For much of my life, I have been described as someone who is “likable”. I have enjoyed the privilege of being likable. For example, I easily make new friends and I easily integrate into new teams. When I started my first job, most people’s initial impression of me was about how likable I was. Great, right? There was much worse they could have said. Yet I was not content, and I was not sure how to explain it. I needed better adjectives.

More than likable.

I attended a corporate event where I heard Carla Harris, Vice Chairman and Managing Director at Morgan Stanley, give a talk titled: “Tools for maximizing success.” (A similar talk she presented at the 2018 LinkedIn Talent Connect meeting is embedded at the bottom this post). Carla explained that the adjectives that people use to describe you when you are not in the room are vital. Moreover, if they do not match the key attributes of your organization, your success will be limited. As I listened to Carla, I quickly started writing the adjectives I would use to describe myself and the organization. I found three that overlapped: technical, innovative, collaborative.

I’ve got work to do.

For the next couple of years, I sought out opportunities to display these traits and modified my vernacular to include these themes, particularly during discussions with my management and technical leadership. This was not easy. As Carla mentioned in her talk, how people perceive you is reality. Thus, it can be extremely hard to demonstrate certain attributes if you are not perceived to possess them. After coaching from leaders outside of my group, I began to find ways to demonstrate these adjectives on all project work.

As I solicited feedback over the next several months, I started to see the change. Two years after I launched this journey to gain alignment on the proper adjectives, I was promoted. Now, less than six months after my promotion, I have been working with my manager to learn the adjectives that describe my current role and the next role to which I aspire to reach.

Tips for figuring out your organization’s adjectives

1. Talk to your manager about your adjectives

A 1:1 conversation with your manager can be enlightening. Most good managers embrace what makes each direct report unique. However, there are often a set of attributes the strong performers exhibit more than others. Ask your manager what qualities they typically see of top performers. Starting this conversation can be difficult so I recommend letting your manager know this is the type of meeting you want to have. This will allow them time to prepare thoughtful responses. Also, I recommend making this be a regular part of your future connects so you can stay calibrated. This also has the benefit of them remaining aware of your development.

2. Talk to others outside of your workgroup about your adjectives

Many times, the adjectives people use to describe your workgroup could be a good starting point. For example, someone outside of the Analytical organization might perceive good analytical chemists as detailed-oriented, problem solvers, and strong communicators. These are excellent adjectives to exhibit. They can also help seed the conversation with your manager.

3. Look at the description inside similar job postings

Job postings are a great way to not only assess the type of tangible skills that make an ideal candidate. But they also often provide language about the characteristics of an ideal candidate.  

Time to differentiate your adjectives

Next, it is time to differentiate from others. Although you had the skills to do the job, it is likely the ‘thing’ that made you unique that gave you the advantage over candidates. On the other hand, differentiation is not limited to showing your unique ability compared to your colleagues. This could be an excellent way to differentiate you from your perceived (or actual) former way of operating. For example, if you were previously considered someone that was slow to deliver in an organization that values speed and efficiency, you could modify your rhetoric to discuss the efficiency gains from your way of approaching challenges.

Get to know yourself and what sets you apart. Take some time to learn what drives you and what demotivates you. For others to buy into your new brand it must be authentic. Be sure to know not only what works for your company, but what also truly works for you. For me, I combine innovation, communication, and technical expertise with my passion for data science in ways that are advantageous for the organization and myself. This ultimately helped me reach my first advancement.

Show people what you bring to the table

Lastly, it is important you do not only talk about your adjectives. It’s time to display them and do so clearly. Every work product, interaction, and presentation should reinforce your adjectives in a way that others cannot easily replicate. Take time to check in with yourself to make sure you are continuing to be unmistakably you.

Carla Harris’ talk put me on a journey to discover my adjectives, to be more than likable. I hope that after you have read this, you’ll discover your own adjectives that will lead to a more successful career. If you enjoyed the post, leave a like, consider subscribing, and sharing. Thanks!

Check out more posts from the blog here 🙂

Edited by: Nicholas Pulliam, PhD and Colby M. (Adolph) Vöst, PhD


  1. Chris, this is a very insightful post. I have never thought about this adjective point of view, but will do so going forward.

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