Op-ed: Salary and title be damned; career success is in the eye of the beholder

For most individuals, identifying the characteristics that make someone professionally successful is easy: a senior rank within the organization, depth and breadth of one’s professional network, significant responsibility for people or projects, a high income.

Asked to describe this successful individual, many of us will envision a dynamic and powerful leader, one who acts with confidence and leads by example. If she’s not already sitting in the CEO’s chair, then certainly she’s destined to be there sooner or later.

Rarely do we associate professional success with more subtle characteristics such as personal satisfaction, collegiality, a feeling of authenticity and attachment to her role, or a high level of intrinsic motivation. Sadly, these understated but meaningful traits are often sidelined in a society obsessed with celebrity entrepreneurs and leadership gurus.

From an academic perspective, the difference between the two types of individuals outlined above is the difference between what researchers term objective career success (OCS) versus subjective career success (SCS). In the former, success is measured by mostly visible and tangible metrics – job title, earning power, and level of responsibility, for example. In the latter, the metrics are mainly intangible and relate to how an individual perceives herself and her career.

For example, a person who feels that she is highly valued by an organization might have a high level of SCS, without necessarily occupying a senior position or receiving a high salary. Conversely, a highly-paid, senior executive who perceives herself as being generally mistreated by her employer might have a low level of SCS.

Of course, not everyone can have a high level of objective career success. There can only be so many CEOs and senior executives, and it is a simple statistical fact that any workforce will have half of its members falling below the median on any objective variable. And since such objective variables are usually associated with finite resources, there is an obvious and quantifiable limit on how much an organization can deploy such resources.

Subjective measures of success, on the other hand, are nearly limitless in terms of their ability for distribution, meaning that it is entirely possible to have a workforce fully composed of subjectively successful individuals. Thankfully, there is no cap on employee satisfaction or engagement, and no budgeting is required to make a direct report feel valued.

If there is a single resource to consider in terms of fostering a high level of subjective career success, it is managerial and organizational effort.

Mischa Kaplan is Manager, People and Corporate Culture at Ottawa Tourism, and a part-time professor in the School of Business at Algonquin College.