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The pitfalls of basing career choices on another’s path

By Jess Feyder | |5 minute read

One chief executive has reflected on the importance of not basing one’s career choices around perceived notions of what contributed to the success of others. 

Recently on The Lawyers Weekly Show, host Jerome Doraisamy was joined by Cassandra Heilbronn, the chief executive of a private family firm based in Saudi Arabia.

Early in her career, Ms Heilbronn worked with the Women Lawyers Association, mentoring women and young lawyers, giving keynote addresses and appearing on different panels to share her knowledge. 


“I loved talking about my career path,” she said, but what happened one day took her by surprise.

After quite a few years, “one lawyer who was once my mentee and now, was a friend, said in general conversation, ‘Cass, I’m not going to have kids.’ And I was like, ‘Why? You’re so young, there’s so many years ahead of you.’ And she said, ‘Well, look, you don’t have kids and look how successful you are.’”

“In no way ever have I ever said I’m not having children, I’ve never commented on it, I’ve never been asked, if I’m being honest,” Ms Heilbronn explained. 

“What really upset me was by talking about my career, I had unintentionally influenced at least one person to make a decision for her career that success meant no children. 

“We spoke further, and she mentioned women like Julia Gillard and Julie Bishop and whatnot, to which I had to start countering, referring to the number of women who are equally, if not more, successful that do have children.

“It still really hurts that I have given this impression to a number of junior lawyers.”

Ms Heilbronn reflected on something that struck her about how a top-tier partner, whom she felt strong admiration for, discussed having children.

When Ms Heilbronn was still in law school, this partner at a BigLaw firm was a mentor to her. “She was ridiculously successful, not just in terms of awards, she was successful in terms of billables, but also retention rate with lawyers, client interactions, to me, the whole package for what a partner should represent. 

“What made me absolutely adore her and respect her even more was she was talking to a team of junior lawyers, and she had just returned from maternity leave and she was explaining to them, ‘I gave birth three months ago. I chose to come back to work because I had to. My husband used to work as an accountant, earning significantly less than what I do as a top-tier partner. My children want ballet lessons, horse lessons, we have a mortgage. I had to come back to work. I love you guys, but I would rather be at home with my children.’

“What I loved from that message was she was saying, ‘Yes, I have come back, but you do not have to be like me. If you can take six months, a year off, do that’,” Ms Heilbronn said. 

Success appears in many areas of life, Ms Heilbronn outlined. She imparted some wisdom for those comparing themselves or their career path to the likes of others.

“If you find yourself comparing or measuring your success to someone else’s, try and train your mind to take a step back. 

“It might take a moment, a few hours or a couple of days, but bring yourself back to your definition of success, and just because it’s not identical to someone else’s, doesn’t mean that you are any less successful,” she said. 

This article was originally published on HR Leader's sister brand, Lawyers Weekly