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Is our Definition of Success Biased and What can we do About it?

Image of neon sign with the words go up and never stop for article Why Measuring Success is a Moving Target by Ruth Gotian

What is success? Based on my research with Nobel Prize-winning scientists, astronauts, Olympic champions and CEOs, I have learned two things. Success is a moving target – there is always more to achieve, more to do, and more to perfect. What complicates matters is that the definition of success varies based on whom you ask, which causes us to run blindly trying to achieve more, hoping it is enough.

Can you recognize success if you achieve it? Do you know what it would look like? Most people do not have an accurate definition from which to work, so do not recognize success when it is staring them in the face. Part of the challenge is that the goalposts of success are always moving, and the definition is always changing. Once you reach one level of success, there is another hill to climb to achieve the next peak. The challenge is that we do not always know where the next opportunities lie, which ones to consider or how to go about achieving success. We do not know what we do not know. Furthermore, we do not always have the deep well-connected network and mentors to help us forge ahead. This problem especially plagues women at every level of the hierarchy.

Chasing something that is not defined is frustrating, and provides a unique barrier to women. Research has shown that a woman’s promotion is based on past accomplishments while for men it is based on future potential. How can women be evaluated and rewarded for their efforts when what is being measured remains elusive?

For women, there is an extra layer of difficulty and challenge, as those in senior roles are traditionally men. These different experiences colour our definitions and approach to success. Hurdles, both overt and covert, begin to surface as women try to underscore their past accomplishments while equally showcasing their potential.

My early research on defining success revealed that the definition of success differs based on numerous variables, including gender. The men emphasized more subjective metrics including boldness, confidence and critical thinking. The women, on the other hand, emphasized objective measures of success, such as the number of papers published in specific high-impact journals or grant dollars received. This is no surprise, as research has shown that their promotion is based on what they have achieved in the past. Women concurrently focused on relational skills such as collaboration, networking and public recognition, perhaps doing so realizing that this will help them find and succeed as new opportunities arise.

So, what has this meant for women trying to achieve success? They are working toward a definition of success not everyone abides by and, as such, may not ever achieve or recognize when they do. Rather than changing their definition, we need to recognize that people define and pursue success differently. No one gender should have to contort themselves to fit someone else’s definition unless it is mutually agreed upon. People should help each other define success for themselves, identify metrics, pursue milestones, and hold people accountable.

But there are solutions to help women overcome the gender bias which exists. All leaders should develop opportunities for people to grow themselves and each other.

Team of Mentors

The solution to this dilemma is to surround yourself with a team of mentors who believe in you more than you believe in yourself. Include all genders and three layers of people on your mentoring team:

  1. Those who are senior to you
  2. Those who are at your level
  3. Those who are junior to you.

Those who are senior to you have the experience, skills and network which could be helpful as you traverse the winding road of your career. They are several steps ahead of you and figuring out the least resistant path, including how to avoid overt and covert landmines and difficult people, which can make or break your career. Be sure to include retirees who have the benefit of hindsight. If you only include women who are senior to you, they may not be as experienced as some of the men, may not have as big a network or as much time, especially if every woman in the organization is seeking her mentorship. It is acceptable and encouraged to have a woman as a senior mentor, but diversity of thought and experiences is crucial.

Those who are at your level have the empathy you might be craving, as they are going down a similar path. They can share some strategies and tools which might have worked for them recently.

Those who are junior to you might have a fresh perspective or insights into your challenges and opportunities. Your weakness might be their strength.

Do not wait to be assigned a random mentor. Instead, take initiative and start talking to interesting people. Develop relationships and see who you connect with. There is no reason to ask someone to be your mentor, as that may sound like another job. Instead, show them that you are worth their time. Ask questions, seek perspectives and volunteer for stretch assignments. People like to invest in those who show potential, so take the first step and develop relationships.

It is critical to have all genders on your mentoring team as the varying perspectives could lead to new lines of inquiry and opportunity. Only focusing your mentors on people who look like you or were raised in a similar environment will limit your potential, instead of increasing your reach. While those people can certainly empathize and offer suggestions based on their own experience, there is great logic in hearing new ideas. It can lead us down new paths, whose existence we may not have known.

While mentoring is pivotal to your career success, having a sponsor is equally important and will help catapult you to the next promotion. You need this person, or team of people, to recommend you for opportunities and promotion. Sadly, while women struggle to find mentors, they have a harder time finding sponsors.

Success is a moving target with different definitions. Develop your own interpretation, seek a diverse group of mentors, chart your course, and find mentors and sponsors who can simultaneously hold you accountable and push you forward.