Mentors Challenge the Delusions of What It Means to Be Successful

By Marie Taylor, Steve Crabb

Part of being a good business coach or mentor means understanding what success means to different people. You can’t help someone achieve success if you don’t know what they think it means. What does success mean to you?

  • Is it stuff? Stuff is the property you have, the car you drive, the brand of clothes you wear, the watch on your wrist, the credit cards you have in your wallet.
  • Is it symbols? Symbols include the school your children go to, the university you attended, the zip code where you live, and the clubs you can get into.
  • Is it experiences? Experiences include where you take vacations, the kind of sport you’re involved in, the restaurants you go to, the amount of personal grooming you can afford.

What is your measure of personal success?

We’ve both asked this question hundreds of times. Nothing you say can shock us. A guy Marie coached in financial services — let’s call him Ben — described his measure of success as always staying ahead of Joe, a colleague who was also exceptionally good at gaining high-value clients and, therefore, bonuses. Ben was quite proud of the fact that he had just been invited by one of the senior partners to join a crowd on Friday afternoons once a month at a VIP “gentlemen’s club.” He considered that a sign of acceptance and a signal that he was on his way to being promoted and even more successful. In Ben’s world, this signal made him more successful than Joe.

Before you go all moral on us, it’s a fact of life in some areas of business that men and women do things their parents may not like in order to further their careers. As a coach or mentor, you need to find ways to get beyond this. Your job as a coach is to help your clients observe their experience and change it if they choose to, not judge them.

You may want to challenge someone to consider her definitions of success and happiness or what any risky behavior might mean for her. Passing judgment on her lifestyle, however, isn’t your role. This issue is about boundaries. If someone’s measure of success doesn’t match your own, what are you going to do? Work only with clients who share your values, measures of success, and worldview? Good luck with that one.

What is your personal definition of success? Write it down in two or three sentences.

Success and culture

What people value as a measure of success in a culture often becomes part of the measure of success for the individuals in it. This statement is particularly true when an individual is working within that same cultural context. Cultural overlays exist in defining success, and if you mentor internationally, understanding the drivers of success in a particular culture is important. Your client’s definition may not reflect those drivers, but it can be useful to get a sense of what determines success in someone’s country of origin and/or in her country of heritage.

If you were asked to provide three quick keywords to describe success in different cultures, some or all of those would be different. Jot down three words for: Singapore, New York, Sweden, and Sydney. See?

Cultural definitions of success can be an interesting area to mentor and coach around, particularly in working with foreign nationals who are spending an extended period outside of their country of origin or for those leading across several cultures. It may be important for some people to work with a mentor who has a specific cultural background. If you’re responsible for identifying mentors, this selection consideration may be an important one also.

If you’re working with a client who is from a culture other than your own, spend time getting to understand her world and what has formed her cultural worldview. Doing so is particularly important if your client is expected to lead across different cultures or if she’s leading within an organization that has its roots firmly grounded in an alternative culture.

  • Mentoring questions along these lines can be helpful:
  • What is valued most in your country of origin, and how do professionals define success?
  • What do you take from that?
  • How did your parents define success for you?
  • How do you experience (the organization) and the overall values of the country you’re now working in?
  • How do you think the definition of what success means in this business and this culture differs from your previous experience? What is the same?
  • What about the other territories you’re responsible for? How do you think colleagues there might define success overall?
  • What is your own personal definition of success — for you?
  • What is it for those who are important in your life?

Success isn’t a destination

We live in an increasingly fast world. We are the VUCA generations, living and leading in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous times. The flow of information, increased globalization, and our ability to travel with relative ease in business is creating destination addiction. If you listen long enough in any organization, you’ll hear people competing with each other about being busy as though that is a measure of effective business. Most leaders we know are always busy “going” somewhere.

Robert Holden, an international coach, author, and speaker, writes about destination addiction in his brilliant book, Success Intelligence (Hay House). He says, “Being busy looks damned impressive and necessary. It looks like purpose, focus, drive, and huge productivity… . Busyness is often just noise. It has no real substance to it.”

Society has invented a cause-and-effect relationship between busyness and effectiveness, between effectiveness and success. This perception is in our work-based DNA and increasing globalization; the 24-hour work culture compounds it. The assumption is, “If I look busy, I must be effective, and if I am effective, I must be successful.”

The risk is that society so often associates success with being busy. We rarely question it because we’re in it and we can’t see the rapid elevator we’re traveling in because everyone else is traveling at the same speed for the most part. Coaching and mentoring are powerful. Having a trained supporter to help people see what they can’t yet see helps them make active choices based on their own exploration of success and what it means for them. So many people never even ask the question — they’re too busy running on the treadmill of someone else’s life.