues. The form was simple, three fields to enter three adjectives, and then an optional page where I revealed my three adjectives and asked for comments about if my adjectives surprised them or not (and why).
I received a good mix of direct and anonymous responses, and I’ve been reflecting on that feedback by digging in and making sense of the data. Looking for patterns and affinities.
Step Two: Map & Analyze Your Adjectives
I used a relationship diagramming tool (Kumu.io) to see and analyze all the adjectives people shared with me. If you’re a visual-spatial thinker like me, I highly recommend linking your Google Sheets results to a tool like Kumu.
The connections show which adjectives were used together. You can see that many people used the word “Creative” as one of my adjectives, as it has many connections to other adjectives.
This diagram is interactive — you can zoom in and drag around the dots.
While each dot is a direct quote, I added the color labels to visually highlight adjectives with similar themes. This is where I took some liberties in categorizing the adjectives into nine abstracted adjective categories to help reveal patterns of behavior that people recognized in me.
You can check out the interactive walkthrough of my Kumu diagram here.
Step 3: Where is the (Current) Center of Gravity?
The most common and interconnected three adjectives are: Creative, Driven, and Curious.
I was honestly surprised by the “driven” adjective. It was something I wouldn’t have associated with myself. However it’s obvious that others see that element in me.
My gut instinct was to shy away from the adjective “driven” — that it’s somehow too brash of an adjective to own. However after sitting with it for a while, I’m getting comfortable with using that adjective for myself. Yes, I am driven. I am driven to build the right thing. I am driven to push myself beyond my comfort zone. I am driven to help others grow. I am driven, while also happy, joyful, and warm.
Speaking of happy and warm — at first I was disappointed to receive these types of soft adjectives. Then I had the impromptu opportunity to be a mentor at the Grace Hopper Celebration Speed Mentoring session. One of the women complimented me afterwards, and said that I was joyful.
Hearing that feedback, and personally witnessing how engaged my mentees at the table were, I saw that my joy and passion has the power to be infectious. To inspire others to also be driven, to learn about new topics.
Step 4: Where Do I Need to Grow?
The three adjectives I had written down for myself at the beginning of this exercise were: Strategic, Human-Centered, and Leader. These were the three adjectives I wanted to come to people’s minds when they’re making decisions about my career, about if I deserve that next promotion or not.
I am encouraged that at least one person saw me as a leader. However, I am disappointed that no one associated me with being strategic. Does that mean that I’m not strategic? No! It just means that they see all these other amazing adjectives in me. In fact, one of my trusted colleagues pointed out that the adjectives given are associated with being a good leader, and with being strategic .
I took a closer look at what links my most common adjective (creative) to one that I want to see become more common (leader).
The links between “creative” and “leader” are “knowledgeable” and “smart.” It’s also interesting to see more “driven” related adjectives nearby as well such as “tenacious” and “deliberate go-getter.”
In case you were wondering, for any trio of adjectives, the adjective with two outward arrows is the 1st adjective, the adjective with one in and one out is the 2nd adjective, and the adjective with two inward arrows is the 3rd.
Taking this all in, what I am going to focus on is strengthening the Creative Leader part of my adjective map. What it means is that I need to do more than I have been doing to be perceived as a leader.
So what I am doing? Well, it is known that to get promoted to higher levels of technical leadership at my company that you need to have external professional visibility. To that end, I am actively submitting my V/AR rapid prototyping workshop, Play Before Pixels, to external conferences.
I’m also stepping up to being a mentor to other technical women through the Anita B Mentoring Program. That means I’m committing to having mentoring sessions available every month. Pre-register for the mentoring program and search for me to book a session (Mentoring sessions available Monday’s from 1:00–1:30 Pacific Time).
I’ve also started including my professional summary of what I do at the bottom of every Medium article, starting with “Design Strategy, User Experience Design, Interaction Design” just to get that word association going between me and strategy.
They’re Talking About You — Take Control of the Conversation
The power in Carla Harris’s point about people making career decisions for you when you’re not in the room is that you have the ability to change that conversation. To change it, you first have to understand how people would currently describe you. Ask the question, collect the data, analyze, self-reflect, and make an action plan. Because without doing anything differently, those adjectives won’t change no matter how much you wish they would.
3 Adjectives Exercise Re-cap
- Write down your own 3 adjectives that you want people who are making decisions about your career to think about when you’re not in the room.
- Create a Google Form to collect 3 adjectives anonymously, and send an invitation to colleagues.
- Analyze the adjectives you receive. I linked Google Sheets with Kumu.io to analyze mine visually.
- Make a plan on how you will grow
It was a bit daunting to be vulnerable and ask for this type of feedback, but it’s also empowering once you do it. Like diving into the deep end of the pool. No one you ask for this feedback is going to be cruel. They are going to see you as someone who is trying to self-improve. Every response you get is a bit of encouragement to keep going and become your best, authentic self.