Someone asked me recently what success looked like for me, which made me really think about what it did look like.  Perhaps I’m on my own with this but I suspect many of us don’t consider what success looks like; we focus on one bit at a time or whatever is foremost in our minds.

Many have lofty job titles and impressive pay but many, including those we perceive as high-achievers, feel professionally dissatisfied and unfulfilled, they wish they’d accomplished more in their lives or even chosen a different career altogether. Success doesn’t necessarily mean getting to the top.   What is the top anyway?  Top of what?

We should all take a very personal look at how we define success in our heart of hearts, and then find a path to get there.  We might need to step back and reassess our careers and recognise the fact that managing it is actually our responsibility.   

We need to be in the driving seat, even more so when times are tough.  Fulfilment does not come from clearing hurdles set by others but from clearing those we set for ourselves.   It doesn’t come from feeling put upon or hard done by, but from taking control of what are potentially difficult situations.  Driven professionals often spend a substantial amount of time thinking about strategies that will help them achieve greater levels of success; their definition of success a more impressive job title, a better salary, and increased responsibility and influence. If that is your definition of success then fine, but it might not be. The only person who can truthfully say whether we are successful is ourselves.

People can feel like victims when most career wounds are in some way self-inflicted.  

Taking control begins with understanding yourself: seeking frank feedback about your strengths and weaknesses from colleagues above and below you, and figuring out what you truly enjoy doing.  This level of understanding and not other people’s definitions of success, should guide our goals and choices. One of the risks for managers is that they hit a plateau because they play it too safe, are not willing to speak up or to voice unpopular views, but those that identify their goals and aspirations, develop the skills to make those goals and aspirations happen, possibly take risks and demonstrate courage will find fulfilment, even if it’s a bumpy ride along the way.

Success and potential are interlinked but often confused. Reaching your potential does not necessarily mean how can I be successful in my career or how can I secure a senior position?  For some it will be but for many they are so busy trying to reach specific milestones and impress other people that they lose sight of what they love doing and what they feel is important. What also sometimes happens is that individuals go so far down a certain road that going back seems impossible and then they get stuck and often they are not happy.  

A few years ago I had a situation where a key member of my team wasn’t performing to the standard that I would expect.   Whilst a highly skilled individual, with masses to offer, they didn’t like managing people yet were responsible for a large and very challenging department.  When I asked how they got to be there the response was something along the lines of: ‘It just happened. I was asked and encouraged to apply when the post came up and it seemed a sensible step as it was a promotion.’ Not only was this individual underperforming but they clearly were not happy in post. We had a number of meetings, we talked quite a bit about where their skills were best placed and I likened it to taking the wrong turning off a roundabout. This individual had taken (or rather been pushed, even if gently and with good intention) the A road but it may have been more appropriate for their skill set and personality to have taken the B road.  This is maybe a silly analogy but it’s always worked for me and I don’t mean that the A road is any better than the B road, it’s just where you are most comfortable, the pace and knowing the most appropriate road for you. This member of staff ultimately made the decision to change jobs, when I saw them about a year later it was like seeing a new person; someone full of energy, enthusiastic, positive and they were happy.

What’s my point?  My point is that it’s hard to reassess your career when you are some way along a career path.  The realisation that managing your career is your responsibility and what does or doesn’t happen is down to you is a starting point. Many people seem to feel like victims in their careers when actually they have a significant amount of control. The difficult part is that taking control requires you to take a fresh look at your skills and behaviour and this for most of us takes courage.

I was interested to learn that the 8th lesson in Nelson Mandela’s 8 lessons of leadership is ‘Quitting is leading too’. This is an important point, moving in a different direction from what has or hasn’t been working is usually a very difficult thing to do, but often necessary for many reasons. Knowing how to abandon a failed idea, task, relationship or even job is often the most difficult kind of decision we have to make.  Leaders lead as much by what they chose not to do as what they do.

Finally, the following is a list of beliefs that Richard Branson considers important:

  • Anything is possible
  • Everything is negotiable
  • Rules are made to be broken
  • Business is a fun and creative way of life
  • Developing people
  • Leading from the front
  • Action over hope
  • Being polite and honest
  • Doing no harm
  • Building teams
  • Integrity
  • Respect
  • Trust
  • ‘Self’ controlling personal destiny.

Some might not like him, some might not agree with how he does things but as he says, ‘successful people aren’t in possession of secrets known only to them. Don’t obsess over people who appear to you to be “winners”, but listen instead to the wisdom of people who’ve led enriching lives. Be generous in your interpretation of what success looks like’.

It’s already tough out there and it will get tougher. It’s your life; don’t let anyone else make decisions for you.