Redefining Career Success

In the 2015 comedy The Intern, Robert DeNiro plays a retired executive who re-enters the workforce as an intern to the CEO of an e-commerce startup. While DeNiro’s character was brave enough to reimagine his career at age 70 and become a successful intern, the need to define and redefine career success can occur at any age. A senior engineering director, for instance, may need to reevaluate success after being passed over for a promotion; an entry-level engineer may need to consider their priorities after getting laid off from a dream job.

Questions to ask yourself

“In situations like these, it’s important to stop and think about what career success means,” says Lauren Hammer, coach and founder of Hammer Leadership. Instead of defining your success by society’s standards or others’ opinions, focus on what it means to you. “Some people may define their success as being on the fast-track with money and promotions. Others may define it by what their career enables them to do, such as travel or make pottery on the weekends.” Answer these questions to help clarify what success is to you:

What facets of your current job are rewarding or meaningful to you?

For example, if you are a subject matter expert, you may get tremendous satisfaction from solving clients’ technical challenges. Being a top-notch problem-solver may be part of your definition of success.

What aspects of your job enable you to lead the life you want?

Perhaps family is a priority for you, and career success includes a job with flextime so that you can care for an aging parent or be home when your children return from school.

What don’t you like about your current position?

A long commute, a difficult boss, or an overly political work environment can be sources of dissatisfaction and negatively impact your career.

Building a successful career

After defining what a successful career is for you, it is time to be proactive. “Whether you are just starting out or at a senior level, your career won’t manage itself. You need to think about it strategically,” says Marjorie Kavanagh, president of Panoramic Resumes. “If you have a plan, then you won’t be stuck when you get laid off or get passed over for a promotion. You’ll be able to pivot more easily.” Follow this advice to help chart your path to career success.

Connect with key people. Determine the key individuals who impact your career. This might include your boss, coworkers, direct reports, or other people in your network who can exert influence on your behalf. “Take the initiative and invite an influential person for coffee, so you can have some one-on-one time,” says Hammer. “Listen and be authentically curious about them and then share something about yourself and your experience. This helps you get to know each other and build a deeper relationship.” Then, when an opportunity arises for you, they will be more willing to advocate on your behalf.

Build your online presence. Complete your LinkedIn profile and add a high-quality headshot. Then, use LinkedIn to connect with other professionals. “It’s about building your image and showing interest in others. A professional image and connections can pay off later with opportunities you may not have gotten otherwise,” notes Kavanagh.

Keep learning. “Read what your industry’s influential people and companies are publishing on LinkedIn, blogs, and elsewhere. Be open to new ideas and new approaches. Get out of your office via webinars and conferences to connect with and learn from others. It builds your confidence and competence to be on top of what’s going on in your industry,” says Kavanagh.

“Exploring — within your field and outside of it — is often the best way to expose yourself to the thing that you’ll love doing for the rest of your career,” adds Michael Saura, process safety consultant for Saltegra Consulting. “Success is when you are able to engineer your lifestyle the way you envision it and continuously learn and give back.”

Share your knowledge and allow others to share theirs. Engage with your boss, direct reports, or coworkers so you can learn from each other’s experiences. “My current supervisor is a few years from retirement and shares stories about the past, while I explain new things and how to get hardware and software to work,” says Keith McIver, assistant engineer with the New York State Dept. of Health. “I’ve learned about current and previous clients and institutional memories. He’s learned some useful Windows techniques and has been encouraged to deal with some long-lingering issues.”

Consider working with a career coach. If you are contemplating a career change or are overwhelmed by the thought of developing a success plan on your own, a coach can help. Coaches are trained to assist you in creating and working through a plan to advance your career. While they will not do the work for you, they will offer you the tools and resources you need to progress.

Things will not always work according to your plan and you may face an unexpected roadblock. “Reframe those challenges as opportunities for personal growth. Define your success by what the opportunities are in your life,” says Hammer.

This article originally appeared in the Career Corner column of the April 2019 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at