Carla Harris, current Vice Chairman of Morgan Stanley, was only five or six years into her job when she received some unexpected feedback from a trusted senior advisor.
“You know, you’re smart, you work hard, but I don’t think you’re tough enough for this business,” he told her.
His statement took her aback. Was this really his perception of her? If so, that was a huge problem. As a woman on Wall Street, “not tough enough” was the last thing she wanted people to be saying. In addition, it wasn’t even true. Carla was authentically a tough person – and it was critical people perceived her that way if she was going to advance in her career.
Your Keywords are Your Destiny
The problem with perception is that it becomes reality. How people describe you becomes your personal brand at work, a shorthand for how people to refer to you, especially when they don’t know you well. “Carla is nice and gets a lot of work done, but she holds back in meetings. Is she confident? Is she tough enough for our business?”
Managing that perception is a lot like how marketers focus on SEO, or search engine optimization – in other words, where does your website rank in search visibility? If someone types “best pet groomer in my area” into Google, is your pet grooming business in the first few results? Owning that combination of keywords is critical to climbing the search rankings and helping people find you. Marketers go to great trouble to make sure their keywords are all over their website and used to describe them in accompanying social media or review platforms. The more other people are talking about them in the right terms, the higher they rank in the search and the more eyes on their business.
It is just the same for our own careers. If we don’t actively choose our personal keywords, people will come up with ways of describing us that are based on their own perception. If they have only ever encountered us in a weekly Monday morning meeting, then they will formulate an opinion of us based on that. If we don’t often speak in that meeting, then we become “quiet,” perhaps seen as shy. This is Malcolm Gladwell’s idea of “slices,” – most people experience us not in the full range of our lives but only in a very specific context. They use these little slices to decide who we are.
People also bring their own lenses to each experience. Maybe the person who only meets us in the Monday meetings is not a morning person. Their mood colors their perception of us. That isn’t our fault, but it does become our problem. From Monday morning meetings to Zoom-only workplaces, people see us in a multitude of ways, and it becomes our job to fill in the white spaces. We need to choose – and own – our set of keywords.
Optimizing Our Search Results
I had this experience recently. A former colleague of mine, Peter, who I hadn’t seen in years, introduced me as, “the best marketer I’ve ever known.” Being the best marketer Peter has ever known isn’t a bad thing, and I wasn’t upset about it! However, while it was accurate to how Peter knew me way back then, it isn’t accurate anymore. In the years since I’ve known Peter, I have run operations and strategy, turned around a number of companies, and founded my own. I have become so much more than a marketer.
Now that I knew Peter saw me this way, I had an opportunity to fill in the gaps, bringing him up to speed on my experiences since we have seen each other. Like Carla, I had stumbled into a new awareness of how someone saw me, but that feedback is also something I could seek out proactively. Perception interviews with a trusted friend or advisor can be an excellent way to understand how you are currently popping up in the search results.
Then, how do you change that perception to match your chosen keywords? In Carla’s case, she decided she was going to spend the next 90 days launching a campaign to be known as the toughest person at Morgan Stanley. As she put it, she decided to, “walk tough, talk tough, eat tough, and drink tough.” Carla would use phrases such as, “my team and I had a tough challenge to deal with, and this is what we accomplished.” When people would ask for her opinion on a management roadshow presentation, she would say, “Tell me about this CEO. Is this guy sensitive? Does this guy have a thin skin? Cause you know I’m tough.” And just like that, Carla became known as the person in the business to go to when you needed critical, smart feedback.
Those are the great things about SEO. Like a website, it can create that first impression, which may cause people to seek you out for a reason. But then you need to back it up with your actions. The more alignment you have with actions and words, the more powerful and lasting the impression. Is your personal brand engine optimized? Have you checked to see if it is seen and heard in frequency and to all audiences? If the perception of you is not one you want, then take the 90-day “Carla plunge” and see what happens.