Success is what you make it

What is success and how do you measure it? The experiences of a diversegroup of workers show how – and how much – they managed to balance career success with family responsibilities. Those who managed to strike the balance defined success on their own terms, had a strong sense of self and wereprepared to make trade-offs.


Success can be both objective and subjective. With more people prepared to forgo aspects of the former in return for gains in the latter, it is more important than ever to understand the secrets to success in today’s ultra-competitive work environment.

To this end, Mireia Las Heras of the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de la Empresa at the University of Navarra in Spain, together with Douglas T. Hall of Boston University, Mary Dean Lee of McGill University in Montreal and Ellen Ernst Kossek of Michigan State University in Lansing, tracked the experiences of a diverse group of high-level professionals for six years to see how successfully they managed to balance family and career success.

In “Pursuing Career Success while Sustaining Personal and Family Well-Being” (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, 2012), they divide success into two categories: objective success, focused on objective indicators of attainment that other people can observe, such as income and position, and subjective success, which is based on the individual’s own perceptions of the quality and worth of his or her attainments.

Using these distinctions they analysed people who had negotiated a reduced workload to pursue personal and family priorities while maintaining their professional demands. Then they analysed to what extent participants were able to sustain these arrangements and how they viewed their careers and overall life outcomes. The authors also examined the relationship between objective career success and subjective career success, so as to identify which factors and events, whether organisational, personal or familial, had the greatest bearing on general satisfaction.

Surprisingly, they found no clear correlation between subjective career success and objective career success. To explore why, the authors identified and analysed four case groups.

“Aligned Achievers,” people who scored high on objective and subjective success alike, consisted mainly of full-time managers with high levels of responsibility who worked more hours per week than any other group. Most associated career success with upward mobility. As time passed, however, they said that they did not want to go any higher than they already were. They knew what they wanted and worked hard to get it, but at the same time they were prepared to accept the trade-offs.

“Alienated Achievers,” whose high objective success was not matched by high subjective success, mostly wanted to work part-time, but most actually ended up working for the same organisation on a full-time basis. Only one person managed to stick to a reduced schedule, but even he was struggling. Whether due to organisational or financial pressures, most felt obligated to work more than they preferred, with many of them expressing regret about the effects this was having on their personal relationships.

“Happy Part-Timers,” who achieved high subjective success but less objective success, managed to maintain a reduced workload, with some even choosing self-employment if they found the demands of their part-time jobs encroaching too much on their personal lives. These people made a conscious choice to put their families or personal lives above their careers, and were fairly comfortable with that trade-off.

“Hard-Luck Strivers,” who scored low in both forms of success, initially performed well, and half wanted to advance. As time passed, however, their fortunes soured. Some lost their jobs, and two-thirds were self-employed and working part-time. Job and financial insecurities were a common complaint, as were disruptive personal and family-life events. Two people cited specific sacrifices they had made in their careers to deal with family crises, illnesses or special needs. In short, these individuals sought the trappings of career success, but, for reasons beyond their control, they were unable to achieve them.

This study provides a more nuanced view of the “career mystique,” by which people get so caught up in their careers that they often make personal sacrifices that lead to negative outcomes.

Some career-oriented individuals, notably the “Aligned Achievers,” are able to balance a high commitment to careers with a high commitment to family, achieving success by both objective and subjective measures. However, it is worth noting that these individuals also were the chief breadwinners and, as such, usually had spouses highly involved in holding together the family side of things.

The “Happy Part-Timers” show that it is possible to step back from the rat race and still experience sustained career success. However, to define success on their own terms, they had to be prepared to challenge stereotypes about gender roles, parental status and job-related competence. Indeed, even many of the “Aligned Achievers” had to be prepared to accept less upward mobility for the sake of personal priorities.

More work needs to be done to understand what enables some people to follow their own personal paths with a strong sense of personal agency, while others fall victim to the career mystique.

Meanwhile the challenge for companies is to help their employees find ways of achieving objective career success without putting more personal interpretations of success at risk.

© The New York Times 2013

© 2013 Instituto de Estudios Superiores de la Empresa, IESE Universidad de Navarra

From IESE Insight


“Alienated Achievers,” whose high objective success was not matched by high subjective success, mostly wanted to work part-time, but most actually ended up working for the same organisation on a full-time basis.





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