What Really Makes or Breaks a Career

September 06, 2023

7 factors for a top career

Generally speaking, anyone who works in exchange for money has a career. Nevertheless, there are certain factors that have a huge impact on the success of one’s professional development (or lack thereof). Johannes Steyrer, Academic Director of the EMBA Health Care Management at the WU Executive Academy, analyzes these factors, looks at the reasons why certain variables pave the way for more success than others, and investigates the gender gap in terms of professional careers. Together with Wolfgang Mayrhofer, head of the Interdisciplinary Institute of Management and Organisational Behavior at WU Vienna, the career and management expert of WU Vienna has completed extensive longitudinal studies together with his team, gathering astonishing insights on what makes or breaks a career.

There are many building blocks that influence careers. Image: shutterstock, Yuganov Konstantin
There are many building blocks that influence careers. Image: shutterstock, Yuganov Konstantin

“Karriereachterbahn” (Career Rollercoaster) is the title of a new book by WU professor Johannes Steyrer, Academic Director of the Executive MBA Health Care Management at the WU Executive Academy, and Wolfgang Mayrhofer, head of the Interdisciplinary Institute of Management and Organisational Behavior at WU Vienna. The book with the subtitle “Was Berufswege wirklich beeinflusst” (What Really Makes or Breaks Professional Careers) provides a detailed analysis of exactly these impacts and is the result of 30 years of academic research.

7 Factors: What Makes a Brilliant Career

In the course of a meta-analysis, the researchers analyzed more than 500 studies from several decades, looking for the factors that determine people’s professional paths. All in all, they scrutinized the careers of more than 600,000 people around the world. The study also incorporated research on the cultural differences between 35 countries.

As it turned out, the global view of careers is rather homogeneous. The researchers were able to identify 7 factors that people considered to have influenced their careers, no matter where they were from:

1. Learning and Development

relate to aspects of our personal growth, including, among others, strengthening one’s own qualification portfolio or rising in the formal or informal ranks.

2. Entrepreneurship

means founding and leading companies independently.

3. Work-Life Balance

addresses the extent of our ability to successfully reconcile the various spheres of our lives. Balance is about the possibility to focus on different areas of life depending on certain life events, the personal stages of our development, and based on our own values – for example putting more or less emphasis on professional commitments during certain periods of our lives.

4. Positive Impact

denotes the consequences of our professional activities beyond the mere completion of our duties, serving a bigger purpose, for example the common good.

5. Positive Work Relationships

are about our basic need for a human touch, friendships at the workplace, happiness provided by relationships, etc.

6. Financial Security

reflects our basic need to live in stability. If we want to thrive in modern society, a certain financial foundation, usually derived from paid labor, is essential for us.

7. Financial Success

is more than that. If financial security were the bread we eat to survive, financial success would be the BLT on top. Achieving financial prosperity would be an example of financial success.

Money is definitely not everything, though: “Career plans are not fixated on money and climbing the ladder in a one-dimensional way,” Steyrer emphasizes. If we look at current trends, we can see that learning, development, and entrepreneurship are becoming ever more important factors.

Career isn't always about money - it's also about self-development. Image: shutterstock, metamorworks
Career isn't always about money - it's also about self-development. Image: shutterstock, metamorworks

Know-how: It’s All about the Chemistry and the “Perfect Fit”

The study’s meta-analysis focused on three success variables: 1. the rise up the ranks, 2. income, and 3. career satisfaction. All in all, the study looked at 26 influencing factors such as individual potential (e.g., personality or IQ), performance (e.g., motivation and commitment), differences among various career fields (e.g., organizational support), societal factors (e.g., social roots), and interaction aspects (e.g., mentoring, networking, tactical approach, etc.).

“What struck me as most interesting,” Steyrer points out,

  • “is the fact that the so-called ‘leader-member-exchange (LMX) relationship’ turned out to be the most important factor for a rise up the ranks.  The key to successfully climbing up a company’s hierarchy seems to be a trusting, loyal relationship between supervisors and employees, the most important thing being that the latter need to be in their supervisor’s in-group.
  • Not surprisingly, income is determined mostly by the hours people work, immediately followed by their IQ.
  • In terms of career satisfaction, the person-environment fit (does my job fit me) ranked number 1, closely followed by the LMX relationship.”

Graduates of Business Studies: What the Long-Term Studies Show

“We also did a longitudinal study on the careers of business graduates,” Steyrer says and explains: “For careers in management, a combination of leadership and performance motivation, the ability to form relationships, and flexibility is decisive for a person’s success.” Employability, i.e., the ability to take your career in your own hands, not only promotes careers but also has a direct effect on salaries: those who ended up in the top quarter with regard to this factor outearn the bottom quarter by about a third.

Johannes Steyrer Portrait

Johannes Steyrer

  • Academic Director Executive MBA Health Care Management

As a career strategy for business graduates, networking and the ability to form rational arguments are extremely important. These factors tend to become even more crucial as a career progresses, because the pressure increases and it gets more difficult to make the cut.

Career: the Differences between Men and Women

The analysis of the WU researchers also shows that women suffer more from an income than a career gap. According to WIFO, the Austrian Institute of Economic Research, the gender pay gap in Austria adjusted for, among others, working hours, industry, education, or management positions, amounted to 6.2% when broken down to an hourly wage basis. Johannes Steyrer’s team went even a step further. For their study on business graduates, they chose men and women who shared as many personality traits and job characteristics as possible and were also very similar with regard to their social and family situation (e.g., marriage, partnership, children). In a nutshell, they looked for virtual twins. Putting all three cohorts together, the income gap between men and women amounts to 24% in the first 10 years. If we look at the virtual twins, this percentage drops to 13%. “Our comparison of cohorts shows that following the parallelization, there is almost no difference in income within the youngest (2010) cohort. In this context, one thing is important: personality or job characteristics hardly serve to reduce the gap. What’s decisive is people’s family situation. Women need to forego having a family and children, otherwise the gender pay gap will hit them with all its force,” Steyrer sums up the facts.

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