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What does success look like?

July 6, 2011

That question has become a hackneyed corporate expression about measurement and reporting.

You know I’m not a fan of corporate-speak, yet I’ve been thinking about it lately.


I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which has already become a bit of a classic. It looks at the sometimes surprising reasons why certain people are successful.

It’s a great read (except if you’re reading the section about why planes crash, and you are on a plane, and you’re landing through a bunch of turbulence. Trust me on that one).

But what I find unsatisfying about it is the narrow notion of success it uses. There’s no discussion at the outset about this definition – Gladwell simply decides being on an A-league sports team, being a billionaire, and owning a New York law firm are models of success.

That’s fine for the purpose of the book, but not for real life. We all know, from our own lives and from the public antics of footballers, a lot of the people in that list are probably dickheads with big, high-maintenanance egos.

They may succeed in the world, but what are the success rates for their marriages, relationships with their kids or contribution to the community? (OK, Bill Gates gets a tick for most of those). And, the key question: are they happy? It seems to me if worldly success comes without happiness, it’s not really success after all.

Pick your parameters

Success looks different to each one of us. The parameters I listed are just my take on it, subjective and imperfect. But they work for me.

So while it’s a little cliched, ‘what does success look like?’ is actually a crucial question in both work and life.

Sometimes you can’t write your own criteria. I should know – I had a slight hissy fit about my agency’s bonus scheme being based on acquiring new clients. I thought it should include more meaningful measures, such as staff retention and engagement. Plus, I’m pretty shit at sales.

So, I lost that battle, and no bonus will be forthcoming. But I gave it a good crack.

PR and communication is notoriously difficult to measure and gauge ‘success’. The number of media clips is a default metric, but not necessarily the best. I don’t claim to have the answers, although I do have access to some very cool, powerful analytics via the clever people at Waggener Edstrom, our global alliance partner.

Whatever you decide success looks like, you really need to think about it before you start out. You might change your mind along the way, but at least you have a starting point.

I sometimes try to remember what I hoped for myself when I was younger – what I thought success looked like. I am pretty sure it was superficial, and involved a nice collection of suits and shoes. On that model, I have probably over-achieved.

But I changed the rules along the way, and now, career success looks more like having a bunch of people around you who like you, respect your work and want to be in your team.

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  1. Brett permalink

    I love this – thank you Jo

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