Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Organizational Effectiveness at Segal

Is Ambition Always Bad?

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Image: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons

Plenty of people in academe find ambition to be distasteful, but I am not one of them. Want a bigger role, a fancier title, more money, an opportunity to make a bigger impact? I say, Go for it. But until you land that next opportunity, remember: You still need to attend to the job you have now.

And that is precisely where I see the careers of many ambitious people start to fall apart. In my years working with, and at, various universities I’ve seen faculty, staff, and senior administrators get so fixated on moving up that they ignore both their current assignments and the colleagues who have supported their success. Rather than continuing to hustle to do well in the job they have, they put all of their energy into landing the one they want.

We can look to politics for a recent case in point — the former New Jersey governor, Chris Christie. During the weeks leading up to his recent departure from elected office, there was a lot of news chatter about his legacy. Several political pundits suggested that Christie’s performance as governor was hampered by his pursuit of a larger national role and that he was so busy trying to make a name for himself, he neglected the office he was elected to run. He was widely viewed as a man who was out for himself.

But should we fault Governor Christie for wanting to play on a national stage? I don’t think so. He might have enjoyed more success, however, had he paid more attention to the people at home while making his case for something bigger.

I see a distinct difference between ethically oriented high achievers and those who are unscrupulously ambitious. Both types want to move up the ladder, but people in the first group concentrate on making their organizations or communities better, while those in the latter group focus on making things better for themselves. Ethical high achievers attend to their responsibilities while pursuing bigger roles, while the unscrupulously ambitious tend to ignore their current jobs — or shift their work to others — in order to create more time for pursuing the next big thing.

The unscrupulously ambitious tend to be predictable, which makes me wonder if there is a Slacker’s Field Guide to Getting Ahead at All Costs out there that I have yet to discover. If there is a higher-education version of such a manual, I imagine that it includes the following strategies:

  • Sign on to lead high-profile projects, and then appoint a trusted deputy to do all the work.
  • Suddenly develop a provocative point of view, sense of outrage, or deep concern about the state of higher education that is expressed by writing articles and opinion pieces that call for action — without actually doing anything about those issues on your own campus.
  • Volunteer to tackle a problem that no one else wants to handle, only to determine that it cannot be solved. Then, once it is documented on your résumé, foist it upon someone else, claiming that they are the more appropriate owner.
  • Offer to chair an important leadership search and then abdicate all responsibility to a search firm to do the heavy lifting.
  • Whenever possible, seek opportunities to testify in front of your trustees, city officials, state legislators, or members of Congress — because visibility matters.
  • Make sure people on the internal communications team are aware of your every move. Demand that they write flattering stories about your new initiatives and issue press releases whenever you win an award.
  • Insist on being at the microphone, or close to it, whenever there are positive announcements to make on your campus, and intentionally distance yourself from negative news to ensure that your name only comes up in Google searches when the context is positive.
  • Pursue leadership roles on commissions, professional organizations, and high-status nonprofit boards that will not require you to do any actual work.
  • While citing the need to "support better organizational alignment," make a move to shift as many people and departments as possible under your box on the organizational chart. More is always better.
  • If a well-regarded member of your team announces plans to resign, put it out on the grapevine that you asked that person to leave. Remember, good people never leave you.

It takes an impressive portfolio and track record to rise above all the other stars who are competing for bigger roles, too. The unscrupulously ambitious know that, which is why they often resort to a lot of intense, résumé-building behavior around the time they are deciding to make a move. But that kind of last-minute achievement stacking can backfire when it leads those up and down the organizational chart to feel used, played, or ignored.

Support and respect from one’s colleagues is hard to quantify on a résumé or curriculum vitae, but those are the qualifications that so often make or break a candidacy. As academics and administrators, we earn that support and respect by making our current organization stronger, honoring our commitments, and taking good care of the people who take care of us.

When our hunger for the next big thing prompts us to trample over others or take credit for work without actually doing it, we may find ourselves much like Chris Christie — without the job we want and out of the job we had.

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