Ambition has become a polarizing word. On one end, an espoused corporate value, touted by CEOs in earnings calls and town hall meetings to satisfy shareholders and motivate workers. On the other end, it is associated with a hard-charging culture (or leader) with little regard for worker or customer well-being.
While ambition can go terribly wrong and lead to devastating outcomes (think Enron, Theranos or FTX), as Russell Raath, founder of The Ambition Company puts it, ambition is the requisite energy to turn a vision into results.
One of the dictionary definitions of ambition is “desire and determination to achieve success.” However, how we each define success is personal – thus, ambition doesn’t necessarily mean striving for bigger or better, one can have ambition to live a happy and comfortable life. My current ambition is to enjoy the fleeting summer days. Ambition is being deliberate about a desired outcome and going after it.
Specifically, on a recent episode of the foHRsight podcast, Mr. Raath shared three key ingredients to drive ambition:
- Unshakable confidence: Ambitious leaders are fully committed to and confident in the vision. What will be achieved is clear to them and they are able to articulate it to their teams in a compelling way. Mr. Raath refers to U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s moonshot speech as an example of unshakable confidence: prior to 1969, no one had gone to the moon, Mr. Kennedy didn’t know how it would be accomplished but, in his 1962 speech at Rice University, he got not only a nation but the whole world rallied behind the ambition of making it happen.
- Competitive energy: Ambitious leaders trust in and empower their teams to figure out how to achieve their goal, and then guide them with competitive energy - the spark between confidence and action. Ambitious leaders balance unshakable confidence with humility that they don’t have all the answers. They acknowledge that while conditions may not always be favourable, their team has the collective power to achieve their goal and they coach them toward it while not getting in the way.
- Focused action: Ambitious leaders “walk the talk” – it is not enough to have a vision, confidence and competitive energy, they must take swift, decisive action. This means allocating resources (for example, money, headcount or effort) where they are needed, and potentially cutting from where they are not, to achieve the goal. Otherwise, people get frustrated and lose momentum if they don’t see progress.
But what happens when these three ingredients are combined, baked and left to rise without limits? Corporate values are critical for ambition to deliver desired outcomes, while mitigating collateral damage. And while most organizations have a set of values, they are not always authentic or consistently lived. Values need to be reinforced through culture and leadership action – what gets recognized, rewarded and penalized – especially when times are challenging. The trouble is, in many cases, corporate values are either too broad or too numerous and not considered adequately when tough decisions need to be made.
There may also be inherent conflict in values, such as collaboration or inclusion, which can slow decisions and hamper ambition, at least in the short term. Knowing “at what cost” is a critical consideration of the ambition equation. Establishing guardrails needed to honour values and testing them through different scenarios, helps to drive healthier ambition. The companies mentioned above undoubtedly had espoused values written on their proverbial wall, however, when push came to shove, they did not matter (or at least not enough), and greed won.
There is nothing wrong with aspiring to be the best at what we do or to gain a certain percentage of market share from our competitors – ambition is an important corporate value, needed to innovate and achieve greatness. But it needs to be balanced with other core values for healthier, more sustainable outcomes.
Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work. She is also a co-founder of future foHRward.