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Beware naked ambition

For a while there was something of a fashion for making grandly ambitious statements in job interviews: the question “where do you want to be in five years’ time?” would typically be met with “in your job”. Such an answer is unhelpfully glib — for a start, the interviewee is missing a great chance to demonstrate that he or she has developed a thoughtful career strategy — but is it also perhaps too aggressively ambitious?

In some situations it seems that determined careerists should keep the full size of their aspirations under their hats. Overt displays of ambition can damage people’s chances at work, says Grace Borelli, a managing partner at the recruitment agency CTPartners. One reason for this is that obvious ambition can be seen by colleagues as potentially threatening. “Ambition is something that should be kept inside and not overtly communicated,” she says. “There is a difference between ambition and drive. Drive is more acceptable because... you can be inwardly driven, but to be outwardly ambitious [can] carry a connotation of competitiveness, of trying to be better than everyone else.”

Staying on the right side of the line between the two is largely about ensuring that the way in which you pursue your goals does not hurt others. “Ambition has a picture of people clawing their way up, kicking other people off [the ladder],” Borelli says. Driven individuals bring others along with them; they demonstrate team leadership and show that they’re interested in more than their own progress. She argues that ambition connotes the pursuit of individual, personal success while drive is inclusive of others.

But not all organisations are unhappy to see outright ambition. Martyn Sakol, a chartered psychologist and a director of the executive assessment and development company ER Consultants, says that it’s simply a matter of job-seekers ensuring that they look for work at organisations that value it. “Where the two are out of sync [the employee] will move,” Sakol says. “For example, one of my clients is a very successful, capable business manager who reached a glass ceiling because the culture and ambitions of the organisation weren’t as great as his.” The manager has since moved jobs.

Sakol advises ambitious people against disguising their aspirations, but this does not necessarily mean that it’s OK to rush in like a bull at a gate; sensitivity to the corporate ethos is also important. “You need to demonstrate emotional intelligence but you also need to be yourself.”

People in jobs that force them to hide their true selves are likely to become dissatisfied and unhappy, he says. Fortunately for the openly ambitious, there are companies that want them. Sakol cites a consultancy that actively seeks ambitious employees. “The chief executive is ambitious and wants to have ambition throughout the organisation,” he says. “He wants people who demonstrate ambition, who are constantly seeking out business opportunities. We are working with him to systematically select directors who demonstrate that characteristic — he calls it ‘hustle and steel’.”

However, the chief executive does expect hard-nosed ambition to be combined with softer skills, such as the ability to manage internal and external relationships. It’s also clear that he is seeking people whose personal ambitions line up with the organisation’s goals. He wants his employees’ individual ambitions to drive the company’s success; equally, ambitious staff are unlikely to want to work for a company where they are unable to make a significant difference.

As to whether displays of ambition are read differently according to whether the person making them is male or female, well, it’s complicated, Sakol says. Women don’t have to temper their ambition, but they may have to handle it slightly differently in different situations. “It’s what we call situational leadership. Play to what is expected in that environment.” Borelli puts the matter more directly: “We live in a business world that’s driven by male values and men do find it difficult to deal with ambitious women.” Sakol agrees that some organisations see overtly ambitious women as threatening, but he sees this more as an issue of organisational fit than gender politics — corporate culture varies considerably. “My advice to any individual is to be self-aware and to do your homework on the organisation you’re going to.”

Corporate and indeed global culture play a big part here. British, particularly English, companies tend to have a slightly more reserved approach than, say, US firms, just as the way our respective cultures discuss money differs. “It’s important to be aware of culture,” Borelli says. “Some Americans who come here cannot understand our business culture and find themselves out of place [because] the British are particularly funny about money and being ambitious.”

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