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Ambition: how much is too much?

Nick Martindale

Sir Alan Sugar: the epitome of ambition

Nick Martindale discusses the fine line between ruthlessness and ambition and if managers should reveal their ambitious side at work

For much of the last decade, the concept of ambition was back in favour. TV programmes such as Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice conjured up scores of committed and dynamic individuals, apparently eager for success, and unashamedly ruthless in the pursuit of their dreams. The economic downturn, though, widely perceived to have been caused by excessive risk-taking and greed in the financial sector, changed all that; recalling images of pin-striped City executives and Harry Enfield’s infamous Loadsamoney character. Ambition, once again, was firmly out of favour.

It is possible to be ambitious in a positive way if an individual's success is linked to the success of the wider organisation

Yet ambition – in its purest sense – remains an essential characteristic both for individuals wanting to progress towards life and career goals and for organisations looking to maximise their own capabilities. “Being ambitious for the company, the team and oneself is crucial for success,” says Julie Towers, managing director of Recruitment Solutions at Penna. “If an individual doesn’t have ambition and drive then everyone loses out. Ambition isn’t the problem; it’s the 80s-type behaviours that often get wrongly associated with it, such as being ruthless to the death, which are certainly unwelcome in today’s  work environment.”

Gareth Jones, chief technologist at The Chemistry Group, also believes ambition gets something of a bad press in the current climate. “There is nothing wrong with a certain level of personal ambition,” he says. “We all need a degree of self-drive to get out of bed in the morning and to achieve a level of self-improvement.However, when the drive to achieve for themselves becomes all-encompassing, to the detriment of others, then clearly this is counterproductive.”

The trick for leaders and managers, says Pip Clarke, business development director at a&dc, is to marry up personal ambition with that of the business itself. “It is possible to be ambitious in a positive way if an individual’s personal success is linked to the success of the wider organisation,” she says. “Individuals can also be personally ambitious or achievement-oriented but high on the need for affiliation, which means they are less likely to tread on other people’s toes to get to where they want to be.”

Enterprising aims

There are some cases where ambition is particularly welcome. Colin Williams, programme director on the Ashridge Leadership Workshop open programme, suggests that start-ups and rapidly growing businesses in particular thrive when individuals are given freedom to channel their ambitions into the broader entrepreneurial zeal. “The conflict created by the ambitious, pushy individual can be a healthy ingredient because they will challenge the status quo and question why things are done in a particular way,” he says. “That’s not a bad thing, as long it’s not narcissistic to the point that it’s purely destructive.”

Most organisations tend to welcome ambitious individuals, says Williams, as long as the balance between individual and organisational goals is maintained. “By definition people who are ambitious are a bit selfish, so there needs to be a more balanced perspective and more of a desire for “us” to win,” he says. “But for a leader or manager it’s a much nicer problem to have someone who is too ambitious and have to calm down that person than to try and pump life and energy into someone who is quite passive and who just wants to turn up, do a job and go home.”

At internet hosting company UKFast, ambition is something chief executive Lawrence Jones actively looks for in new recruits, at interview stage and through psychometric testing. “Ambition is an attribute that I will always encourage and respect,” he says. “Intelligence without ambition is useless so it’s a trait that I always try and seek out. Fundamentally, you cannot have ambition without some degree of belief, and with belief comes passion.”

The business follows up its hiring process by taking all new recruits to climb Snowdon, watching for signs of ambition and teamwork which Jones hopes will identify future managers. “Ambitious individuals really shine,” he says. “They don’t want to give in and you can often see them having a mental battle with themselves, pushing on up Snowdon even when it’s getting tough or the weather takes a turn for the worse. But the best kind of ambition comes through when you’ve got someone motivating and supporting other team members. They want to succeed but they know that means the whole team making it to the summit.”

Driving success

Car hire firm Enterprise Rent-A-Car also puts a high value on ambition, actively targeting entrepreneurial graduates who from an early stage are given the responsibility of running their own branch. Here, the trick is to match up the individual’s ambition with one of the many career options open to them within the organisation. “All our people are ambitious, but in very different ways,” says Donna Miller, European HR director. “Some want to advance on the rental career path. Others get attracted to a specialisation like HR or finance and start to develop careers there. We work very hard to nurture people’s personal goals and career aspirations so they feel that there is a next step for them within the business, and that they won’t hit a glass ceiling.” Creating an environment where individuals can work under their own steam can not only keep ambitious individuals motivated but also improve performance, she adds.

Not all organisations are so comfortable with ambition. Sue Tumelty, founder and executive director of The HR Dept Ltd, believes men and women tend to be viewed differently; something she thinks can be traced back to long-standing cultural mores. “Generally girls are brought up not to boast about their achievements and so tend not to describe themselves as ambitious, although many are,” she claims. “This early learned reticence often continues into work, where females wrongly assume their success will be fairly rewarded. Combine this reticence with abilities to be a good team player and women are often written off as not having the necessary drive for the next step.”

Having at least a degree of ambition is essential to career success, if success means progressing up the organisation into more senior positions, says Clodagh O’Reilly, leader, assessment consulting, at IBM company Kenexa. “It is very rare for promotions or career growth to come to those who have no interest in them,” she says. “A lack of interest in achieving more than day-to-day, task-based outcomes will not necessarily translate to poor performance, but is unlikely to lead to progress.”

But she points out too that those who are ambitious also tend to be better at letting others know what they have achieved, even if this means taking credit for the successes of other people. “I once had a manager who encouraged me to spend at least 25% of my time telling people what I’d done,” she recalls. “I got promoted soon after. It was not helpful to have done work when no one recognised what I did and what results I’d delivered.” Being able to accurately summarise your achievements is essential here. “One-line emails make a greater impression than paragraphs of text,” she says.

Leaders certainly tend to be drawn to hiring managers with drive and ambition, says David Dumeresque, a partner at executive search firm Tyzack. He warns, though, that promoting or hiring individuals based on ambition alone can end in failure if it is not accompanied by other, softer, skills. “The key is to ascend the ladder with ambition meshed with empathy for others,” he says. “Ambition needs to be tempered with an ability to listen to what others have to say. Ambition as a selfish trait is generally less productive in the long run.”

At UKFast, this is something Jones also acknowledges. “Great managers and leaders can’t succeed with ambition alone,” he admits. “The real managers in life are a rare breed. They are ambitious but still supportive to the people around them. This results in a positive, driven team who feel confident in their abilities and supported in their decisions. You need a blend of each type of person to create a dynamic and innovative team.”  

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