The Secret to Career Success? Be Useful.

The Secret to Career Success? Be Useful.

The definition for career success seems subjective and elusive.  What one defines as success may be totally different for another.  In fact, what one defines as a career success in his or her twenties is very different from what he or she might define in his or her forties or beyond.  Is a successful career defined by number of promotions?  If so, I am out of luck because I have only had two titles in my career at Cameron-Brooks.  Is it defined by how much money one makes?  Based on that, could a teacher ever be defined as successful?  A person I looked up to early in my career encouraged me to build the biggest house I could afford at the time because it would be a measure of my success.  I did not follow his advice, but I have to admit, I see other people’s big houses and wonder, “Are they more successful than me?  How much money do they make?  Did I make a mistake in managing my career?”

Last week on a long drive home late at night from Killeen, TX, I listened to The Tim Ferriss Show podcast where Tim interviewed renowned author Jim Collins (listen to the full interview here).  Collins told the story of when he first met and interviewed management guru Peter Drucker, author of The Effective Executive and 39 management books.  At the end of his interview with Drucker, Collins asked him about what it takes to be successful.  Drucker explained that he was looking at it the wrong way.  He should be thinking about how he can be the most useful.

For the last week, I have been reflecting on, “What if I did not try to define a successful career or if that was not my only pursuit?  What if I also thought more about, ‘How can I be most useful with my work, whether it be with my team members, colleagues, boss, candidates or clients?’”

Because businesses have to generate profits to remain healthy, provide for employees, grow their business and serve customers, I completely support setting goals and delivering results.  But, what if in addition to measuring the numbers, at the end of the day we asked ourselves, “How was I useful today?  Where could I have been more useful to my company, family and friends?”  Unlike the definition of success, I see useful as either you are (were) or are not (were not).  Much easier to define and measure.

In addition to chasing that career goal, sales target, production output or closing the next engagement, think about, “When am I the most useful to others?  How am I most useful to my organization?  How can I offer even more?”  It is at that point, when these questions are answered, that you will be able to truly measure your own success – not merely by culturally-defined standards, but rather by the more tangible value of your contribution to others.