31 May 2023

2.1 Defining your vision of a successful career

Author/Compiled by
Elysa Vaillancourt (ISW)
Reviewed by
Sophie Gonthier (ISW)
Celia Schmidt (cewas)

Executive Summary

As you work towards finding and building a successful career path, you first need to take a step back and reflect on what does career success mean to you and how will this guide your future decisions?

Identifying your key elements of success and your own objectives are not easy tasks but it is essential to help you find an environment in which you can truly feel fulfilled and become a real change agent. Knowing the objectives and definition of success of your teammates is also important from an organizational/leadership point of view to maximize the engagement and impact of employees and teammates. Everyone has a different meaning of a successful career; this factsheet will aim to give you some tools to reflect on yours.

Self assessment

Factsheet Block Body

As mentioned above, success can represent something different for everyone. To start off the reflection, take a few minutes to reflect on the following question:

What does a successful career mean to you? Choose the three elements amongst the list below which better reflect your vision of a successful career (DRIES & AL, 2018).

  1. Performance (becoming an expert, achieving high level of competence)
  2. Advancement (getting promotions, a higher salary, experiencing opportunities to build your career)
  3. Factual contribution (contributing something tangible to an organization, as an individual)
  4. Self-development (continuous learning, reaching your full potential through self-management and learning experiences)
  5. Creativity (creating something innovative and extraordinary)
  6. Security (being able to meet your financial and employment needs)
  7. Satisfaction (achieving personal satisfaction and happiness, both in your social and professional life)
  8. Recognition (being adequately rewarded and appreciated for your efforts and talents)
  9. Cooperation (teamwork, emphasizing the importance of people and your team)
  10. Perceived contribution (contributing to the welfare of the organization & society, being able to make an impact)

Finding your dream job is not an easy task and is not something that is accessible to everyone. You will most likely need to make some compromises along the way as you navigate through your own professional path. Take a few minutes to answer the following question:

  • When you think about your career, what are your non-negotiables (the elements that you are not willing to compromise on)? Examples of non-negotiables can include money, having an impact, employment security.  

Career vs successful career

Factsheet Block Body

What is a career?

The definition of a career has evolved over time. Wilensky (1961) defined a career as a “succession of related jobs, arranged in a hierarchy of prestige, through which persons move in an ordered sequence” (WILENSKY, 1961, p.523).  

Today we consider a career to be an “evolving sequence of a person’s work experiences over time (p.8)” (ARTHUR, HALL AND LAWRENCE, 1989).


What is a successful career?

There are not right or wrong paths, and all paths lead to different types of success.

As the definition of a career has evolved from “jobs” to “experiences”, the traditional reference points of a successful career such as a title, promotions, salary has, for some, been losing relevance (DRIES & AL., 2008). Everyone including your managers or organisations for whom you work for have a different picture of a successful career. As you aim to find your place within the water and climate sector and gain the skills and competences that will allow you to achieve your objectives, it is important to know what you are reaching for. This will help you to feel satisfied and accomplished in relation to your career. It is also important for the organisations you will work for and for yourself as you adopt a position of leadership to reflect on the needs, wants and objectives of their employees and teammates, as “career development practices and career paths which do not reflect on individual’s values and beliefs are not likely to deliver the levels of commitment and motivation which organisations require.”

In the early stages of your career, your definitions of success will be confronted to those of the organisations you will work for and might cause a re-definition of your own goals (DUXBURY & AL., 1999 cited in DRIES & AL. 2008). Dries et al.  (2008) developed a framework to guide our reflections based on four main categories. For this exercise, go back to the three components of success which you related to when answering the first self-assessment question (Performance, Advancement, Factual contribution, Self-development, Creativity, Security, Satisfaction, Recognition, Cooperation, Perceived contribution).


  1. Inter-personal achievement

If you selected Performance, Advancement and/or Factual contribution, you will relate to this first category.

You base your definition of success on the validation that you get from the external world, whether it be from your colleagues or your boss for example. For you, it is important that your accomplishments be tangible, factual, and verifiable such as climbing the hierarchal ladder within your organisation.


  1. Intra-personal-achievement

If you selected, Self-development and/or Creativity, you will relate to this second category.

You gain validation regarding success from your internal world, from yourself, such as the achievement your own personal goals. Your definition of success is based on factual and tangible accomplishments such as creating something innovative and extraordinary.


  1. Intra-personal-affect

If you selected, Security and/or Satisfaction, you will relate to this third category.

You gain validation regarding success from your internal world, from yourself, such as feeling happy and healthy at home and at work. Your definition of success is based on feelings and perceptions that you maybe have such as experiencing stability and job security.


  1. Inter-personal-affect

If you selected, Recognition and/or Cooperation and/or Perceived contribution, you will relate to this fourth category.

You base your definition of success on the validation that you get from the external world, whether it be from your colleagues or your boss for example. You need to be adequately rewarded and appreciated for your efforts. Teamwork and the quality of relationships you build with colleagues or with partners is very important to you. You base your definition of success on perceptions and feelings. For example, to be successful, you need to believe that you are having a positive impact whether it be in your community or within your organisation.

It is important to understand that career development is a process which will evolve and change with time. As you navigate through different life experiences and different stages of your personal and professional life, your definition of success will most definitely evolve. It is important to remain flexible and to continuously take time to check in with yourself and the people around you to make sure you are on a track which is allowing you to feel accomplished and to reach your goals. To help you achieve your vision of a successful career, you can take the time to write down some steps you can take in the short term and some more long-term goals.

How does gender influence our definitions of a successful career?

Men and women have very different definitions of a successful career. Women are more likely to describe success with reference to personal accomplishment, the quality of relationships and a balanced life whereas men tend to value more material and/or financial success (DYKE & MURPHY, 2006). Women also describe career success as just one of many components of the success they want to achieve in their lives.

The impact of gender on the definition of a successful career, is something to think about as we work towards fostering a broader inclusion of women into the workforce and into management positions! Organisations tend to value and support goals which are statistically more valued by men than goals which are more valued by women (DUXBURY ET AL., 1999).

How can you help the women in your team evolve in an environment that will allow them to reach their vision of success? The first step is acknowledging the fact that women might have a different vision of success and objectives then the men in your team. Creating a safe space to foster these discussions and establishing an action plan to help them achieve their own objectives can be an interesting next step.


How does our cultural background influence our definition of a successful career?

The definition of career success is largely dependent of national and local cultures (YOUNG & COLLIN, 2004). Several authors have demonstrated that the career narratives of people from different countries vary. For example, in China, a study showed that earning a high salary and achieving mid-level management status was synonym of success (TU ET AL., 2006). Another studied showed that women from Canada have a more individualistic vision of success compared to women from Argentina who have a more collectivist view (LIRO ET AL., 2007). This is something to think about if you work in a multi-cultural environment! How can we develop culturally appropriate strategies to motivate employees or co-workers?

Go to next topic!

2.2 Leading with your heart, head and courage

Library References

Careers in a non-western context: an exploratory empirical investigation of factors related to the career success of Chinese managers.

TU S. H., FORRET, L. M., SULLIVAN, S. E. (2006): Careers in a non-western context: an exploratory empirical investigation of factors related to the career success of Chinese managers. . In: Career Development International: Volume 11 Issue 7, 580-593.

Alternative Versions to