Getting Ahead Without Falling Behind
You may think ambition is a negative trait, something to hide.
Not true. You just need to be thoughtful about the "how."
When you think of someone who is ambitious, what characteristics come to mind? Aggressive? Manipulative? Fake? Political? The label of "ambitious" has a negative connotation, with good reason. Most of us have been scorched, at least once, by someone who's ambition allowed them to get ahead despite leaving deceit and destruction in their path.
Today I challenge you to think about ambition in a new way. Without it, there's not much that would be accomplished in the business world. The innovations we see every day are driven by our natural desire to do better, smarter, and faster as individuals. People tend to think of ambition as good for organizations, but bad for individuals. Hello, irony. Organizations achieve success only through the ambition of individuals.
You probably feel at least a hint of ambition, even if you don't think of it that way. Maybe you're hoping to take on a larger role, be involved in a special project, or work a better shift. If you're like most people, you keep your ambition to yourself out of concern for how others will respond.
Ambition is what propels you to achieve your goals. You shouldn't hide it. When your ambition aligns with the interests of your employer, it creates a great opportunity for success all around. You just have to be thoughtful about how you act on ambition, so you don't accidentally fall behind... on your way to getting ahead.
How do you embrace your ambition and chart a course to achieve more?Embracing Ambition
It's no wonder that people are concerned about openly demonstrating ambition. Read the definitions below. Ambition feels a little tainted by a focus on self-interest.
An earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment. Dictionary.com
An ardent desire for rank, fame, or power. Desire to achieve a particular end. Merriam-Webster
Desire for success. A strong feeling of wanting to be successful in life and achieve great things. Objective or goal that somebody is trying to achieve. Bing DictionaryThe most important thing in understanding and embracing ambition is this: pursuing something that matters to you isn't bad. It doesn't have to be selfish, self-serving, or destructive to others. I won't argue the point that ambition can be all of those things. My point is that it doesn't have to be, for you. This is where the "how" comes into play.
In nearly every workplace, ambition is productive and valuable when the stage is set in this way:
- You're clear on what you want to achieve. (Ambition without direction is trouble.)
- You're committed to align your ambition directly with your employer's needs.
- You're respectful of the process or path your employer provides.
- You're decent; you don't actively discredit others to support your cause.
- You're collaborative if relationships become strained, and work to repair them.
Embracing your ambition to create success for yourself is really about your intention. Getting ahead in the workplace is great. Getting ahead in the workplace at the expense of others is not great. Following the guidelines above is easier said than done. But if you're conscious of these potential challenges, you're far less likely to be bitten by them on the way up.
Turning Ambition Into Achievement
If you're lucky, your organization has a career path outlined for your position and structured professional development programs to help you advance in your career. I say lucky, because it's rare. It's more likely that your organization offers either a limited number of training opportunities, or so many that you aren't sure which to consider. The implication is that you probably need to develop your own plan. Here's my suggestion for how to put your ambition on the best path to achievement.
1. Identify your areas of interest.
I mentioned earlier that it's important to know what you want to achieve. Ambition without direction is like shooting a gun without a target. You can do a lot of damage without even trying. I can't stress enough how important it is to know what really interests you. What do you like to do? What have you seen others do that's intriguing? What do you want to learn more about?
Ambition is normally born from restlessness with your current role. It may come from a desire for more status or the ability to have an impact in your organization. You may want more money or a change in what you do every day. You may want to put your ambition to work in your current company or your next one. You may want to do something similar to what you do today or something completely different. The options are endless.
The best way to sort through the clutter and gain clarity about ambition is to get back to the basics.
What do I like about what I do today? What do I dislike about what I do today? What do I want to do that I can't do in my current role? How do I envision spending my time once I'm in an ideal career position? What characteristics have to be a part of my role for it to satisfy me completely?If you think you're interested in a path but you don't know a lot about it, do research. Get online, ask people to share what they know, or interview someone who is in the role today. You'll be amazed how accommodating people will be. Be gracious and respectful of others' time, but don't hesitate to learn as much as you can about areas of interest. Get solid on what you want to do.
2. Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. Ego, aside.
You may be tempted to read this headline, hear "blah, blah, blah" and move on. Please don't. Here's why. You may have strengths that allow you to shine in your current role. This is about evaluating your skills relative to the next step in your career. You need to evaluate yourself based on what's required for what you want to do tomorrow, not what you're doing today.
Your weaknesses are equally important to understand. I don't mean the quick answer of "I'm impatient" or "I'm not good with numbers." Ambition leads to success when someone knows with complete clarity their strengths and how to use them... as well as their weaknesses and how to mitigate or overcome them.
Take the time to evaluate yourself as someone else might evaluate you. Set aside all ego and remember that this is just for you. No one else has to see it or even know how you privately assess yourself. Armed with this knowledge, you can point your ambition in the right direction, namely one where you'll be successful. This also helps you understand the specific areas of professional development needed for your chosen path.
3. Don't jump the gun.
All too often, people pursue a new role because they feel stuck in their current role or they're lured by status and money. They don't give any real thought as to whether they'd be successful or satisfied in the new role. It's simply failure waiting to happen.
Ambition only serves you well if you take the time to think about what you want and whether you're ready and well-positioned for the move. Until you've done that work, you can't ask others to give you what you want. You don't even know what you want. Don't jump the gun and race toward any opportunity that happens to present itself.
Highly successful people consider alternatives, evaluate what's most likely to bring success and satisfaction, and chart a course or two (or three) that will lead them to their best life option. Don't chase shadows.
4. Think about why your company should support you.
If I listed my top ten pet peeves in business, "entitlement" would be very high on the list. I'm talking about people who believe that they deserve something more than others, without behaving in ways that are distinct from others. One example of this has to do with how companies choose to invest in ambition.
Some people believe that it's their employer's responsibility and obligation to provide opportunities for career advancement. They believe that just by showing up every day (while being paid), they've earned the additional right to have paid time away and the expense of training to further their careers. They believe they deserve promotions and the chance to try new things. Of course it's in the company's best interest to develop its employees, but investments in their future aren't deserved. Entitlement is nothing but a quiet tantrum waiting to play out.
You have to earn the distinction of your company's sustained support. You do that by showing commitment, going above and beyond the contributions of co-workers, and performing at a high level on a consistent basis. When you demonstrate those characteristics, it's likely that your employer will invest and provide you with opportunities to do more and different things.
As you consider your ambition, think about why your organization should support you. This is true whether you want a new role or an investment of training to help you develop for a future role. What's in it for them? How will they benefit? In what ways will you bring added value to the organization? Be thoughtful about this and you'll make it very hard for an employer to say no to your ambition. This is true even if your motivation is to leave the company long-term. Short-term value almost always trumps long-term loyalty.
5. Ask for what you want.
At this point, you know what's of interest to you, you've evaluated your strengths, and you can articulate the benefit of your advancement to your employer. It's time to get others involved. Sharing your ambition, particularly if your plan is to stay with the company long-term, serves you well. Make sure your manager is aware of your interests, and that your human resources representative, and others in positions of influence, are also aware.
With the work you've done, you'll find yourself in one of two situations:
a. You're ready for your next role. In this situation, tell your manager that you want to grow with the company and that you're interested in moving to the new role. Explain why it's of interest, why you believe your qualified, how the company benefits from the move, and request his or her support. Ask if he or she will endorse you and talk to the hiring manager for the position on your behalf. If the answer is yes, great. If no? More on that in a moment.
b. You know the direction you want to take, and you need development. In most cases, your ambition requires you to acquire new skills. Ask your manager if he or she will support a training plan to help you develop professionally. Identify your biggest priorities and share how your new skills will benefit both you and the organization. If you receive support, take advantage of any and every opportunity to pursue development. If you're not supported? More on that in a moment.6. Be patient, but not too patient.
Sometimes by the time you get up the nerve to share your ambition, you want immediate advancement of your cause. Patience is your friend in this instance. Every organization has a process for how you go about pursuing professional development and how you advance through the organization into new roles. Your manager may ask you to wait for a better time of year or a time when things are less busy. You may need to be in your current role for some period of time. Ask when will be a better time, and discuss specific timeframes. You want to be understanding of the needs of the business and exercise patience.
That said, sometimes managers don't push on your behalf because it makes their life harder. Having someone out of the office for training makes it challenging to balance the workload. Promoting someone into a new role creates an opening, that often has to be covered by the manager until filled.
All managers know it's the right thing to do to invest in strong people who are interested in doing more. That doesn't mean they won't need reminders and a push every now and then to take action on your behalf. Be patient, for sure, but also be consistent in expressing your ambition to your manager and others. They may take action at some point just because they're tired of hearing about it. Mission accomplished.
One more note on this: Don't expect your manager or human resources contact to do all the work for you. Find opportunities and present ideas to your manager. Do your homework and make it easy for them to say yes. If it's up to them to do the work, you're on their timetable vs. your own. Show initiative.
The Impact of Ambition On Relationships
As if it's not hard enough to understand your ambition and be brave enough to pursue it, additional challenges come from how others respond. Sometimes the relationships that are the most difficult aren't the ones you'd expect. If you don't manage them well, you may experience sabotage, distancing, or even complete fracture of important relationships.
Family and friends may be concerned that if you get ahead that you'll leave them behind or have less time for them. They may worry that you'll become consumed with your new role. Your closest team members and work friends may not feel that you "fit" with them anymore. If you want or get more, your friends may feel that they can't be themselves with you anymore.
Your former peers may not respond well if you're promoted into a leadership role above them. They'll remember all the things they've shared with you in confidence, and things you know about their work habits that could now hurt them. It takes time to regain that trust. Other colleagues or even your boss may be threatened by your ambition. They may be concerned that you'll take their job or exceed their performance by comparison. Their livelihood may feel threatened, given that there are limited roles the higher in the organization you climb. My advice in all of these scenarios is similar, despite how diverse the challenges.
1. Cast a wide net to talk it through.
Early in the process of pursuing your ambition, have open discussions with others who may not respond well down the road. Talk about what you want, why you want it, and how you hope it doesn't change the relationship you enjoy today. The more honest you can be in the discussion, the better. The more your ambition and interest is known, the less of an issue it becomes as it starts to manifest for you in the organization.
2. Adapt, but don't change.
It's natural to feel like you should change in the pursuit of advancement, to appear more professional or formal. The reverse actually serves you better. Try not to change too much about who you are as you start to pursue your interests or take on new roles. You'll evolve as you take on more responsibility; this is particularly true if you move into a leadership role. Just don't take on a persona that mimics other peers or leaders. Keep your sense of humor or sarcasm or whatever personality traits make you special. Adapt, but don't feel compelled to change who you are at the core. It's the very thing your family, friends and colleagues will be worried about.
3. Definitely don't be an ass.
It may go without saying, but another way to maintain relationships while you pursue your ambition is to avoid being an ass. It's unnecessary. Having ambition doesn't mean positioning yourself as stronger than an incumbent to get ahead. It doesn't mean jockeying with peers to out-shine or out-perform at every turn. It doesn't mean becoming your boss's yes-man and doing their bidding without challenge or question. It certainly doesn't mean discrediting others or using deceit to gain favor and advancement.
Some people use ambition as an excuse to behave poorly. It may work for some period of time, but so many relationships become damaged in the process. The long-term affect is usually paralyzing for those individuals. Don't be an ass.
4. Be considerate as a new leader.
If you have ambition to be a leader, one day you'll be in charge. You may have to reprimand a colleague, who used to make you laugh as a peer, but wasn't a strong performer. You may now manage an entire team of people you used to eat lunch with everyday while in a more junior role. A colleague you respect and admire may lose his or her job because the company determines you're better suited for it.
The best way to approach these situations is to admit what's uncomfortable and acknowledge the awkwardness that comes from a change in relationship status. Work hard to salvage and adapt relationships that are important to you. It helps early on to go out of your way to show respect for others. If you need to adjust the boundaries of a relationship be open about what has to change, and why. If your advancement inadvertently hurts another, be gracious and do what you can to lessen the impact.
When it comes to relationships and ambition, know that you won't be able to save every relationship. You can't force others to understand or accept your ambition. You can't stop others from feeling threatened if that's how they feel. You can't win over every person who doubts you as you take on new roles. All you can do is be yourself, consistently show respect to others, and do your best work. More times than not, others will come back around to you once they have time to adjust to the change.
When Your Ambition Isn't Supported
As much as we hate to think it's possible, there will be times in your career where you feel that you're ready for a different role and your manager disagrees. This may happen because you're genuinely not ready or capable for what you've identified as your interest. Or your manager may simply choose not to support your ambition.
I generally recommend that you talk with your human resources representative to discuss the situation and get a fresh perspective. They may be able to help facilitate a discussion with your manager or provide you with a better way to present your case. If after talking with human resources, you still don't feel you'll gain support, you have two primary options.
First, there's no better way to prove you're ready for a new role than to demonstrate the skills and competencies required for it. If you're able to take training courses or pursue professional development through the company (or on your own), you may be able to convince your manager that you have what it takes to pursue your chosen path. The expression "assume the position" means, in this context, to demonstrate the skills needed to be competent in your new role. Take on activities that allow you to showcase your potential and continue to ask for support over time.
Second, you may choose to pursue your ambition elsewhere. Before jumping ship in a moment of frustration, I encourage you to be thoughtful about what wisdom you can gain in your current role before you make a change. Are there training courses or professional development opportunities you can take advantage of prior to your next move? Are there people you can observe, interact with, or learn from before you leave?
Sometimes you need to leave one company and pursue your ambition in another. It's possible you've just outgrown your relationship with your company. Your ambition may not align to your current organization's plan for you. If you want to stay, continue the dialog with your manager to see if you can turn the tide.
Recognize that it's common for people to take what they've learned in one place and apply it in another. Be grateful for all you've learned. Don't hold it against a company if they don't share your vision for yourself. It'll be their loss in the long-run if you channel your frustration into achievement and success in your next company.
Ambition can be a good and positive thing in your work and in your life. It propels you to achieve goals. Ambition drives you to learn new skills and grow in your ability to contribute to your employer.
Pursuing your ambition isn't always the easiest course. You need to be clear about what you want and assess your strengths and weaknesses. You have to help your organization understand the benefit of supporting your ambition, while asking them to provide professional development and job opportunities. It takes respect for your organization's process, but over time your efforts will likely be rewarded.
Your relationships require care before, during and after your ambition starts to materialize into new opportunities. People will be worried that the dynamic of their relationships with you will change. Good communication, respect, and consideration go a long way in sustaining positive relationships.
You won't always be supported in pursuit of your ambition. Know that it's natural and not entirely unexpected. With patience and determination you'll overcome the concerns of others or make different choices for yourself. Don't be afraid to let your ambition show. If you're thoughtful about how you pursue ambition, and your intentions are in the right place, you're already well on your way to success.