The truth about success

What does the ambitious employee aim for? More money, a bigger car, the respect of colleagues, decent childcare? In a culture of downsizing, Meg Carter reports on a disturbing split between what companies think are the best incentives, and what workers would really prefer
Click to follow
The Independent Online
What does success mean to you? An extra pounds 5,000 in your pay packet? A company car? An office with a view, perhaps? Or do you define it in less tangible terms - such as a feeling of self-fulfilment, a sense of achievement from an important job done well? Or the knowledge that your opinion really counts? More important, does your employer take this into account? Chances are, the answer is no.

Downsizing and delayering have a lot to answer for. Most companies still define career success in terms of tangible goals - more money, more status, more power. Yet a growing number are finding these promises harder and harder to deliver. With fewer management levels and less money in the pot, traditional incentives are in shorter supply. And, worse, a growing number of employers are finding that even if they can deliver them, they may no longer be good enough. That's because, in many cases, the Nineties employee's priorities are changing. "If my company can't offer me a job for life, or firm prospects of steady career development, why should I swear to give them my all?" confides a disgruntled 28-year-old sales executive from London. "I have ambitions, but they're more to do with what I want than with what's expected of me."

And she is not alone. "A growing number of people are realising that they don't want the bigger company car - that they would prefer, instead, funded training which would have a long-term benefit, or support with parental care, or even a career break," says Angela Baron, policy adviser at the Institute of Personnel Development. "Many companies are now finding they're just not rewarding staff with the things staff really value." It's an issue more companies should be confronting, believes Dr Jane Sturgess, research fellow at London University's Birkbeck College. "The `psychological contract' between employer and employee has fundamentally changed," she says. By this term, she means what companies expect of their staff - such as loyalty, commitment and hard work; and what staff expect of their employers - career development opportunities, regular promotion and increased responsibility.

"For all the talk of how employees should take responsibility for their own career development, and that a lateral move is as good as an upward one, when push comes to shove most employers still act as if traditional goals are all that really count," Dr Sturgess adds. Of course, many people are still motivated by external benefits, she concedes, referring to these people as "climbers". But, in a recent study she conducted within one of the country's top 10 companies, three other groups were clearly identifiable. First, there are "experts", who desire personal recognition for being good at what they do and want to win the respect of the people they work with. They value the content of their job above their position within the company, she says. Then there are "influencers", who believe they are successful if their actions can have a positive, tangible effect on the company: they crave a position with real responsibility. Finally, there are "self-realisers" who closely associate career success with a personal sense of achievement and self-fulfilment. These people are eager for a challenge - which serves to heighten their sense of success, Dr Sturgess says.

Of those she surveyed, most of the men fitted into the "climber" category, but none of the women did. Meanwhile, most of the women interviewees fitted the "expert" brief. "Influencers" were the second largest male group; the second largest female grouping was the "self-realisers". Although her study only covered a small sample, she believes it suggests common patterns.

"Career success as traditionally defined doesn't reflect what is relevant to many people, in particular women," Dr Sturgess believes. Which may contribute to the fact that growing numbers of women are opting out of traditional organisations altogether in favour of setting up their own businesses or becoming self-employed.

"Women seem much less likely than men to define success purely in terms of external benefits," she adds. "That's not to say they value money or promotion any less, but that organisations that fail to recognise their other concerns may not be offering the best incentives to their staff, or the right motivation."

Her conclusions are endorsed by another piece of research, published last month by the Women's Advertising Club of London which represents women working in advertising, media and marketing. This revealed that women in these industries feel success in their respective careers is too often defined only in terms of pay rises, promotion and power - values they uniformly characterised as masculine.

"While they acknowledged that they would have to pursue these goals to `get on', many described other `benefits' related more closely to the way they would like to work that, they believed, would also define success," says Sue Green, a consultant at the marketing and communications business the Virgo Consultancy, which co-ordinated the report.

People's definitions of success also change with age. Twentysomethings working in management, for example, are typically far more likely to be motivated by the desire to aspire to external trappings of their status and success, Dr Sturgess' study found. By their late thirties and early forties, however, women managers were more concerned with achieving a stimulating job and doing it well, while their male colleagues were plotting how they could boost their power base and leave their mark. Accommodating all of this is quite a challenge for Britain's beleaguered bosses. But many believe that it is an issue they must confront, if they are to rebuild bridges with employees. And already, some - such as Bass and Midland Bank - have taken note and begun developing alternative ways of defining and rewarding success.

The AA, for example, now trains staff in career planning. "We want to develop new incentives which are not just about moving onwards and upwards," says Harvey Bennett, AA senior management development manager. "Lateral moves within the organisation are now commonplace - not through enforcement, but through personal choice. People feel they are developing their skills and moving forward. It has encouraged a greater esprit de corps".