Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash
22. February 2023

How do you define career success?

Original Study: Hupkens, L. et al. (2021): The Dynamics of Subjective Career Success: A Qualitative Inquiry. In: Sustainability, Vol. 13, no. 14, pp. 7638.

The study in one sentence

This study shows how what we define as career success changes over the lifespan.

Interesting for people who…

… want to know what to consider to successfully attract or retain young, experienced, or senior talent.

What to remember

What each of us defines as career success is highly subjective. Additionally, what we consider to be successful, i.e., what is important to us, can change over our lifespan. Providing career options that take these dynamic changes into account is undoubtedly a challenge for firms and organizations. However, this study suggests that there may be more similarities in how we change our perspective than we think. Not surprisingly, we all start out valuing "financial security and recognition" as the most critical success factor in the early stages of our careers. This shifts and gives rise to 'personal growth and learning' and 'work-life balance' goals in the mid and late stages of our careers. But most interestingly, the study also found a shift towards 'being of service to others’ as a key subjective success factor in the later stages of our careers. This shift is qualitatively different from the others in that it involves a shift in attitude, from being concerned with what matters for one's own life to how to benefit the lives of others.

The most insightful sentence

«Objective career success focuses on directly observable criteria, such as someone’s salary and a number of promotions, whereas, subjective career success refers to an individual’s perception of achieving meaningful outcomes.»

The most provocative sentence

«As people age and approach life’s end, people care more about the experiences of meaningful social interactions and less about broadening their horizon. This shift in motivation leads to more investment in close relationships and overall appreciation of life.»

Consequences for managerial practice

The current talent drain is forcing organizations and talents to rethink what constitutes a meaningful career. The two dominant career paths that organizations currently offer - expert or manager - may not be enough. The changes in what talents value in careers and the emergence of new types of performance, contributions, and skills in a networked business world requires a rethink of career concepts. Offering an increasing number of individual extrinsic benefits, e.g., to support personal growth, caring, work-life balance, etc., may be short-sighted as they only address parts of the shifting career motives of talents. According to the study's findings, organizations might need to start rethinking new career paths that value the intention to be of 'service to others'. Not in the form of volunteer work or as an outsourcing model for early retirees. Rather, as a true career path that values 'service to others' as a valuable contribution and intrinsic work purpose.

Food for forward-thinking…

Is the trend for more and more mid-career talents to seek second careers outside large organizations, e.g. in NGOs, as writers, or start-up entrepreneurs, a sign that organizations are not offering anything that supports 'being in service to others'? What do you think? What are your experiences? Thanks for sharing!

Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Human Facts AG
Founder | Managing Partner
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