Entrepreneurship, Experience, Work

Influencing Your Career when You’re Not There with Just Three Words

January 3, 2019

I spent the greater part of last year thinking about career growth and what others perceive about me and my work. Two things catalyzed some insight and change for me. The first was this rather provocative quote I caught out of the corner of my eye, posted to a friend’s Facebook feed:

A different version of you exists in the minds of everyone who knows you.

Mind blowing. Absent of telepathy, this is undeniably true. Everyone else carries a copy of you built on their own perceptions and interactions with you. That copy can have an outsized influence on your life if it’s carried by a person in a position of authority or power over you. So how can you influence the other person’s copy? It takes just three words.

“You can train people to think about you in the way you want. But first, you have to define exactly what you want them to think using adjectives. Pick three adjectives you’d like people to use to describe you when you’re not in the room. The three adjectives about yourself should be true. They should also be adjectives that are valued in your organization. Once you have your three adjectives, you need to consistently behave in ways that make people associate those words with you. Everything you do should revolve around those three adjectives.”

Carla Harris, Wall Street Veteran

Why 3 Adjectives?

The idea of gathering three adjectives was the second catalyst and is based on the advice of Carla Harris, a Wall Street veteran who’s gone on to teaching others about devising career strategies. She has one key insight that rings very true to this corporate innovator- that most important decisions about your career, including career growth and compensation, are made when you’re not in the room. See this to learn more:

It really matters, then, what those who are in the room perceive about you. Ms. Harris recommends that you aim for three adjectives that differentiate you from the others around you. These must be words that authentically represent you and serve as a mantra for your career direction in that company.

Innovative, Passionate, Caring

That’s how people describe me in three adjectives. I know this because earlier this year I conducted some anonymous research with my work colleagues and friend network. Why? I had recently done a career crafting workshop and began thinking about how others perceive me at work and in my volunteering life.

The Process

My colleague Saara introduced me to this exercise. I’ve adopted her process (read about it here), but added a few of my own twists. You can do it too!

Step 1: Do Your Research, Gather Adjectives

I sent out my request for feedback to current and former work colleagues, with a link to an anonymous Google Form. The form was very simple- three required fields to enter three adjectives about me. I allowed people to enter more than one word, but chose not to reveal the three adjectives I had chosen for myself. I received 22 anonymous responses and another 7 directly, from friends who were curious about what I was doing.  They encouraged me to poll people from the startup and volunteering sides of my life. I sent out a similar form on my LinkedIn and Facebook profiles and received an additional 35 responses.

Step 2: Analyze Your Adjectives

I started by examining surveys from coworkers and from friends/family separately using Google Sheets. I quickly surfaced the top three concepts from each by counting the number of instances of each word (note: I combined variants and misspellings into a single word, so Innovation, Innovator, and Innovate became Innovator). Here’s what I found:

Top 3 Words
Innovative (10)
Passionate (5)
Resourceful (4)
Volunteers, Friends, Family
Caring (6)
Passionate (6)
Kind (4)

I was surprised to see that “Passionate” was the second adjective in both Top 3 Words lists but nothing else was common. This merited a deeper look, but the spreadsheet format was too limiting.

Step 3: Find the Relationships

I quickly realized that crunching data whetted my appetite for a visual representation. I used kumu.io, a relationship diagramming tool, to analyze the entire set of adjectives people had sent to me (191 words, 111 unique). I was also interested in seeing how the sequence of three adjectives related to each other, so I assigned each word a category, related by theme. So Inventor and Resourceful were categorized as Innovation. I chose eleven categories that felt like abstractions of the words chosen for me. They are:


You can see which adjectives were used in this diagram, which adjectives occurred most often, and how the adjectives were linked in this diagram. I couldn’t resist adding some pictures to my top 3 adjectives.

Note: This diagram is interactive. You can zoom in/out and drag the bubbles around. Click/Tap here if it doesn’t appear below.

Step 4: Locate the Center of Gravity

The Center of Gravity (CoG) is the part of the map with the most frequently occurring and most highly connected words. These words are the core of others’ perceptions of you. My CoG consists of Innovative and Passionate, which are highly interconnected to each other and to the other adjectives. Interestingly, Caring is off by itself, never connected from the other two! I was most surprised that my CoG is anchored by four more medium bubbles: Helpful, Compassionate, Smart, and Resourceful. After thinking it over, it makes sense that these are knotted together- these are the characteristics of mentors and entrepreneurs, both of which are very much part of my identity.

Step 5: Find the Gap and Take Action

As a reminder, I started this exercise by choosing three adjectives I wanted people to describe me when I am not in the room. These adjectives need to align with my organizations and be authentically me. The three adjectives I had chosen for my professional life were: Innovator, Strategic, and Leader.

Initially I was perplexed and dismayed that only one of the three appeared in my Center of Gravity. Does this mean that I’m neither Strategic nor a Leader? Not necessarily. The reason it took me so long to write this post was that I spent a lot of time talking to colleagues and friends trying to understand my map. I found three related themes:

  1. People tend to see my approach to problem solving rather than any single area of expertise.  Related adjectives such as Creative, Curious, Futuristic, are peppered in the center of my map.
  2. People couldn’t point out where I lead, but were eager to talk about my leadership style, which is based in mentoring. Related adjectives that describe the qualities of good leaders, such as Compassionate, Insightful, Change Maker, Bridge Builder, surround the center of my map. Read more about these qualities at HBR.
  3. People took multiple concurrent projects as an inability to focus and a lack of overall strategy. This one stung a bit, if I’m being honest.

What binds these together is that I’m a multipotentialite (AKA polymath, generalist) with multiple concurrent projects. I’m most satisfied when I can combine multiple interests into a single project (what I call “crossing the beams”). It’s clear that multiple projects confuse people and diffuse the perception away from focused adjectives.  There is a lot to consider. I need to concentrate on the Leader and Strategy parts of my adjective map. I have to change the way I work to turn the diffuse cloud of leadership qualities into a solid perception of leadership. I think I can surface the perception of strategy by building thought leadership in that space.

So what am I doing? I’m going to focus on the actions I’m taking at my company, which values technical leadership, as measured by external visibility.

As Innovator, I have been professionally speaking about Generative Design in 3D Printing and AI in Space Exploration. This year I’m going to emphasize another Passion area – Innovation Leadership – and speaking at conferences about corporate innovation and startup programs. I’ll also be blogging more on these subjects.

For Strategy, I’m stepping up my commitment to teaching my 1-Hour Strategy workshop outside my mentoring sessions. This is a technique I’ve developed based on decision quality, which has been used by several colleagues and mentees to change the direction of their startups and careers. More on this in future posts.

For Leader, I’m going to apply the skills I’ve learned from Multipliers, an amazing book about inspiring outsized results from teams. While this book is made for direct managers, it’s possible to apply the techniques towards working groups (dotted-lines in matrixed organizations) and even volunteer organizations. I’ve started down this path by delegating opportunities related to my Innovation projects to my mentees and guiding them towards success. If you’re interested in working in 3D Printing, AI in Space, or Innovation systems, please contact me.

Lastly, I’m going to be speaking about myself as I’d like others to speak about me. I’ve recently changed my LinkedIn bio to emphasize Innovation Leadership. I’ll be recomposing my speaker bio to create the associations between Leadership, Innovation, and Strategy as well.


Thanks for sticking around to the end! This was a long process, one which required a lot of personal introspection and vulnerability on my part. It was daunting to ask for this feedback and humbling when I first began analyzing it. Those that responded did so because they wanted to help and they wanted to see me improve. If you participated in my surveys, I want to sincerely Thank You.

Carla Harris’ observation that people make career decisions about you when you’re not in the room has a flipside. You can take control of that conversation, by first understanding how they speak about you today and then devising a path to where you’d like to go. You can do this too. Ask people in your network the right questions, collect the data, analyze, introspect, and take action. If you don’t, nothing will change. Be the change you want to see in yourself.

3 Adjectives Exercise Recap

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.

  1. Gather 3 adjectives anonymously. I suggest sending a Google Survey to colleagues and friends requesting just three words. Optionally show them the three you’ve chosen for yourself.
  2. Analyze the adjectives. I used Google Sheets to do my initial analysis, which was limited to sorting and statistics. Here’s a sample of my own sheet to get you started.
  3. Find the relationships between the adjectives using a visual map. I used Kumu but you can use any visualization tool. Here’s a link to my Kumu map.
  4. Locate your Center of Gravity in your Kumu map. You might need to rearrange the bubbles to locate it.
  5. Find the gaps and take action.  Your map may reveal connections between where you are now and where you’d like to go. Devise actions that help you transition to the new words.




Huge thanks to for inspiring this post Saara and to Ragni and Vera for their critical review!

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