Are you ambitious? How to handle that trickiest of questions | M&M Global

Are you ambitious? How to handle that trickiest of questions

Careers aren’t always about linear progression, argue Sue Unerman, chief strategy officer at MediaCom, and Kathryn Jacob, CEO of Pearl & Dean, in this excerpt from their new book ‘The Glass Wall’.

Glass Wall

During your career you’re sure to be asked a number of questions. Some of them you can answer unequivocally; others are more nuanced. One of the trickiest questions is when you’re asked ‘Are you ambitious?’ That’s because ambition has a different meaning for every individual.

To some people ‘Are you ambitious?’ implies that you’re a no-holds-barred, fight-to-the-death, trample-on-colleagues kind of person who is never satisfied until they have an office the size of a football pitch, two executive assistants and a seat on the corporate jet. To answer ‘I am ambitious but …’ seems limp and self-serving. The fact is that you can be ambitious without it making you a version of yourself that you don’t like.

Cilla Snowball CBE, who heads up AMV BBDO, a leading advertising agency, has achieved a huge amount in her working life. She describes being interviewed by a journalist who asked her if she was ambitious. Cilla responded by saying that she was ambitious for her colleagues and her clients. This remark seemed completely incongruous to the reporter, who implied that she wasn’t being entirely truthful: surely no one could hit the highest levels in advertising without having a driving personal ambition? Wasn’t that a typical ‘advertising’ response, laced with spin?

The simple truth is that, unless everyone who works with Cilla shares the same ambition as her, the company doesn’t have momentum and a forward-looking view. Similarly, clients doing well shows that the partnership is working for them and they challenge AMV to do more. It’s a mutual growth rather than an individual one.

“We need to be equipped to answer, ‘Yes, on my terms’, without it framing expectations of the individual not wanting to progress”

From the earliest stage of childhood girls play together. It’s a consensual type of play about building allegiances and sharing. Boys play rough-and-tumble games, shoot each other and then get up and do it again. Not many people ‘die’ during an intense playground game at school, but boys learn it’s them against the others and that, if you get shot down, you live to fight again. This is one interesting view on how early team-building and resilience and ambition are learned, documented in academic research: for example, ‘When Boys and Girls Play’, from 2007, by J. G. Riley and R. B. Jones, which examined the gender differences in play among children and its implications. It also explains some behaviour in meetings that we’ve both experienced.

‘Are you ambitious?’

If it is one of the trickiest questions, it is also one of the most interesting ones. Increasingly we need to be equipped to answer, ‘Yes, on my terms’, without it framing expectations of the individual not wanting to progress. If you have children under the age of six, a job where you are unable to balance their needs and yours can create an untenable situation. It may sound glamorous to have a job that enables you to work globally, but the reality can be that every Monday morning you get up at 4 a.m. to get to the airport in time to fly for three hours, sit in a room and fly home in time to get in after 9 p.m. One interviewee said that after a while they only knew where they were by the colour of the taxis. They weren’t at home, they had minimal impact on the places they visited and the idea of getting on a plane to go on holiday had no appeal.

Ask yourself the question – could I get broader experience in a sideways move that might serve me better in the long term? Careers aren’t always about linear progression; they can be about becoming the generalist who can look in more places for challenges.

This excerpt is taken from ‘The Glass Wall: Success strategies for women at work – and businesses that mean business’ by Sue Unerman and Kathryn Jacob, published by Profile Books. Out now.

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