Employee Motivation

Advice from 4 people leaders on redefining success at work

What this post is about (and why you should read):

  • Gets to the heart of the pressures that influence our definitions of success at work
  • Explores why workplace leaders should reimagine how to set employees up for success 
  • Shares advice from workplace leaders that individuals and people leaders alike can take action on now in their jobs and at their organizations (see key takeaways in each section!)

On the surface, success at work can feel like a fixed destination. It’s the finish line you triumphantly cross when you do things “right” in your career. In reality, there isn’t one finish line that works for everyone—not when we’re all running different marathons, and not if the finish line concept is no longer relevant.  

Traditionally, our working world hasn’t left much wiggle room for more nuanced and personalized definitions of success in the workplace. Funneling everybody into the same career path model while not accounting for an individual's ambitions, experiences, and perceptions around what success means is an approach that’s failing employees and organizations. The concept of the finish line doesn’t work because our careers, like our lives, are iterative and a work in progress. 

Research from Gartner reveals that 65% of employees are rethinking the role of work in their life. It’s hardly surprising, then, that in the same study 82% say they want their organization to see them as a whole person, not only as an employee. The data paints a clear picture: that the definition of workplace success needs a major makeover. This means less emphasis on comparisons to what others do, measuring up to societal pressure and expectations, or public prestige and more focus on exploring our purpose, meaning, and fulfillment. For employees, what being successful in the workplace translates to is a more personal, collaborative approach to shaping a flexible career path that supports them as the whole human. 

So, how do we shake up conventional views of success in the new world of work? And how can we support others to do the same? 

Our take: success isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. And that journey looks different for everyone. In a webinar centered on this topic, we connected with four workplace leaders to explore their own journeys in redefining success: 

  • Aja Smith, Executive Leadership Coach at ThinkHuman 
  • Lauren Guilbeaux, Head of Growth at ThinkHuman 
  • Noelle Johnson, Global DEI Strategist and Trainer at Power to Fly 
  • Kevin Yip, co-founder and President at Blueboard

Based on their own experiences, we’re also offering some actionable advice for employees and managers alike to imagine a new definition of success on your own terms. We share their advice for leaders to create work environments where all employees are set up to succeed. 

Best practices from 4 workplace experts on how to redefine success at work.

According to Aflac’s 2022-2023 WorkForces report, 59% of American workers are experiencing at least moderate levels of burnout. They also aren’t getting the support and resources they need from their employers, with 52% of respondents in our own study admitting they believe their employer isn’t doing enough to support employees’ mental health. 

That persistent exhaustion and the consistent upheaval of the past few years has sparked a host of buzzwords to try and wrangle this period of discontent and disconnect. Take “quiet quitting,” a term coined for when employees meet minimum expectations but don’t go above and beyond at work (something that Gallup estimates at least 50% of the workforce is now doing). But the term has received criticism for oversimplifying the complex power dynamics between employees and employers, glorifying hustle culture, and shaming people for not overworking and having healthy boundaries between one’s personal life and work. 

A screenshot of a LinkedIn post by a people leader on what HR teams should focus on in 2023 including career development and supporting managers.
In a popular LinkedIn post, people leader Annaliese B. shares specific areas of focus for HR teams to prioritize (beyond the buzzwords) as we roll up our sleeves for work in 2023.

So what happened? Are employees no longer motivated by the textbook definition of success? It certainly seems that way, with no shortage of headlines about “The Great Resignation”, lackluster employee engagement, and people who left respected and highly compensated careers to pursue paths that might be less traditional but more aligned with their personal values and wellbeing.  For Julian Sarafian, a Harvard Law grad who wrote about the decision to leave a coveted position, quitting was a recognition of the outside pressure to perform and the negative health impacts caused by climbing that career ladder. “For much of my life, I worked endlessly to rack up achievements that I thought would make other people respect me more, whether it was being high school valedictorian or interning at the White House or graduating early.”

Almost all of the experts whose redefinitions of success you’ll read about below had a similar catalyst for redefining success: burnout and realizing the many misconceptions around what makes successful people. They all started their careers relentlessly pursuing the vision of success that society sold to them.

But when they reached the finish line, they were surprised that they didn’t achieve the level of satisfaction and happiness they assumed was waiting for them. In fact, most of them found the opposite: more stress and less time for the things they loved.

Those experiences forced them to do some self-reflection, take a hard look at their preconceived notions of success, and start their own journeys of coming up with work lives that felt more personally relevant to them. 

Below, you’ll find their insights and experiences, as well as lessons and initiatives that business leaders can take to redefine success for themselves—and to show up for their employees and help them to do the same. 

Your first career love might not be forever, and that’s okay: Insights from Aja Smith, Executive Leadership Coach at ThinkHuman.

There’s a saying that if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life. However, while pursuing a passion improves your psychological well-being, it’s not always as straightforward as doing something you love and riding off into the sunset with a forever career. Research on employee tenure shows that the average time a person spends at a job is decreasing, currently at 4.1 years, though that tenure number goes up the older the generation. While generational and demographic differences matter, the paradigm shift in the employee/employer relationship goes beyond short term trends like millennial job hopping. The pandemic forced a long overdue reckoning with how we spend our working lives. People aren’t staying in roles that don’t serve them anymore and are bucking the job-hopping taboo. Or, they might just want to pivot and try something new, which can be daunting when traditional career paths and job descriptions have specific experience and other requirements.  

A screenshot of a LinkedIn post about the value of non-traditional career paths.
In this LinkedIn post, Ash Coleman, Head of Employee Experience at Credit Karma, shares why skills and experience in other industries are (and should be viewed as) advantages when changing careers, and her own career pivot from hospitality into tech.


When you dedicate your life to studying something, or pursuing a specific industry, acknowledging that it’s not working (or that you and your needs have changed) is a complex, and emotional, realization. With a passion for education, Aja Smith assumed that a career in higher ed would be the right match. But her role came with a lot of emphasis on what was best for the institution—which wasn’t necessarily aligned with her own values. 

Feeling extra pressure as a woman of color who wanted to set an example for her community, Aja attempted to stick with it. “Diving into my work and my performance is how I show that I care,” she explains. That disconnect eventually led to burnout, even causing her to quite literally become sick. 

It’s that experience that served as her launch pad for redefining success, focusing on the inside out, genuine joy, and contribution. That led to her current career: coaching. It’s a path that still fuels her love of education, but in a different format than what others thought she “should” pursue. 

Aja admits getting to this point was an uneasy experience, albeit a necessary one. 

“Be open to discomfort, try new things, and rest—which might also be uncomfortable for people who really do see that hamster wheel as what success is for them.”

And she reminds others that success isn’t stagnant. Your definition could and probably will evolve as you move forward, and leaders and employers need to foster workplaces that not only embrace employees’ current views of success, but future ones too. 

In doing so, you might find that the word “success” won’t even fit as the be-all and end-all of what certain employees want to achieve. If you want to be truly open and inclusive of all approaches, experiences, and viewpoints, then maybe you don’t need to use that specific word at all. 

TL;DR key takeaway: Your life experience impacts how you see success and that can evolve over time.

What success looks like now could and probably will change numerous times as you move through your career and your life. Remind yourself that’s not only acceptable—it’s growth.

TL;DR for people managers: Recognize that employees’ own career desires will evolve just like yours.

Check in regularly (at least annually) to understand what their needs and ambitions are moving forward. Simply asking, “What does ‘success’ mean for you right now?” can give you an accurate understanding of their current vision. 

Your job is what you do, not who you are: Insights from Lauren Guilbeaux, Head of Growth at ThinkHuman.

For Lauren, the struggle with success in the workplace came from having so much of her identity wrapped up in her career. She started her career in sales, a field that’s ripe with competition and career comparison. Plus, being on the revenue side of the business meant that she quite literally had a number attached to her. In Lauren’s eyes, that number represented her own personal value and self-worth. 

It’s a common struggle, with data from Pew Research Center stating that 51% of employed Americans get a sense of identity from their job. 

Yet, Lauren says that detaching your sense of worth from your job  is crucial. Your career is what you do—it’s not who you are. And looking at your occupation as your sole source of fulfillment, purpose, and identity can have a negative impact on your mental well-being. 

An article by Arthur Brooks for The Atlantic backs that up, stating, “Reducing yourself to any single characteristic, whether it be your title or your job performance, is a deeply damaging act.” In fact,the author refers to it as self-objectification. 

So Lauren worked hard to untangle her career from her identity. “It’s hard to let go of what you think you’re supposed to be. And what society told you to be,” she admits.

Her process of redefining success involved a huge amount of self-reflection and experimentation to understand what was truly important to her—and that’s something she now recommends to anybody who’s eager to come up with a more authentic definition of the word. “Take some time for yourself if you don’t have a good definition of what success is,” she says. “Block off distractions. Write. Do some self-work. See what’s there.” 

A screenshot of a LinkedIn post about creating work-life balance as a form of success.
Marc Randolph, Netflix co-founder, shares how committing to regular date nights helped to create work-life balance throughout his entire career—his definition of success.

In terms of what that self-work and reflection can look like, Brooks’ ideas in the same Atlantic article noted above offers some useful questions to ask yourself to get some clarity on if self-objectification is showing up in your job or career:

  • Is your job the biggest part of your identity? Is it the way you introduce yourself, or even understand yourself?

  • Do you find yourself sacrificing love relationships for work? Have you forgone a relationship, friendship, or starting a family because of your career?

  • Do you have trouble imagining being happy if you were to lose your job or career? Does the idea of losing it feel a little like death to you? 

TL;DR key takeaway: Constantly allow yourself new experiences—opportunities to grow, test, and try.

Build in reflection time to check in with yourself and hedge against self-objectification by creating and consistently re-evaluating work-life boundaries.

TL;DR for people managers: Offer the same level of exploration to your employees.

Your goal is to help them find what lights them up and then support them to go in that direction. 

Learn more about expanding the definition of success at work.

Explore our platformWatch the webinar.

Be your own best advocate: Insights from Noelle Johnson, Global DEI Strategist and Trainer at PowerToFly.

There are barriers to success that exist due to systemic inequities and biased standards. A Lean In report found that Black women are significantly more likely than any other underrepresented group to have their judgment questioned, need to provide evidence of their competence, and be mistaken for someone at a lower level. 

Those biases fuel a tendency to overwork—not to get ahead at work, but simply to keep up. Noelle says her own previous definition of success was also one that emphasized spinning her wheels and “working twice as hard but getting half as far.”

She knew that she needed to get off the rollercoaster, even if sticking with her traditional version of success felt the most comfortable to her at the time. “There’s no growth in comfort,” she states, explaining that she had to “get uncomfortable to find the path to success that felt really organic to who I am and what felt right for me.”

Pushing herself outside of her boundaries helped her identify the things that she wasn’t just innately excellent at, but that made her feel exceptionally good—an overlap that psychologist Gay Hendricks coined the “zone of genius.”

And now, she says her version of success is all about ease. “It’s less about getting to a finish line or a certain title and more about finding real peace and happiness where I am,” she adds. When it comes to helping employees find their own success and ease, it’s as simple as asking questions. “You might think that you know what somebody needs to do or what somebody needs,” she says. But answers might surprise you. From asking about how they prefer to communicate to what success means to them, you can learn a lot about how to best support employees by asking—not just once, but consistently.

TL;DR key takeaway: Being your own advocate can change your life.

Whether it’s standing firm behind an idea you strongly believe in or enforcing your own work-life balance boundary by not responding to work emails on the weekend, you need to be the biggest proponent of your own needs and expectations.

TL;DR for people managers: When employees advocate for themselves, that’s your opportunity to listen.

Respond with encouragement and support when they voice their own ideas about being successful in the workplace—even if they’re outside of your own comfort zone. Be transparent about when you’ll follow up and how. 

Be kind to yourself and the importance of being a part of something bigger: Insights from Kevin Yip, President and Blueboard co-founder.

While our personal definitions of success are highly-nuanced, society paints a different picture. Gallup research shows that most Americans believe the people around them perceive success as a combination of status, education, work, and finances.

Kevin admits that he’s often felt pulled by society’s definition of success, mostly because it’s ingrained in all of us from an early age. “On this journey, it’s so important to be kind to yourself, because success and the societal perspective is imposed on us before we even really know who we are,” he explains. 

And now as a leader and a founder, Kevin also struggles with separating his own identity from the business. “The business is important to me,” he says. “But it’s not the only thing that makes me who I am.”

So when it comes to redefining success in a way that’s most meaningful to him, he’s found himself returning to a few cultural concepts. One that has resonated with him most is the Japanese concept of shokunin, where people become experts in their profession not necessarily for the sake of praise and competition, but for the honor and privilege of serving others. 

Kevin says now success to him means being part of something that’s bigger than just himself. “I think: What is a big or small thing that I’m dedicating myself to that has this kind of impact and leaves the world in a better spot?” he explains. 

That, combined with the influence of the book The Score Takes Care of Itself by former San Francisco 49ers coach, Bill Walsh, has made him less obsessed with the outcome and more focused on the practice and the present. 

TL;DR key takeaway: If your current definition of success feels like a goal post that keeps moving, slow down.

Understand why you’re constantly chasing the next thing. Take some time to unpack that and understand what’s at play and how you can use that to redefine success.

TL;DR for people managers: If you see a similar restlessness in your employees, work with them to understand where that “what’s next?” mentality is coming from.

You might uncover some things your organization could work on culturally—such as extreme competitiveness or a lack of recognition. 

How to identify and develop your “zone of genius.”

It’s clear that success in the new world of work can’t only be defined by a fancy job title or the corner office. Success means something different to everyone, but doing work that you’re good at and that you thoroughly enjoy doing—work that engages and fulfills you—is certainly a key part of it.

Psychologist Gay Hendricks called this the “zone of genius” in his book The Big Leap. It’s one of four different zones of functions:

  • The zone of incompetence: Work you don’t understand and aren’t good at.

  • The zone of competence: Work you’re good at, but plenty of other people are also good at.

  • The zone of excellence: Work you’re exceptionally good at, often gained through practice.

  • The zone of genius: Work you’re innately and exceptionally good at. This work is completely natural to you, allowing you to reach a highly-satisfying “flow” state. 

You can think of your zone of genius as your sweet spot. When you find it, you excel at the work you’re doing—at a level higher than anyone else you know or work with. But that proficiency won’t be accompanied by stress, burnout, comparison, and the other negative emotions that often come along with success. In contrast, your work feels natural and enjoyable. 

So how do you find this spot where your innate proficiency overlaps with your passion? In his book, recapped by an article for Forbes, Hendricks suggests asking yourself these three questions: 

  1. What work do you do that doesn’t seem like work?

  2. In your work, what produces the highest ratio of abundance and satisfaction to the amount of time spent?

  3. What is your unique ability?

As a leader or manager, you can also ask employees these same questions in a feedback survey, a one-on-one meeting, or a career development conversation. Use the information they share to support employees in not just doing great work, but work that motivates them. That could mean adjusting their work responsibilities, expectations, working style, or anything else that would benefit them. 

It might seem like a switch from the traditional “here’s your five-year plan” approach to career growth and success. But, you, your employees, and your entire organization will benefit from aligning work with people's innate abilities and interests. 

Remember: Success really is a journey, not a destination. 

The modern definition of success is undergoing a major (and much-needed) makeover. People and organizations are moving away from traditionally sought after achievements and status symbols and instead turning inward to understand what success really means to them. Put simply, success is always personal. But at work, it involves the support, encouragement, and opportunities to grow that are built into the organization from employees, peers, managers, and leadership and externally with mentors and hearing from people who have redefined success again and again. 

So what does it mean to be successful? Well, it depends on who you ask. 

As we begin a new year of life and work, we polled the LinkedIn community: What does success look like for you this year?

Out of the four multiple choice options, the was a tie for the top response to this question on redefining success: 

  • 35% of survey respondents are focusing on better work/life balance 
  • And 35% of respondents are focused on career growth or change
A screenshot of a LinkedIn pulse survey and the results based on the question: What does success look like for you in 2023?

What this data tells us is that our efforts at redefining success must account for more work-life balance, and that despite the economic uncertainty and turbulence of the past few years, career growth and change are still top of mind. Importantly, these two ideas are linked: that where and how we work may look different these days, but that meaningful steps on the organizational level are necessary to truly deliver on the results of the employee agency and advocacy conversations of the past few years. To achieve more balance, career change might be necessary. And we need to re-evaluate the support systems for people even when resources are limited to ensure growth continues. 

The responses also confirm that because success looks different for everyone, there isn’t a right or wrong answer. Success is not only a moving target, but one that is informed by and personalized to you. 

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