Why business leaders need to redefine ambition

by | May 9, 2018

Current perceptions of ambition are out of step with cultural shifts

There is a strong need for organisations to redefine ambition in their leadership view

Here are some stories I have heard in the past week. That's right within only 7 days.

Jennifer became a Partner in a major consulting firm last year. She is one half of a high-powered dual career couple and has a two-year old daughter, Emily. The Managing Partner struggles with her leaving the office on time every second day to take her turn picking up her toddler from nursery. He questions her leadership commitment and ambition.

Tia didn't share with her boss that at age 25 she had a son of 11 months. She didn't want that to be a consideration and factored into the allocation of training opportunities to put her career focus under the microscope.

Aniya has a board interview for a residency in Pediatrics in an internationally renown hospital. She graduated in the top 5% of her class, and has already gained medical experience in post crisis third world countries. She is fluent in 6 languages, but despite this she will not wear her engagement ring at her interview. She thinks she will be judged as being less ambitious and serious about her career.


Ambition is defined as:

"desire and determination to achieve success."

Using Kat Matfield's Gender Decoder "ambitious" is masculine coded. In an organisational sense it is synonymous with long hours, drive, resilience, risk taking and objective achieving individuals, who surround themselves with similarly minded people.  Ambitious executives were traditionally a male. These men had the support of a wife who either stayed at home or put her career on the back burner to allow hubby to forge ahead. But that is changing today, with a shift in the modern family. But many businesses are struggling to adapt to the type and pace of external change. In Jack Welch's words which I quote frequently:

“If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.”

Women as ambitious as men

Research from Boston Consulting Group  indicates that women are just as ambitious as men at the start of their careers but this falters  in organizations with poor gender balance initiatives and results.

The study of 200,000 employees, including 141,000 women from 189 countries, identified that women were just as ambitious as men at the outset and companies were at fault for blocking this, not family status or motherhood. The findings suggest employees aged under 30, there was little difference, but women's ambition dropped off faster than men's at companies lagging on gender diversity. The report suggests that there was almost no ambition gap between women and men aged 30 to 40 at firms where employees felt gender diversity was improving with 85%  of women seeking promotion compared with 87% of men.

Matt Krentz, a BCG senior partner and co-author of the report, says

"Both genders are equally ambitious and equally rational. Ambition is not a fixed trait; it is an attribute that can be nurtured or damaged over time through the daily interactions and opportunities employees experience at work."

The need to redefine ambition is urgent for men and women

redefine ambition

Men need to challenge stereotypes about Dads role

It is not an issue for women alone. Pascal is a Manufacturing Director who was recently approached for a bigger role in a new company located about 90 minutes from his home. It would mean leaving at least two hours earlier every day to beat the traffic and arriving home later, or relocating. His wife is a senior gynaecologist and would be unable to find a comparable job in the new town. It would also mean he would barely see his three kids during the week and that was not something he was willing to do. He turned the opportunity to engage down. The head hunter queried his ambition.

Paolo interviewed for a senior role in Italy and was quizzed in detail about his family located in Brussels by a female Director of HR. "There was almost no discussion about my skills" he said "I now know what my wife talks about."

Martin and Daisy are newly divorced. Unlike many such splits it was amicable and they have a co-parenting arrangement on alternative weeks each month. Daisy a Purchasing Director proposed that her company allow her to schedule her travel arrangements on the two weeks she was not responsible for child care as an interim measure to allow her two children to adapt to the new family situation. The CEO refused, suggesting that if she had her eye on the VP role she would re-evaluate her options because he didn't want the company tied by her domestic circumstances. He had thought she was "ambitious." Martin could not offer flexibility, not because he was being difficult, but because he had his own professional schedule to factor in.

The modern family has changed

The modern family isn't the same as it was years ago. Family's live further apart and two career families are the norm. Divorce is increasing.

Daisy is no exception and was caught in a massive bind. She must either hire in childcare when she needs to travel during her "on" weeks. She is  reluctant to do  this so soon post divorce and it's a cost she couldn't really afford. Alternatively her mother could fly in from Germany. Neither were optimal solutions. She feels that she is highly organised. Although there are always exceptional circumstances, generally she can set her schedule up to suit herself.  Daisy began to test the market for a new job putting out feelers into her network. A head hunter contacted her earlier this year and she made this stipulation clear at the start of the process. She joins her new company in two months time.

All the individuals in these case stories described themselves as highly committed and ambitious.

Not only do senior managers need to redefine ambition, but they need to take a hard and fresh look at how they view leadership itself. Despite the shift in outside circumstance and our wider cultures, the path to leadership roles and the view of what makes a good leader has remained reasonably constant.

The view of how leadership and ambition are defined creates biases both conscious and unconscious in the talent management pipeline. Old school group-think means that it is becoming more challenging to maximize investment in employee development. What we need is new talent management strategies which  means we have to redefine ambition in that re-evaluation process.

There are two main road blocks in the current thinking process:

1. A Presence culture

The days when senior executives are expected to sit for 12 hours or more per day in an office should be long gone. Technology offers sophisticated opportunities for remote and flex working. The measurement of success should not be about hours logged and where they are performed, but by the results achieved. It's not about where the hours are worked or how, but the skills needed to meet assigned objectives and the result.

The parent who wants to do bath and bed between 6 and 7.00 pm will probably be the same executive who reaches targets. All research shows that working long hours becomes counter productive and results in reduced employee engagement as well as well-being and health issues both physical and emotional. Presenteeism caused by a strong presence culture is contributing to a significant decline in productivity as well as physical and mental health issues. Being present does not equate with being productive.

The person who sits in their pod for 12 or 14 hours a day doesn't necessarily produce better results. Burnout levels and employee disengagement are at all time highs. Biologically we are not built to be in high stress mode all the time.

2. Mobility and commuting

Companies traditionally assign stretch assignments, sometimes internationally, when an executive is in his/her (but usually his) early 30s. Now with increasingly complex family circumstances, the traditional routes are no longer attractive. Extensive travel has also been impacted as each part of a couple needs to play their role at home. The increase in number of single parents adds further complications. But this doesn't mean to say that employees should be written off as unambitious. Business need to find new ways to give their hi-po talent the necessary exposure to new experiences and opportunities to add to their skill set.

With employees working increasingly long hours and travelling time to work increasing the working day for many has been extended. At the same time school hours have remained unchanged for centuries. Something will have to give.

New times, new strategies, new definitions

Companies must create new and progressive talent management strategies to attract and retain future leaders. They need to move with the times and accept that new generations will be less inclined to sacrifice one career in favour of another. They will also want to give family life a higher priority and seek greater balance. But it is also about economic necessity. Most families are now dependent on two incomes with both parents being key revenue generators.

In a new era, the old way of leading  and the definition of ambition is becoming increasingly out of step with the real world. Organisations looking for long-term sustainability rather than short-term ROI will need to reassess their priorities. Employees shouldn't have to choose between a relationship and family and a career. The need to redefine ambition as well as commitment is more urgent than ever.

To attract and retail female talent to your organisation contact 3Plus NOW

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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