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How to Judge the Success of an Entire Career

Near the end of a 40-year career, I’m left with a big question: Was my career a success and what can younger managers learn from it?

Anyone who works 40 years or more has a track record of many career successes and failures. No one succeeds 100 percent of the time.

Judging the success of a career is not unlike the baseball statistic about teams that try to have a winning average above .500, which is the midpoint between total wins and total losses out of 162 games in a single season. With an entire career at stake, anyone surely wants to do better than .500.

But a game win or loss is a simple, objective number. Subjective human nature makes it challenging for someone to judge an entire career. So many of the individual successes and failures have different consequences and levels of meaning.

10,000 Days of Work

Consider it this way: A career that includes five days a week, 50 weeks a year and 40 years is made up of 10,000 work days. Each day has many individual events.

It’s a lot of experience to process.

As we get near the end of a career, all of these experiences crowd memories and constantly rise and fall in the conscious mind. They still trigger feelings of pride, joy, anger, frustration and satisfaction. They leave us wondering how to rate and organize them all.

People in the middle of their careers — or getting close to the end — may find some usefulness in focusing on standards that help them grade their multiple decades of experience.

The answers to six simple questions start solving the riddle:

  1. How much money did I make?
  2. Was the work meaningful and fulfilling?
  3. How many times did I get promoted, demoted, laid off or fired?
  4. Were my evaluations positive or negative?
  5. How did I get along with other people?
  6. Did I act with integrity and professionalism most of the time?

1 — How Much Money Did I Make?

This one sounds rather mercenary, but it’s a simple fact that we live in a capitalist society that pays people according to the value they produce for society. We work to get paid. Right or wrong, society rewards results with money. It is an objective although imperfect measure of success.

A person whose career consistently delivers low to modest income either:

  1. Chooses not to climb a career ladder;
  2. Intentionally picks a career path that doesn’t pay well;
  3. Doesn’t have enough value to society to earn a higher income.

Options 1 and 2 negate this standard for judging career success. These people can put a lot more weight on the next standard.

2 — Was the Work Meaningful and Fulfilling?

I clearly remember the day when I faced a life- and career-changing promotion opportunity. I had a choice between a safe path and a high-risk one. I chose the risky path.

The risky path had higher highs and lower lows than the safe one. It presented tremendous opportunities for learning and growing that the other path did not. In the long run, it was more meaningful and fulfilling, most joyous and also more painful.

Income is an external indicator of career success. Meaningful work is internal. People at the end of a career may understand when I say that meaningful work is a mark of career success, even if it comes with some high costs.

3 — Did I Get Promoted, Demoted, Laid Off or Fired?

The majority of the hundreds if not thousands of managers and other employees I knew during my management career were not demoted or fired. I knew quite a few more who were laid off and only a small minority who were promoted.

Whether a layoff is a career failure depends on perspective. I will simply point out that people who usually get laid off either didn’t anticipate the layoff or couldn’t find a job in time to avoid one.

More importantly for managers is the number of promotions. Although this is a somewhat arbitrary standard, one to five promotions among the managers I knew was a respectable number. The higher the number above five, the more successful the management career.

One demotion negates one promotion. A firing negates multiple promotions.

4 — Were My Evaluations Positive or Negative?

I don’t know anyone who keeps their performance evaluations beyond a few years. But anyone with a decent memory and open mind shouldn’t have too much trouble looking back on how their evaluations went, assuming their bosses or company gave them.

Good evaluations are both subjective and objective. The objective part often has a rating system such as 1 to 5 or poor to excellent for each question the boss has to answer. Most employees end up with an objective total that somewhat fluctuates above or below average. Few end up at the more extreme poor or excellent end of the spectrum.

Any manager or employee with a track record of average to above average evaluations over decades has a good, objective reason to believe that he or she had a successful career.

5 — How Did I Get Along With Other People?

Getting along with other people starts with the boss. Evaluations answer how well an employee gets along with the boss and also help answer how an she or he gets along with everyone else.

If everyone hates an employee, he or she won’t last long and certainly won’t get consistently positive evaluations. In contrast, positive evaluations are an indication that other people say said good things to the boss about the employee.

Otherwise, relationships with peers and subordinates are more subjective. An employee can rely on information from co-workers that is observable: friendships, emotional support and social invitations, etc. These perceptions stack up over decades until a clear picture appears for people who are honest with themselves.

6 — Did I Act With Integrity and Professionalism?

The end of a career brings with it a judgment that challenges an employee’s conscience. The judgment is based on two major objective standards of work: behavior and performance.

Integrity is a foundation principle of all work behavior. Professionalism is a foundation principle of all work performance.

A person who acts with integrity most of the time is honest, loyal and respectful with bosses, peers and subordinates. A person who acts professionally most of the time works hard, learns new skills, follows policies, cares about the company and delivers on expected results.

How Did I Actually Do?

The above six questions aren’t meant to answer all of the events and experiences of an entire career. I can think of many peaks and valleys that don’t fit into the questions.

Instead, the questions are meant to help answer in a somewhat objective way a single, big, difficult question of how someone can rationally judge the success of an entire career.

Personally, using the above criteria, my final win-loss record over a 40-year career is comfortably above .500. I had a career that wasn’t great or exceptional. But it was good enough to let me sleep well at night as my lifetime of work winds down to the end.

Scott S. Bateman

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