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 A Personal Struggle with the Definition of Success

Conversation with a successful investor/partner in a private equity firm

In my experience, conversations about ethics in business often ring false, especially in educational
contexts. It’s difficult to get to a real level of honesty.

I see business leaders taking public stands on various values-based issues, like organizational diversity
or the treatment of employees or transparency or the refusal to take bribes. But most people, especially
early in their careers, are not in a position to drive organizational changes.
There is a big distinction between making the courageous and correct moral decision for oneself, and
being in a position to implement something systemic throughout the organization. And even making the
“right” moral decision for oneself can often feel like a career limiting move if the wider organization
doesn’t seem to value that choice.
In order for the organization to change, someone at a senior level has to care about the issues. So people
often think to themselves, I will make compromises early in my career in order to make it up the ladder,
and then I will take action based on my values when I am in a powerful leadership position and can
really make a difference. The problem with “waiting it out” in this way is that all those compromises can
change you. Generally if you behaved a certain way to get to your position – whether actively
inappropriate or passively looking the other way – that is who you are or who you have become (despite
whatever personal narrative you have invented to justify your choices along the way).
When I have faced highly political behavior that conflicts with my own values, I have generally chosen
not to play. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not an altar boy, and I have made my share of mistakes in treating
peers and team members badly or being dishonest in deal negotiations. But my best decisions about
organizational politics and mudslinging have not really felt like choices to me at all, because I’m just
being who I am. It’s important to realize that these choices do not necessarily lead to “movie endings;” I
have paid a price in career success and money (and honestly, the sacrifice hasn’t always felt “good” just
because I did the “right” thing). But as I said, there are some things I just was not willing to do.
1 This case was inspired by interviews and observations of actual experiences but names and other situational details have
been changed for confidentiality and teaching purposes.
This material is part of the Giving Voice to Values curriculum collection (
The Aspen Institute was founding partner, along with the Yale School of Management, and incubator for Giving Voice to Values (GVV).

Another thing I’ve noticed is that, contrary to the aforementioned rationalization that “I will be freer to
act on my values when I’m more senior in the organization,” the higher I’ve gone in my career, the more
limited and pressured I often feel with regard to my values. The competition gets tougher (because the
people remaining in the game are less likely to have the most pristine values or integrity) and we all get
more sophisticated about how to play and survive. Most importantly, the stakes get higher and there
seems to be more to lose – personally in terms of family responsibility and ego and financial success as
well as professionally in terms of platform and position – all of which makes it harder to be courageous.
And I suspect people get better at marketing themselves the higher they go in an organization, so they
can defend more types of behavior. Then when they finally rise high enough to run the show, they talk
about values, but everyone knows the path they took, and they rarely make those values the cornerstone
of success for the next generation of employees.
I guess it’s important to say that these generalizations may not be true in every company or industry and
also that entrepreneurs may have more ability at an early age to make the right decision – but even these
organizations or entrepreneurs have to answer to investors or markets who don’t really care about values
or at least don’t make their investment decisions based on values.

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An example:
A number of years ago, I built a new area of investments that eventually became an over $1 billion
portion of our $2 billion private equity fund. I was relatively young for the level of responsibility I held
and I found one of my new peers within the firm to be a highly successful, older and, in my view, rather
cynical partner. This partner’s approach to colleagues as well as competitors was hostile and
manipulative, and I figured that he would eventually blow himself up because of the enemies he made. I
tried to ignore him and stay out of his way, knowing that he probably saw me as a threat since I had
made it to the same level at such a young age. I tried to help the guy when I could, thinking maybe I
could generate good will by being a team player (or at least distinguish my behavior from his).
But I was wrong about everything. Over time, this guy did not blow himself up (He was a talented
investor and a good manipulator, and his investment track record allowed him a free behavioral pass
from his superiors.) and he found ways to push my buttons and to call attention to any possible mistakes
I made. He made the environment intolerable for me. I found myself making angry speeches to the CEO
in the shower in the mornings, calling for him to rein in this partner. But in the end, I knew that
everyone already knew this guy was behaving badly and my complaints about him would not be news.
People just accepted the partner’s bad behavior because he was talented. And the only way I could
change the situation would be to fight at his level, using political tricks or slander to turn folks against
him. I just didn’t want to go there.
It didn’t even feel like a moral or values-based decision; it was just not who I was or the way I wanted to
lead my life. Eventually I left the firm and I lost a lot by doing so. Yes, my career has continued to be
successful, but not as successful as his in the American definition of the term. I still look back at that
experience with discomfort. If I had known what I know now, I would have left sooner because I was
angry and miserable for a long time. I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that the situation couldn’t
work out differently. I just found it hard to accept that talented but bad people can, in fact, “win” in such
situations. Is that OK? I am still ambivalent about it. I don’t think I would have admitted it at the time,
but my decision to leave once I knew the situation wouldn’t change was delayed somewhat by the high
compensation – so I did allow myself to be bought up to a point.
This material is part of the Giving Voice to Values curriculum collection (
The Aspen Institute was founding partner, along with the Yale School of Management, and incubator for Giving Voice to Values (GVV).
Now Funded by Babson College.
Do not alter or distribute without permission. © Mary C. Gentile, 2010
So you may ask: why am I still uncomfortable? Clearly I have continued to be successful in my career.
That partner didn’t ruin me and what’s more, he didn’t change me. I was true to myself, even if it took
some time, and I didn’t hurt anybody else. So what’s the problem?
I’d like to say I feel better because I took the high moral ground but in reality, it didn’t feel like a choice.
It would not have been “me.” So the question becomes, why doesn’t being the kind of person who
behaves fairly and with civility ensure success, given the requisite talent and hard work and
commitment? Or, on the other hand, why doesn’t bad behavior ensure failure?
I’d like to be able to embrace the classical definitions of success, accepting that true success is not
necessarily about “winning” or financial success or always being recognized and rewarded. I’d like to be
able to embrace the idea that true success is more an internal than external phenomenon. But these ideas
often seem overwhelmed by real world evidence: they contradict the lessons we learn and the messages
we digest every day in school, the media, our communities, about how society measures success. It’s
difficult for your typical hard-charging, Type A individual to accept that it’s OK to make career-limiting
decisions in order to maintain one’s values.
On the other hand, I look at students and young managers today and am inspired by their instinctive
interest in social entrepreneurship, socially responsible investing, and their desire to live balanced lives.
It feels kind of schizophrenic: there is clearly a yearning for change by so many individuals, but it is
hard to create systemic change at a pace that will actually impact our own careers and lives.
For me, I have begun to think that the only way to deal with the frustration and ambivalence of these
apparently contradictory messages is to put the idea of success and achievement into the larger context
of meaning in one’s entire life. Work success is not enough; it’s just part of a person.
Still, it is important to be honest about my being able to make this choice. It is easier for someone who
has made a lot of money – whether it is $5 or $10 million, or $100 million – to make these decisions to
redefine success than it is when you don’t have the same level of security.
So I have begun to take the very challenges that concerned me in my own career and to work with
colleagues who share my views, to take the very market system we have studied and mastered in our
careers and to consider ways to use its strengths to support values-based organizations. The question I
am working on now is: what kinds of changes may be necessary – at the systemic, organizational and
personal levels – to support those who want to succeed in business and still be consistent with their
values? And how can I play a leadership role in supporting those changes? How can we make the

What do you think of this speaker’s view that “The problem with ‘waiting it out’ in this way is that

all those compromises can change you.”? Do you agree? What are the implications of this

perspective for you?

 What do you think of his view that “The higher I’ve gone in my career, the more limited and

pressured I often feel with regard to my values.”? Do you agree? What are the implications of this

perspective for you?

 On the other hand, the speaker also describes how difficult it is for someone to be consistent with

their values when they are not at the “top” of their organizations. Nevertheless, he then goes on to

describe how he still managed to do so. What do you make of this seeming contradiction? And what

do you think enabled him to make the choices he has?

 Why was it so difficult for the speaker to accept that someone can behave badly and still be

rewarded within an organization?

 How do you think the speaker defines success? Do you think his definition of success has changed

over the course of his career?

 The speaker explains that although he acted on his values, he does not want to pretend that there

wasn’t a price he paid for doing so. Why do you think it is important for him to acknowledge that?

 Why do you think he is working on the venture he mentions at the end of his conversation? What has

he learned? What is he still trying to work out?

 What are the most important lessons that you personally can derive from the speaker’s reflections?

How will you define success?

(Alternatively, do you react to the speaker’s reflections by feeling positive and empowered? If so,

how? Or do you react to his reflections by feeling a bit stymied in your efforts to voice and act on

your values in the workplace? If so, what would it take for you to transform that response?)

 And, finally, how would you respond to the questions the speaker poses at the end of his remarks?

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