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Ambition: Do you need it to succeed?

About the author

Bryan Borzykowski is a Toronto-based business writer and editor. He writes about personal finance, wealth issues and other money topics for BBC Capital and also contributes to the New York Times, CNBC, CNNMoney, Canadian Business and the Globe and Mail. He’s written three investing and personal finance books, too. Follow him on Twitter @bborzyko. 

Where does ambition come from? (Thinkstock)

Where does ambition come from? (Thinkstock)

Mike Coney has been ambitious for as long as he can remember.

When he was young, he would eagerly get up at five in the morning to work on his family’s farm in Lynwood, Washington, in the US. After high school he joined the US Army and took a two-year course on cryptologic warfare where he finished at the top of his class He was quickly promoted through the ranks.

That same drive has helped him climb the corporate ladder. Over the last 30 years, Coney, now 58, has held a number of executive positions at large global firms and in 2009 he landed his first chief executive job with Unitrends, a Burlington Massachusetts-based data protection company.

It’s difficult for Coney to pinpoint exactly what made him such a go-getter. His father showed him what hard work looked like — he was always up early feeding and caring for his horses and maintaining three rental houses that he owned — but Coney thinks there must be something hardwired that has made him always want to strive for more. 

“There’s no secret formula or silver bullet,” he said. “It’s something in my DNA.”

The origins of ambition and how it helps people climb to the top, is something people have been wondering about for centuries. There are references to ambition in the Shakespeare’s plays and Greek philosophical texts and even the Bible.

To be sure, unconcealed ambition as a key to business success is typically seen as a Western trait. While it is often applauded in North America, some Asian cultures are quick to stifle any outside appearance of drive. After all, one of the most famous Japanese proverbs is, “the nail that sticks out, gets hammered down”. Ambition, though, is key to success everywhere, albeit in slightly different forms. 

Why do some people, like Coney, strive to become the boss of a company, while others seem content to toil away in the same job, perhaps slowly moving up the ladder, for years? The answer, in part, comes down to whether you’re a team player or have an insatiable drive to succeed.

Ambition defined

A study by two US university professors tried to define ambition and figure out why some people have it and others don’t. According to the two professors, ambition is mostly about striving for status and achievements, their 2012 study revealed.

“It’s not just about working hard or not working hard,” said John Kammeyer-Mueller, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “It’s about achieving things and the status that goes with reaching those goals.”

Ambitious people don’t necessarily want to become chief executive of a company, he added. Some people simply want to become the best sales person or engineer possible — he calls this cohort “core contributors”.  But others, especially on the management side, will want to climb the corporate ladder.

Pushback

Many people view ambition as a negative, said Kammeyer-Mueller. Some think that ambitious people are selfish and never satisfied because they always want more.

That perception is similar across cultures, but some countries frown on ambition more than others.

In Japan, for instance, if someone is too outwardly ambitious their colleagues won’t work with them, said Sam Griffiths, managing director of Ambition Group, a Tokyo-based recruitment firm.

That perception could be changing, though. In China, for instance, the government used to provide people jobs for life, but with a more open and rapidly growing economy, people are far freer to jump between jobs and move up the chain.

A 2014 report by MRI China Group, a Beijing-based executive recruitment firm, found that increased compensation and a clear career path are the two main reasons why mainland Chinese workers change jobs. That suggests that ambition is playing a greater role in people’s careers.

“People expect more clarity on their advancement timelines from their current or future employers,” the report said.

Solid self-esteem 

There are several factors that contribute to ambition, but one big determinant is self-esteem, said Nassir Ghaemi, a professor of psychology and pharmacology at Boston’s Tufts Medical Center.

Research shows that people with high self-esteem are more ambitious than people who have low-self esteem, he said.

Someone who thinks highly of him or herself won’t necessarily rise through the ranks, but “the more self-esteem you have, the more ambitious you are because you think you can do things,” said Ghaemi. “Whether or not you have the specific talents to achieve those things matters less than your idea that you believe you can achieve them.”

Family history is also important, said Kammeyer-Mueller, and it’s something that applies to most cultures. If people have successful parents or grandparents, they’re likely to be ambitious themselves.

For those people, success is simply what’s expected of them.

“Because their parents have succeeded, they also see themselves as being part of a class of people who accomplish a lot in life,” said Kammeyer-Mueller. "They say, ‘that’s expected of me, I’m that kind of person, I’m capable and I should be in a high-status job.’”

In Western nations, personality is another significant factor in ambition, said Kammeyer-Mueller. He found that people with high degrees of conscientiousness, and who are extroverted, are more likely to have that drive to succeed.

Extroverts like when other people acknowledge them and that external approval contributes to their drive, he said. Introverts are less concerned about whether people view them positively, so they don’t need accolades to feel good about themselves.

The extrovert effect doesn’t hold true in all nations, of course. In Japan, for example, employers seek workers who are modest and who can adapt to the culture and norms of the company, said Daniel Dolan, professor of business communication at Waseda University’s Graduate School of Accountancy. How do they try to find that? They look at education — specifically, where a candidate studied.

“Companies believe that hiring a sincere and polite graduate of the top universities is a better strategy than hiring a more talented, smart and ambitious graduate of a lower brand university,” said Dolan.

The best kind of ambition?

From an organisation’s perspective, there are two types of ambition: individual and collective. It’s the latter type that many companies like, regardless of where they are, said Mark Quinn, the London-based leader of talent practice at Mercer, the human resources consulting firm. Businesses want ambitious leaders, but they want that drive to be for the good of the company.

“Ambition is great if it can be channeled appropriately,” he said. “Personal ambition at the expense of either the organisation as a whole or of other individuals within the company, is not going to add value to the business.”

David MacDonald, CEO of Softchoice, a Toronto-based business that helps companies with technology, is another ambitious executive, but he never had his sights on the corner office, he said.

He has always wanted to be successful and enjoy the benefits of success, but he’s gotten better and better jobs by being a loyal employee, he said.

“I’ve always focused on the job that I’m in,” he said. “I worked hard and focused on being somebody who was easy to work with and that people could rely on.”

Being an easy-going team player will actually get you farther than ambition, said Ghaemi.

In the corporate world, the people who rise to the top tend to be fairly even-keeled. They have to be likeable, social and hard working, but more importantly, they have to be as normal as possible.

“People who do well are people in the 50th percentile of everything,” said Ghaemi. “They have to be really well liked, but they’re also conformists. They’re not especially creative, they’re not super productive and they’re not especially innovative. They just need to be committed to the institution.”

Although Coney disagrees with Ghaemi — “I tell my team you need to be an outlier,” he said — he does say that he made it to the CEO role more because he did what was asked of him and less because of his own ambition to succeed.

“I didn’t play politics or maneuver my way through an organisation,” he said. “I had no inclination to become the CEO of a company. I got to where I am because of my strong sales background and I got on board.”

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In Japan, if someone is too outwardly ambitious their colleagues won’t work with them.