Get ambitious in your hiring

By Kris Dunn | Work in Progress


issatisfaction is a symptom of ambition. It’s the coal that fuels the fire.”
Trudy Campbell, “Mad Men”

Ambition. As much as many of us are uncomfortable saying publicly that it’s a value/feeling/potential factor we want in our organization, ambition is needed in your company to get great results.

You know your high-ambition employees. They are the ones that often do great things and occasionally put tire tracks across the back of some teammates in the process. Are you better with or without these people? And if everyone is happy with their current status, who moves the company forward?

A few years back, I was doing a classic “section 2” in performance management at a previous company. As part of that exercise, we were trying to change the traditional company values to rate people to “potential factors,” which are more actionable “DNA” strands your high achievers have regardless of position.

As part of that exercise, we established 51 potential factors to whittle down to the five or six we would eventually live with. The ones you would expect most — innovative, communicator, etc. — were there.

You need ambitious people.
You probably don’t have enough of them.

To truly maximize the positive effects of ambition at your company, you’ve got to do two things: hire for the trait and ensure the negative effects of the ambitious FTEs don’t kill your culture.

Here are four ways you can determine candidates with ambition in their DNA:
1. Find young candidates who spend two years in a job, then jump to another company to get the equivalent of a promotion. If you see this in a 30-year-old, it’s likely they have some form of ambition. Note: I’m not talking about someone who simply switches companies without a promotion. I’m talking about the clear path of changing companies to progress in their career via title, responsibilities and money.

2. Behavioral characteristics. If you’re into assessments, a good way to see ambition is to look for the combination of high assertiveness and low team. High assertiveness means they’ll take action when needed, including to better themselves in a variety of circumstances. Low team doesn’t mean bad teammate. It means that a candidate is motivated for scoreboards, rewards and recognition that reward individuals, not teams.

3. They are building a portfolio of work. As they have worked for you or others, high-ambition individuals are creating a book of citable work and they’re pulling it together in a way that’s going to get them the next job or better circumstances in their current job.

4. High-ambition candidates are always networking. Look at a candidate’s LinkedIn profile and you’ll see the marks of ambition. High-ambition individuals have more connections than others, are sharing content and have fully fleshed-out profiles.

One problem that is universally related to direct reports with high ambition levels is that they can become hated by their peers. It’s simple to see why. The folks with ambition treat life like a scoreboard. Their peers want to do good work but don’t have designs to rule the world. Friction ensues.

The key to control this in my experience is to confront that reality with the high-ambition employee. “You’re looking to do great things. You’re driven. You want to go places and you’re willing to compete with anyone to get there.” Start with that level set.

Then tell them they must get purposeful with recognition of their peers.

If a high-ambition direct report starts a weekly, informal pattern of recognition of their peers, a funny thing happens. They start to look human to those around them. The gift of recognition makes them look less zero sum, less cutthroat and more like one of the team.

If you find all four ambition marks when recruiting, it’s likely you have a high-ambition candidate on your hands. Soften their edges via some direct and prescriptive coaching.

And if you find high-ambition candidates but don’t want to hire them, send them my way.

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor. To comment, email