A Wharton grad’s meaning of success

May 16, 2011, 9:13 PM UTC

I recently got a call from Lauren Fleischer, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania and head of Wharton Women. I knew Wharton Women, having once given a talk about leadership and success to this student group. While I had never met Lauren, I was mightily impressed with her as she interviewed me for her research paper on that very topic — leadership and success. In fact, I told her that she’d make a good journalist if she hadn’t already accepted a job as a brand assistant at Kraft Foods .While I couldn’t recruit Lauren to Fortune, I did ask her to write about what she’s learned in college years and she graciously agreed. Alhough the piece she sent me this weekend flatters me too much, it’s worth sharing. Happy Graduation, Lauren and all the amazing future leaders now moving into the pipeline. On on! — Patricia Sellers

Lauren Fleischer. Photo by Hilary Fleischer

This past semester, I was lucky enough to snag one of 35 spots in Professor Richard Shell’s “The Literature of Success.”  The class explores a broad variety of readings, from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin to Think and Grow Rich.  Unlike other classes I’ve taken at Wharton, “The Literature of Success” asked us to look within ourselves. What do we think success is? How can we achieve it?

I had already been exploring this — the hazy meaning of success — through Wharton Women, which seeks to empower a community of female students, faculty, and alumnae in business. As 2010 president of the student-run group, I met some of Fortune’s “Most Powerful Women,” including Deloitte Chairman Sharon Allen, former Hearst Magazines Chairman Cathie Black, and fashion designer Tory Burch.

I’ve gotten lots of insights from these women, but I was particularly struck by Denise Morrison, who spoke at Wharton Women’s Business Conference in February. Morrison is EVP and chief operating officer of Campbell Soup and will become the CEO this August. She grew up as one of four daughters of Dennis Sullivan, a CFO at Cincinnati Bell , who raised them to be leaders. Denise’s sister, Maggie Wilderotter, is the chairman and CEO of giant Frontier Communications . All four Sullivan sisters have reached executive positions at their firms. That’s a difficult task for any four siblings, let alone four women.

As I heard Denise’s story, I couldn’t help but see parallels to my own life and aspire. I’m one of two daughters of a CFO who raised us in a similar manner. I’d like to think that one day the “Fleischer Sisters” will give the “Sullivan Sisters” a run for their money.

What struck me most about Denise’s story was her focus on accomplishing her goals. “The end game that I set the bar at for myself was to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company,” she said. In the context of “The Literature of Success,” I took this statement to heart. Of course, Morrison was asked to speak about her career path, but was all her hard work for the one moment of being named CEO?

Denise made me think hard about my own career that I’m about to begin. While I too have the goal of being a chief executive, what if my plan changes? What if I end up as a writer or mother or entrepreneur? Would I then not be successful because my life didn’t take the path I intended?

I realize now, I need to look beyond titles. Regardless of the titles I’ll hold, I can evaluate my success by asking myself three questions:

1. Am I striving to get better in this particular pursuit?

2. Am I making a positive impact?

3. Am I doing more than what is required of me?

For my final paper before graduating, I researched women past and present. My search brought me to Pattie Sellers, who allowed me to interview her about women and success. I asked Pattie: “If you were one of the Fortune Most Powerful Women, how would you define success?”

Her response comforted me. “Whatever I was doing, I would define success as making a positive difference in the world outside of my job description. You can keep your nose in the books and follow the rules, but real success — and real power — is in making a positive difference beyond what they want you to do or what they ask you to do.”

On graduation day, this view of success fits just right.