Korn Ferry Looks At Harnessing Ambitions of High Octane Employees

We all know that ambition is an essential ingredient for success. Now there’s hard evidence to back up that claim. Let's go inside the latest data and look at four key tactics companies should consider to maximize the effectiveness of their most enterprising employees.

March 28, 2017 – Ambition is the raw material of success. We see it everyday in every outstanding organization. High performers, no matter what field they’re in, are fueled by an intense desire to succeed — ambition propels them forward and enables them to overcome obstacles and setbacks.

But ambition levels differ markedly among individuals — even among high achievers. Some people seek to excel in their current role and strive for the next promotion and pay raise. Others — particularly in specialized professions — are happy with mastering all facets of their chosen field and performing at a very high level. Yes, these people are ambitious, but the scope of their ambition differs from the small number of people who want to change the world, build a great company, or create a momentous work of art. Compared to others, these people have ‘ridiculous’ ambition.

Where does this level of ambition come from within an individual? Is it something that can be recognized, harnessed, and nurtured within individuals? Should organizations seek out people with ridiculous ambition and consciously place them in challenging situations? These are just some of the questions two Korn Ferry colleagues, senior partner Keith Deussing and Kim Miller, manager of assessment services, set out to answer recently as they poured over assessments results of over 30,000 executives measuring high levels of ambition.

Inspiring Leaders

Anecdotally, many great leaders throughout history have said they were driven by love of what they were doing and trying to accomplish. Mother Teresa, said Mr. Deussing, when on a train trade through India received what she described as ‘a call within a call’ to devote herself to caring for the sick and the poor. Fueled by a love for humanity, she created a worldwide charitable organization to carry out her work and was named the Most Admired Person of the 20th Century.

Warren Buffett, noted Ms. Miller, seemingly was born with an entrepreneurial spirit. At age six he sold Chiclets from a table in front of his house. For Mr. Buffett, money and  investing is now an intellectual adventure that he enjoys for its own sake. He’s known to tell young people, ‘Take a job that you love.’

Similarly, both colleagues noted that Steve Jobs was driven to create user-friendly computers for consumers. He said: ‘We believe that people with passion can change the world for the better . . . If you don’t love something, you’re not going to go the extra mile, work the extra weekend, and challenge the status quo as much.’ Three highly ambitious 20th century icons, all ridiculously passionate about their lives, their work and themselves.

Ambition Equals Achievement 

Looking through the Korn Ferry research, the preponderance of assessments bear out that people who test high for ambition appreciate working hard, judge achievement according to a goal, and strive to meet and exceed standards. A further analysis of the assessments shows that low ambition scorers are not motivated by external standards and tend not to work energetically to exceed expectations.

Indeed, people who test high for ambition typically will test high for achievement, and this group tends to be very successful. If we consider compensation as one basic indicator of business success, Korn Ferry research shows that the most highly compensated executives are 1.4 times more likely to score high in ambition than other executives. Similarly, the most highly compensated individual contributors are 2.5 times more likely to score high in ambition than their modestly compensated counterparts.

Persistence Pays Off

In looking at motivational drivers, individuals who are ambitious are likely driven by challenge or a motivation to achieve in the face of tough obstacles. Their levels of persistence are extremely high. They likely prefer new and difficult projects and assignments that broaden their abilities and skills, and they tend to thrive on learning. This may, in part, explain why ambitious individuals are never satisfied with the status quo and move on to the next goal once they have accomplished a current goal. And many times this sense of persistence and ambition was first experienced in one’s own formative years.

Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, became fascinated with the idea of creating high-quality running shoes while running track in college. In his book, Shoe Dog, he describes how so many around him thought that starting a running shoe company was crazy. Despite competition from established companies and a lack of finances, Mr. Knight was ‘ridiculously ambitious’ to bring his vision of a next-generation shoe company to life. From a meager $50 borrowed from his parents, he built a business now valued at over $100 billion.

In most cases, according to the Korn Ferry report, ridiculous ambition develops when people find a goal that ignites their deepest passions and sense of commitment. Oprah Winfrey is the example the report authors cite. Ms. Winfrey, by all accounts, had an extraordinarily difficult childhood. Growing up, she was reportedly a victim of sexual abuse. She gave birth to a child at 14, who passed away just two weeks later.

But Ms. Winfrey persevered. After returning to live with her father in Nashville, she became a high school honors student and landed a part-time job in radio. While in college she began co-anchoring the local evening news. She worked her way up through the ranks of television, from a local network anchor in Nashville, to a groundbreaking talk show in Chicago, and eventually to an international media superstar.

Despite her early life difficulties, she may have connected to her deepest talent and true ambition at a very young age. Her grandmother remembers Ms. Winfrey interviewing her corncob doll and the crows on the fence of the family property. She  was, soon thereafter, the youngest news anchor and the first black female news anchor at Nashville’s WLAC television station. Her talent and love for performing was undeniable.

These stories, said Mr. Deussing, “are testament to the importance of not only identifying a mission or calling in life, but the power of persistence in the face of setbacks and obstacles.” The lesson is clear, he said: to reach the pinnacle of one’s potential, an individual needs to define and find their true ambition — and to become devoted to a goal that the person ridiculously desires to attain.

Four Tactics

For organizations, a bit of caution is always warranted. While hiring highly ambitious people is generally a good thing, organizations should also look for complementary qualities. Executives who do not combine a high need for achievement with tendencies toward affiliation, adaptability, and consensus-building can create problematic environments for teams.

Organizations should, therefore, consider these 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. It 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 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.

Assess Employees Early, and Often

Mr. Deussing recently sat down with Hunt Scanlon Media to discuss the report findings. Here, he provides some additional insight on what drives ambition. Take a read through this extract from our interview.


Keith, you conclude in the report that ambition is the raw material of success. Can you elaborate?  

In the report, we wanted to begin the conversation to understand a common thread, a key differentiator which sets apart those who do big things. Our key finding: ambition ties directly to outcomes -outcomes in work, outcomes in life.

Across the 30,000 assessments you’ve reviewed, how did ambition differ among individuals? 

It differed significantly. That is what we found fascinating which begged the question of how ambition correlates to success – whether that be success in the workplace, success at home, success in life. There is so much more to be studied on the topic. However, our data did reveal in the professional setting that the highly ambitious are also the highly paid.  

Where does ambition come from within an individual? Is it something innate, or can it come from being exposed to certain external environments?  

That’s an interesting question in general – what characteristics are acquired at birth and which are learned through our life experiences. As I reflect on the thousands of interviews I have conducted over the years and the life stories which these executives have shared, each point to their external environment in molding their characteristics and drivers as executives. And many point to experiences in their formative years in childhood, not just their professional experiences, in shaping their level of ambition.    

What characteristics do the assessments reveal on ambitious individuals versus the less ambitious?  

The highly ambitious have a stronger need for achievement, power and persistence. Now, couple that with high learning agility and you may also have a very strong leader on your hands. Decoupled from learning agility, and that’s where the highly ambitious can derail as leaders.

“As I reflect on the thousands of interviews I have conducted over the years and the life stories which these executives have shared, each point to their external environment in molding their characteristics and drivers as executives. Many point to experiences in their formative years in childhood, not just their professional experiences, in shaping their level of ambition.”

Discuss motivational drivers. What drives ambition? 

It goes back to what we were discussing on that need for achievement and working intensely hard to achieve goals. And at the extreme, as we discuss in the report, the most highly ambitious couple this high desire for achievement with the motivation to influence.

Your report outlines four tactics organizations should consider to maximize the effectiveness of highly ambitious employees. Which one stands out as the most important?  

All four tactics are really important for organizations to consider. However, one doesn’t happen without the other – and that is to assess your employees early in their tenure. Know what you have and who exhibits these high levels of ambition. And ideally, make this a part of your assessment before the hire. We need the ‘ridiculously ambitious’ in our organizations to not just move the needle but who seek to change the world. Harness that ambition to reach the significant outcomes your organization seeks.

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief and Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor — Hunt Scanlon Media

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