Naked ambition and how to get it

There's no denying that it's powerful stuff, but can you grow it?

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Can you take your personal drive down to the career gym and bench-press your long-term goals? Rhymer Rigby examines the climbing instinct - or lack of it.

Who among us has not sat down at some point and lamented a lack of ambition in our working lives? Or mused that the only thing standing between us and our glittering goals is the fact that we didn't push ourselves quite hard enough, that we didn't quite care enough, that - as Nike would have it - we didn't just do it?

Professional ambition (or its absence) is a real oddity. It's often cited as the reason why one individual makes it right to the top while another, ostensibly more gifted, ends up parked in a layby marked 'middle management'.

Ambition could well be the single most important quality in your business life, yet it is arguably the least understood and most protean of all the attributes in your career toolbox. Intelligence and talent are largely innate, things we're born with. Ditto - to varying degrees - looks, charm, a sense of rhythm and the ability to network and politic.

The same could be said of ambition, but whereas a bad networker is encouraged to learn how to become better at it, lack of ambition is seen as a culpable failing in a way that being unattractive or dim never could be. But is a deficit of ambition really something you just might do something about - if only you could be bothered?

First of all, we need to define what we mean by ambition. There are two basic types: the first is the 'I want to play for Man U' kind. It's best characterised as a mixture of wishful thinking and long-term planning.

It has its place - as Gary Neville and Paul Scholes would no doubt testify - but on its own it's not really going to help you climb the greasy pole.

Far, far handier than its dreamy sibling, ambition II is a sort of workaday drive, a desire to do things well, to put in the hours, to excel and improve one's lot - without necessarily having a definite long-term goal. 'In raw terms,' says former Granada chief executive turned business TV troubleshooter Gerry Robinson, 'I've always been slightly suspicious of people who have a very specific vision. Most people who do very well don't have that sort of ambition - they've just performed bloody well at whatever it is they were doing. I never set out to do this and that.'

This offers the first clue to nailing down ambition, and to making it work for you - make the most of what you've got. Don't sulk because you've been seconded to logistics rather than that plum marketing job you'd always coveted; get your head down and do the job.

'I've always promoted people who've got on with the task in hand and made it happen,' says Robinson, 'rather than those who've calmly plotted their careers.'

Charles Sutton, a director at business psychologists Nicholson McBride, takes a similar line. 'You see people in high positions with varying degrees of capability. Certainly, if you have a combination of ambitious drive and the ability to use organisational politics effectively, this gives you the opportunity to rise more rapidly than might be indicated by your capabilities alone.'

So ambition could be seen as a kind of enabler, a catalyst. Sprinkle a bit of it on anything - from the French fries station at McDonald's to a Cabinet post - and things are likely to improve noticeably. You'll be flipping burgers or Foreign Secretary before you know it. There's no denying that it's powerful stuff, but where do you get some? Can you grow it? And how much is enough?

It's obvious that some people are born with greater reserves of natural drive than the rest of us. This divide, alas, is pretty much unbridgeable. Look at serial entrepreneurs such as Branson and Stelios. It's almost as though they can't stop themselves starting new businesses, any one of which would be the work of a lifetime for most people. Look at Mick Jagger - a recent documentary showed him bouncing around the house (at 60, no less) like a hyperactive child, fizzing with energy. This kind of thing, says former M&S chief Sir Richard Greenbury, cannot be manufactured. 'It's either in you or it isn't. It's part of one's character.'

Those with a mother lode of ambition like Sir Mick's are - perhaps thankfully - rare, however. But, according to Greenbury, that's no excuse for complacency: the vast majority of lesser mortals can tap into their latent ambition by doing 'something that gives them a buzz'. In some cases, though, the raw material just isn't there. He cites the case of George Best: 'He was probably the best footballer ever, but he just wasn't prepared to work at it. At that level, talent isn't enough.'

If, says Greenbury, you compare Best to Beckham, the former was the better player, but it is the latter whose drive allowed him to parlay a lesser talent into a global brand.

Sport is an interesting arena for discussing ambition because, among its upper echelons, everyone is hugely talented by everyday standards. All that separates them are gradations of brilliance invisible to the untutored eye - and, of course, the drive to succeed. In some cases, sportsfolk even partially outsource their ambition to managers, coaches and personal enablers. But look at some of the other mansions on the estate of celebrity and you see quite the reverse: people who aren't particularly good at anything, but have oodles of drive. After all, the talented and ambitious Beckham is married to the merely ambitious Posh.

Business - like so much else in this world - sits somewhere between the two Beckhams. Says WPP chief executive Martin Sorrell: 'Net, net, I think ambition and drive are very important. I mean, business isn't brain surgery, is it? Of course your ambition's going to make a big difference.'

However, Sorrell draws a distinction between different kinds of business. 'Maybe it's a more desirable characteristic in more entrepreneurial companies than it is in larger ones. In bigger companies, political skills and the ability to be a team player may be more important. Naked ambition may not be as productive.'

There is also a case to be made that ambition - or at any rate the attitude towards it - differs from country to country. In America, so the argument goes, it is celebrated, even revered. But in Britain, the feeling is more ambivalent: there's no denying its usefulness, but there is an aura of something slightly sweaty, even a little disreputable about the very ambitious.

In northern Europe, they take a view broadly similar to that of us Brits, but in the South things are different again.

No doubt there is some truth in these national stereotypes, but globalisation is fast sweeping away such historic cultural differences. And you have to suspect that a Russian petrocrat, a British banker, an American superstore squillionaire and a Spanish telecoms tycoon will all have more in common with each other than with most of their countrymen.

But let's assume you're not the next Stelios or Branson (if you were, you wouldn't be taking the advice of a journalist, would you?), and you're not a brain surgeon or a sportsman. Can you do something about your ambition? Can you take your personal drive down to the career gym and bench-press your long-term goals?

The answer seems to be a sort of nuanced yes, and it all depends on why you felt you lacked ambition in the first place. If your deficit is to do with being in the wrong job, then a different career goal or a different employer might suddenly make you more ambitious. 'It's about finding meaning,' says John Drysdale, director of learning and long-term development at Fortune-500 insurer Aon, 'and about what drives you.'

This could be as simple as finding a company whose goals are closer to your own: if you're a deep green, you probably don't want to work for an oil company. Or it could involve external goals that require career advancement, like building the house of your dreams. 'You need to create an environment where you are more likely to have drive,' says Drysdale.

Sutton has a slightly different view. 'It is possible to put on a mask. You can mask yourself in ambition. But you have to examine what would make you do this - perhaps if you felt undervalued. You could say: "I'm not ambitious, but I'm capable and determined, I should be doing better."' And he, adds, if you manufacture ambition successfully enough, it might transmute itself into the real thing.

The flip-side of this coin is how you, as a manager, can encourage ambition and drive in those who work for you. If a couple of people in your team or company are drifting, then it may be their problem. But if everyone is rudderless, then the problem is yours. It may not be possible actually to manufacture the raw stuff, but, says Robinson, you can provide the right environment for what is there to flourish. 'You can encourage effort as a manager. You can create a workplace where people want to do well. There's a desire for praise in what most people do. It's worth a great deal to most people.'

But, though establishing a climate where ambition can thrive is almost certainly a good thing, managing those ambitions may not be a walk in the park. 'Ambitious people like to take risks,' says Sorrell, 'not gambling, but calculated risks. You need to try and plan for this - it's not easy.'

You need to realise, too, that not all ambitions are created equal or even speak the same language. Traditionally, drive has been thought of in thrusting Rockerfelleresque terms: if you worked hard and earned scads of dosh you were ambitious; anything else and you were an also-ran. But the growth of interest in work/life balance, stress avoidance and quality of life has started to change this - as has the realisation that success comes not only in terms of money and power.

Now you can be ambitious at work without craving financial success. 'I know a man who runs community trusts in Tower Hamlets,' says Aon's Drysdale, 'and he speaks to people about leadership very eloquently, about the lives he's changed. He's not ambitious in the ego sense, but he's certainly ambitious for the young people he's helping.'

Explore this theme further and your ambition might be to have a happy family life. So perhaps your career drive tapers off when your lifestyle becomes comfortable and your fulfilment comes from elsewhere - say, time spent with the kids. While you might be seen as lacking that killer instinct, family life is a perfectly laudable ambition in its own right.

Indeed, focusing on what's important to you outside work might help you find your true metier. Look at everyone's favourite ex-pat, Peter Mayle: the man who did more for southern French property prices than anyone before or since quit a high-pressured job in advertising for the good life in Provence, wrote a book and wound up making even more cash. Be careful, though - like Icarus, you can fly too close to the sun. Mayle became a victim of his own success and upped sticks to New York after a few years in paradise, apparently to escape the hordes of autograph hunters who sought him out in his rural hideaway.

There is, though, a reductio ad absurdam to this sort of 'alternative' ambition scenario. What if your only real motivation - conscious or unconscious - is to lie around on the sofa all day smoking weed and watching crap telly? It may not be a noble ambition, but the continuing DVD success of films such as Dude, Where's my Car? suggest that it's one with a sizable constituency. And, if the slacker cult of the '90s taught us anything, it's that there are those who simply have very little of the right stuff.

But the idea of youthful narco-slacking also throws up the idea of ambition's mutability over time. Most people do not grow up to be firemen, train drivers or astronauts, and many people can cheerfully slack through their teens and early twenties only to go on to great things in their thirties, forties and fifties. And this, undoubtedly, is to do with goals. Everyone's change over time: it would be an odd person who wanted the same thing in their twenties as they do in their fifties. 'I think people should reflect about themselves as they journey through their career, what they want to do,' says Steve Nicklen, a head of executive coaching at consultants Penna. 'A happy life is one that is going through continual change, and that includes your goals.'

As with money and fame, to those who don't have quite enough, more always seems to be better. But there is a definite downside. The swashbucklingly ambitious are not necessarily happy or motivated by what could remotely be described as healthy ambition, and their victories may well be at the expense of others. 'People who are very successful are often slightly or hugely screwed up,' says Robinson, 'Something in that drive is negative. It could be looking for something that's not there; it could be fear of failure. I mean, look at someone like Murdoch - what the hell's he doing it for? Is another deal going to make any difference? There ought to be some learning in life.'

But most of us don't want to be the next Rupert Murdoch; we just want to be a bit more successful than we are already - and cultivating ambition to help achieve this can be done in a healthy way. But we also need to keep a sense of perspective: it is merely part of a basket of qualities that we need if we are to succeed. As Greenbury says: 'If you look at ability, ambition and so on, the truth is you need it all to succeed. And you need a bit of luck too - you always need a bit of luck.'

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime