Amy Katz and Ramia Marielle El Agamy discuss the many different definitions of success and how they are shaped throughout our lives and careers. As originally appeared at WomenInFamilyBusiness.org
This episode of Conversations with Women in Family Business is co-produced with Amy Katz, founder of coaching-business Daughters in Charge.
Ramia: Amy, let’s talk about success and the definition of success. Personally, I think it’s a very complex and difficult topic. I wanted to start out by asking you, throughout your career, in meeting other women that were in their career and helping them and coaching them, how has your definition of success evolved over time? I always find that is super interesting journey that people go through, right?
Amy: Absolutely! And when I think about success, I agree with you there are many different definitions. One definition is the sense that you have had a hand in your business or organization’s success. So that you can see just how your efforts, large and small, have made a difference. I think there’s a particular high that comes when the business has achieved something and you can say it was because I mentioned this idea to this employee. Or it’s because somebody listened to me, or it’s because I was included in that meeting and I made a comment that led to a change in our strategic direction. So I don’t think it’s one big thing, I think it’s steps along the way where you start to appreciate that you can have influence.
I think for many women, but men also on this one, that sense of being able to influence is extremely important. You know, and I thought about daughters working in their family’s businesses, it’s a little different. I talked to one yesterday who said “I just love going to work!” And she works with her mom, but she doesn’t do what her mom does. What she is, is a great designer she designed a workspace which houses people who are more technical. You would never expect these technical people to live and play and work so hard in such an unusual and quirky and special setting. So even though she doesn’t do the work of the business, she found a way to contribute and she’s continuing to do that using a very different kind of expertise. So that’s one thing. Because you never know how you’re going to make a contribution and it may be in unexpected ways, but when you find that lever for your own skills and talent, I do think it’s a remarkable feeling. What are your thoughts?
Ramia: Well, I love how you put it. The moment you feel you’ve had some sort of impact, I do agree with that very, very much. I joined my family business nine years ago officially; before that I used to work for my dad as a volunteer, I guess. But officially getting a job description and job title, that was nine years ago. I think what shocked me was that before you go to work as a girl, or even as a boy, as you said, I think this applies to both genders, because our discussion around what is success in your career is very one-dimensional. Especially when you’re at school and how as a child, you feel how adults portray success, it seems to revolve around wealth creation and the speed of execution of things.
Of course, school gives you a different perspective on success because it means getting good grades and studying hard and all of those things. For me, what was really interesting was that the conditioning of business school was a very different thing. A lot was revolving around prestige and the visibility of your success. So how visible is it, how visibly successful are you? And I remember getting the worst kind of disillusionment when I joined the family business because obviously that’s not how this works, right? First of all, you’re part of a collective that needs to work. You need to invest into the family and you need to invest in those relationships. And then there’s the business that you need to give everything to. And it’s not always glamorous, we know that right. It really isn’t, work isn’t. You’re lucky if you like to go to work but even then, it’s hard most of the time.
So I think for me the first few years were spent not letting this disillusionment or this disenchantment with what it’s actually like versus what the expectation is and getting in the way of realizing that we actually were being successful, just not in the way I had expected it. You know what I mean? And then, I think that gets worse or harder if you’re doing things that are unconventional anyways. People just don’t get it. So I want to ask you about how other people make you feel successful or not. You know, that impact that environment has, how have you coped with that throughout your career and what do you tell your clients in how they should cope with outside perspective process perception of their success?
Amy: One of the things that happens I think when you are doing something pioneering, you stir up people. Whether it’s being a woman in an all-female setting, whether it’s a daughter returning to a family business and people haven’t seen her for a while because she did something else. You’re just getting comfortable with being on the stage or being a figure in the environment, which is important. I didn’t grow up in a family business, but I did work early in my career as a psychologist in an engineering business, a very large one. I was amazed at what people attributed to me. I was told that I really take people out in meetings. In other words, I must come across as very aggressive, and I was shocked.
Ramia: She’s not, dear listeners. She’s not, she’s very nice. Seriously, I mean it!
Amy: What happened to me is I was trying to ask a question that would make me, as a psychologist, seem relevant to the engineering business. I worked so hard at crafting the question that I kind of never had a thought that it would actually offend people or that they would find me difficult. So I think we have to be aware that our intentions and the perceptions people have of us can often be misaligned. I think it takes a bit of that knowledge of how we come across to others and the fact that others may not always perceive us the way we want to be perceived. And we will be misinterpreted, not that everyone isn’t. But when you are a certain kind of unconventional or surprising person in a role that perhaps is unusual, that set up that you’re going to be the object of all kinds of feelings conscious and unconscious.
Ramia: So then when you don’t have the barometer, you’re the barometer. You’re the one who sets the standards for success in whatever it is new that you are doing. It’s a lonely place, right? It really is. I think people always underestimate it. I feel people always ask me what I think about Elon Musk from SpaceX and people ask me what I think about this guy and I always say I feel so sorry for him! And they’re looking at me like, “What do you mean? He’s a multibillionaire,” but I want to say “No, you don’t understand, he’s so far ahead of his time, he must be so lonely.” It must be so tough for him to have that conversation going on in his head and to be so far ahead of what the rest of humanity thinks about or considers important and that’s a lonely place to be in.
The rest of us are not maybe there in our thinking, we think “He has a lot of money so we attribute that to being successful and he’s a successful entrepreneur.” But, God forbid, he wasn’t that rich and he had all those ideas, it would not be the same conversation, obviously. I find it really funny how we pursue success a lot, but then we have challenges and expecting it taking very different shapes and forms and I think that acceptance is not being really trained. We’re not consciously thinking like “Oh, I’m watching this person doing their own thing and even though I can’t relate to it, I should acknowledge that they’re actually successful in what they’re doing,” to a certain extent.
Amy: Yes, but I think the success of someone who is either pioneering a new idea or trying to be a change agent is being measured very differently. As you say, it can be very lonely. I was once told to look for the 5% of the system you are trying to change who might support you and cultivate those connections. Because I agree, you do need support, whatever that might be. Introducing change in any system is a daunting task, but it certainly can’t be done alone. It’s a political task, it’s really gauging how you’ll be able to find people who will listen and will share your excitement. But yes, one often meets resistance.
Ramia: Do you think there’s a wrong kind of pursuit of success? Do you think that people actually get it wrong? I’m asking you this because what I’m increasingly find as well is that I look around me and see people who seem to be having the careers they’ve always wanted, for instance. Or they’re having the lives that they’ve always wanted, house, child, etc. but they’re not happy. They’re really unhappy actually, and it’s starting to dawn on them that they’ve probably never defined what success actually means to them or what happiness means to them. I’ve been worried about that, looking around me. What happens there along the way, are we not asking ourselves the right questions at the right time?
Amy: Well, I think some people find that the external attributes of success are what they’re constantly seeking. And when they don’t get it, they can be plunged into despair. We might not ever see that despair because it’s so important to them to be viewed as successful. But that despair shows itself in the way they treat other people, in the way they stop listening to different ideas. Ultimately, as you’re saying, you come to see this person as externally successful but some of the behaviors are indicative of either loneliness or an emptiness. So I do think that the definition of success is something that is very much an internal experience.
I think sometimes we can be surprised. You mentioned earlier being part of a collective and that this can be part of a transition and sometimes a tough transition. Particularly if you like to get good grades and then you find yourself aligned as a team. On the other hand, it could be a source of friendship, fun and laughter, as well as a sense of achievement. I think that’s part of it. The other is I find that a successful person is a lifelong learner. What I mean by that is we’re not always successful. And screwing up and feeling bad about it and taking in that failure or having the opportunity to share it with others and have them build your resilience is a very rewarding part of having a positive successful career. Just weathering a crisis can build your internal sense of achievement, no matter what the business result is. So you’re really talking about the person in the context of a group or a system and each plays a role, but the definition of success can be wildly varied. And you’re right, for some people it’s a happy marriage and having children and a beautiful home and for other people, it’s winning some prize and we all have different definitions.
Ramia: As a last point, between us, do you feel like as women, we tend to be less easily satisfied with what we have? Do you find we are harder on ourselves on defining what makes us successful than men, for instance?
Amy: It’s hard to generalize. I would say living with conflict in relationships and feeling OK about that and not feeling that everyone needs to be happy all the time or that you have to make them happy all the time. It’s a lens that many women see through. It’s being able to let it go and say, “I will never get along with this employee or my father or my brother or my aunt but that barrier is not something I’m going to spend my life worrying about.” In that sense, I think that sensitivity to relationships and particularly, the conflict can be a barrier unless you learn to manage it.
Ramia: I really think it is. I think we can get really easily distracted by smaller things as well. I have my guy friends, and even when I watch my husband, it’s awesome how men can compartmentalize. Even though everything else may be going wrong, they can really be happy about that one little point of success they’re experiencing. I’ve always admired that because I think for women, what’s really hard is to switch our 360° view of things, and we’re broadly generalizing of course, but I do think that as a tendency we can see this. I have found myself more and more turning around to my girlfriends or my sisters or my mom saying, “Hey guys, let’s hold on a second. Just because one thing didn’t work out, let’s not forget everything else that is.” And I think that for me, has become the new formula for success which is that no matter how shitty any situation turns out to be, you still have that perspective of everything else you’re achieving. I believe that’s the new definition of success because if success doesn’t start with that for me, I will never recognize it. I know a lot of women who will also probably never recognize it otherwise, right? Because you’re always after that one thing that’s not working out for you at that particular moment, so it’s a tough one.
Amy: It’s interesting, as much as I think women can support each other, there are some times when I really feel women have a lot to learn from men. And sometimes I’ll suggest a woman go find a male friend. It’s amazing, my business partner is a man and he’ll enlighten me in many ways and help me get off my own self-flagellation about an error in ways that I don’t think a woman could. Just as women can be helpful to men, particularly in that capacity, to see your success where a woman may not experience it that way, a man can really enjoy his success.