Unleashing "Ridiculous" Ambition

A Korn Ferry study shows highly compensated executives score 1.4 times higher in “ambition.”

We all believe that ambition is an important ingredient for success, and now there’s some data to back it up.

Highly compensated executives are 1.4 times more likely to score high in Ambition than other executives, according to new research from Korn Ferry. The discrepancy is even bigger among the broader workforce. The most highly compensated individual contributors are 2.5 times more likely to score high in Ambition than their modestly compensated counterparts.

A successful organization won’t just hope that people with ridiculously high levels of ambition walk in the door. Savvy leaders will learn to recognize it in potential recruits and nurture it with existing employees to the benefit of the company and the individuals, says Keith Deussing, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s Board & CEO Services. In a new paper, “Unleashing ‘ridiculous’ ambition,” Deussing and Kim Miller, manager of assessment services at Korn Ferry, highlight several people who have displayed ridiculous ambition along with ways organizations can promote and challenge highly ambitious employees.

While hiring highly ambitious people is generally a good thing, organizations should also look for complementary qualities, the study found. People who do not combine a high need for achievement with tendencies toward affiliation, adaptability, and consensus building can create problematic environments for teams.  

The study, which looked at ambition in such diverse figures as Mother Teresa and Steve Jobs, analyzed more than 30,000 results from the Korn Ferry Four Dimensions of Leadership & Talent assessment. It found four tactics to maximize the effectiveness of highly ambitious employees:

1. Assess your employees early in their tenure.

Understand quickly who exhibits those markers for very high achievement. “These individuals are game changers, they know no obstacles, and they actually can and do end up changing the world. The ability for organizations to identify, harness, and nurture this level of ambition is significant,” Deussing says. Realize, however, that the most ambitious might not always be those who currently lean in the loudest.

2. Strategically align projects and roles that can focus your employee's ambitions

This is one important way to accelerate business outcomes while decreasing unwanted attrition in high achievers or those around them.

3. Provide coaching.

Giving your high achievers opportunities to round out their leadership qualities will help both the company and the employee.

4. Develop a long-term career path with them.

You can help retain your high achievers if they can see how excelling at your organization will satisfy their need to consistently reach new heights.

Ultimately there’s no substitute for high levels of ambition—either on a personal or an organizational level. The key is to align one’s deepest ambition (or an employee’s deepest ambition) with a pathway for attaining the grand prize. Creating this alignment can unleash that ridiculous ambition and ignite tremendous effort and achievement to change the world.  

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