Why is being ambitious frowned upon?
“Don’t tell me the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the moon,” asserted Melody Hossaini on series seven of The Apprentice.
The groans were audible. She was seen as brash and as cheesy as Dairylea factory and yet the ambition which emanated from Melody is no doubt something that will help her to achieve her life goals, even if she didn’t win that series of Lord Sugar’s grand competition.
Ambition is a favourite phrase in the corporate world and has its pride of place on most job advertisements, however it is a quality and word that without qualification can lend itself to negative stereotyping of individuals and their impact on others.
“Ambition is one of our corporate values,” says Yvonne Smyth, director at Hays, the leading recruiting expert.
“We value passion and inquisitiveness and expect employees to have ambition for our clients as well as for themselves. But ambition can show itself in a negative and even damaging way when people take without question. It certainly doesn’t have to be that way – ambition is something we should encourage and be proud of.”
Ambition can drive you to do spectacular things. When daredevil space-jumper Felix Baumgartner was five years old he drew a picture of himself parachuting to earth while his family watched on. His ambition drove him to fulfil this dream.
“For me, ambition in the workplace is really important,” says award-winning entrepreneur Mark Pearson, founder of MyVoucherCodes.
“I think it is also important for the individual as it gives them the drive to get up in the morning and make sure they get the most out of their working day, rather than feeling like they are having to drag themselves out of bed in the morning for a job that they are not getting the most out of.”
With a website that turns over millions and a burgeoning media empire under his belt, Pearson must know what he is talking about.
Perhaps unsurprising as a result of rough economic times ambition is on the rise. Hays recently conducted a survey looking at ambition in the workplace. It found that Generation Y were the most ambitious with 95% of those surveyed considering themselves ambitious. 39% of people admitting to being more ambitious since before the credit crunch, so if we are feeling the need to be more ambitious, what is the best way to harness this and as focus for good for both the individual and wider business community?
“There is focused and unfocused ambition,” says Jo Ellen Grzyb, co-founder of training consultancy Impact Factory.
“When it is unfocused and you just want to win, it can seem self seeking. You need to keep focused. When I started out I was clear about what I wanted to achieve and was able to create a clear strategy and bring others on board to reach it. Really good ambition brings people with you – I couldn’t get to where I am today without the help of others. Being ambitious doesn’t have to mean you want to rule the world.”
This concept is cemented by the popular SMART criteria, which is often used to guide people in achieving their ambitions. The S stands for specific, meaning ambitious career goals must be unambiguous. In its entirety, it stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound.
One word which is absent from this acronym is sacrifice and this is a big element of the debate around ambition, namely is an element of sacrifice required to realise ambition? The Hays survey found that 33% of respondents felt they had put pursuing hobbies and interests on hold because of their ambition and 29% cited their social life as being sacrificed.
“There is a presumption that if you are ambitious, it always comes at a cost,” says Smyth. “If you look at sports personalities – Andy Murray for example you see the sacrifices that he and indeed his mother have made for their ambition for him.
“In business, this can lead to a disparity in the ambitions of men and women. The assumption that women must choose between ambitions and a family and possible sacrifice one for the other can work against them both in their own career plans and in the way others see their trajectory.”
A study by women in business specialists everywoman found that what female middle managers were least satisfied with were the lack of opportunities (48 per cent), the likelihood of progression (47 per cent) and the clarity of career path (40 per cent).
“It’s not that women don’t have ambition, it is that they don’t feel able to focus on long term goals,” says Karen Gill, co-founder of everywoman.
“They look ahead for two or three years rather than until the end of their career. This might be because of the uncertain bit in the middle around choosing to have a family. The message we send out is that you don’t have to have an exact plan but ambition is good. Women need to put themselves forward more often – you must let others know that you want to progress – they won’t do it for you.”
Sadly ambition, particularly in women, can sometimes be viewed in a negative light. To be perceived as being willing to sacrifice some aspects of a balanced lifestyle to realise professional ambitions is historically viewed as being unwomanly. But as more female role models emerge in business,their ambitions having been realised, this will hopefully encourage more women to make their ambitions heard.
Next time we hear Melody Hossaini recite her ambitious assertions we should forgive them for their corniness and applaud her ability to stand up for what she wants. Ambition doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Not for women, not for men, not for anyone. And it might just give us the boost we need to get out of this recession.
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