What does success at work really mean?

Image: People stream into a store in New York City REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Paolo Gallo
Adjunct Professor Bocconi University, Founder Compass Consulting, Executive Coach
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What defines a successful career? Why is it that, by conventional definitions, only the few people at the top of the ladder have successful careers, while the majority just survive and plenty fail? These questions have been been on my mind and in my heart for more than two decades, as I led the Human Resources department in several organizations. Let’s start with the first question. Let’s start with how we define a successful career.

The usual understanding of success revolves around two basic assumptions. The first: the hero of the workplace is the person who climbs all the way to the top. The second: getting to the top - winning promotion after promotion – is therefore the only thing that matters. This mindset leads us to endlessly climb the corporate ladder, adhering to the cult of physical and mental endurance to finally attain the status of corporate hero.

Does this really make sense?

Let’s challenge the first assumption. Who is the hero?

In my opinion, the hero is the middle-aged man who loses his job and then his identity, but has the strength to bounce back and start from scratch. The hero is the single mother who does not give up, as she wants to offer a better future for her children. The hero is the young woman who, faced with high unemployment rates, keeps going until she finds a job or finishes her studies or starts her own business.

The hero is the worker on night shifts who takes the same bus for 30 years at 5 am. The cleaning lady who works with dignity before 8am and after 8pm, allowing us to find our offices clean and tidy. The immigrant who came from a far-away country, performing a menial job decently though he used to be a lawyer or teacher, sending everything he gets to his family. Heroes are the religious men and women who help the underprivileged, the forgotten and the invisible. Heroes are the doctors, the teachers, the judges, the nurses and the police officers who help people in their communities. The executive who does not accept corruption, cheating, loaded dices, dirty tricks, at the expense of those who deserve opportunities. Heroes are the journalists or artists who use their art and knowledge to tell us stories, expose corruption, serve the public good, alleviate suffering and give us courage. The hero is the person working to protect our environment.

It’s time to change our out-dated ideas of corporate heroism. To become a hero is not a magic process reserved for the few, but something that is open to all of us if we strive to make the best of our circumstances.

Now let’s challenge the second assumption, that only climbing the corporate ladder matters. We should replace the question "How can I get to the top?" with "What really matters?"

How do you measure personal and professional success, and who does the measuring?

On my first day at work in investment banking in New York, back in the early 90s, I met a person who did not tell me his name, but only his rank: "I am a Managing Director." He claimed that I should aim to be promoted at least to Vice President level within three years, since only a fast career was a successful career.

It was only years later that I realised I made two mistakes on that day. One, I believed the Managing Director, and two, I never even raised the question of whether there were other ways to define a career.

It is time to move from the idea of success as defined by an organization, to significance defined by us. Relentlessly pursuing the next rung of the ladder doesn’t work, for the following three reasons:

1. If we only value those who have reached the top of the hierarchy, then by definition we’re writing off the other 99%. We create a cruel assembly line that produces myriad people who are frustrated and unhappy, who believe - often wrongly - that only those who arrived at the top truly triumphed.

2. By seeing our careers as a race, we enter a state of constant struggle: "us" against everyone else. Think, for example, about incentive systems: I have seen many and - mea culpa - designed some that are focused on individual performance results but never based on sharing, cooperation or a sense of purpose. I believe that stress is not linked solely to the amount of work we have, but rather on the poor quality of the relationships we develop with our colleagues. An organizational climate of “dog eats dog” downgrades our relationships, so they become only transactional, utilitarian, losing any trace of connection between people. This obsession with appearances over substance strips us of our humanity.

3. Ultimately, we all end up taking part in a rat race. We became so self-absorbed and busy trying to win this race that we forget that even by winning it, we will still remain rats. And vulnerable rats: the chronic economic crisis, corporate restructuring or simple events outside of our control can all oust us from our jobs. If corporate success is the only way you define your identity, then that identity will be destroyed with all the emotional and social consequences that result.

So how do we redefine what it means to succeed at work?

Given my professional role I have observed and followed hundreds of people and their careers. I want to share with you not only what does it means to have a successful career, but also how we can monitor and measure according to our own criteria, not those defined by others.

In a series of ten posts, I will provide practical tools for rethinking work, based on 25 years of experience. I’m convinced that we’re all too often missing what really matters: not the destination of some far-off career pinnacle, but the journey of our working lives, and the meaning we ascribe to it.

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