To be effective over the long-term for an organization, our personal ambition must be grounded in mutual respect, collaborative teamwork, and integrity.
Way back in the ancient days of 1991, as I was considering leaving the Federal Aviation Administration and re-entering the consulting world, I interviewed for a position with a national consulting engineering firm as a potential project engineer. The interview was with a former colleague/friend of mine and his supervisor, and I thought at the time that it had gone very well. We had a very interesting and far-ranging conversation.
Unfortunately, I never heard back from the folks I interviewed with. Sometime later, I asked my friend, “What ever became of that interview?” He said, “Mitch, we were looking for a project engineer, and you were clearly looking to become the president of the company.”
In their defense, I’m certain there was more to the evaluation than that, and I probably didn’t match the candidate profile they were looking for. I may have given the impression that I was more interested in advancing my career than advancing their projects. That certainly wasn’t my mindset or my intention, as I was very interested in the position and doing good work for them.
But now, looking back, that profound comment has stuck with me for 31 years. I’ve often wondered if my ambition at the time was off-putting or otherwise offensive, and with that in mind, I thought I would flesh out some thoughts on ambition here.
Let me just say up front, I believe career ambition is a fantastic quality in a candidate or employee. We interviewed a candidate recently who I believe expressed ambition appropriately and wisely. He appeared to be very willing to work hard and to learn from others with more experience as a way of growing into his next position at KSA. He was very focused on creating success for our clients and his co-workers, and he loved the description of our KSA University, our open-book management systems, and our quarterly profit-sharing program. I was very impressed and I’m hoping we can bring him onto the KSA team very soon. Further, I hope that he can achieve his career ambitions within KSA as we “build people who build the future.”
What do I mean when I say his expression of ambition was “appropriate and wise”? That’s a great question. Among KSA’s core values are mutual respect, collaborative teamwork, and consistent integrity. I believe that all three of those values are vitally important as we consider what appropriate and wise career ambition looks like. To be effective over the long-term for an organization, our personal ambition must be grounded in all three of these core values.
- Ambition without respect for those we work with (fellow employees) or those we work for (clients and supervisors) just doesn’t work out well over the long-term. As leaders, we should be focused on helping others to be successful, as we strive for personal success. We’ve all seen folks who were willing to make someone else look bad to make themselves look good. Leadership recognizes the potential in others and helps them achieve success.
- Personal ambition without teamwork has a very similar look to it, and it doesn’t look like leadership. There are some specialty areas within the engineering and architecture professions that are commonly filled by sole proprietors, but even those folks must work with others outside their firm in a teamwork configuration. Successful teamwork at some level is required on every project endeavor that I can think of. Individuals who cannot work well with a team rarely achieve long-term career success in our industry.
- Ambition without integrity is a pathway to ruin. Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. I’ve also heard it described as when our actions match our words or being truly authentic. Decouple integrity from personal ambition and what you wind up with is a person who is willing to say or do anything to achieve personal success.
How do we, as the employer, identify these issues during an interview? As one example, when we ask candidates questions like, “What was one situation where you completely missed a deadline or completed a task that was not fulfilled within expectations?" If the candidate responds by saying something like, “I have never missed a deadline or never completed a task below expectation,” then those are red flags that can be an indication that they are willing to say anything to get the position. Or it could be a lack of an appropriate level of personal introspection, both of which are concerns for us. If the candidate spends significant time blaming other team members for the situation, that is also a concern. Conversely, focusing on how the issues were mitigated and how the client success was the focus is a very good indicator.
So, what does a positive career ambition perspective look like? It reveals itself when someone expresses not only a desire to advance their personal career, but also:
- A strong desire to learn and grow their career related skills and knowledge to the point that they would become a good candidate for promotion.
- A strong desire to work within the mission and values of the organization and to help advance the organization as they advance their personal careers.
- A strong desire to help others succeed, including clients, co-workers, and supervisors.
- An understanding that not everyone is skilled or talented in the same way, and that we can learn from one another and encourage one another to achieve mutual success, while acknowledging our differences.
- An understanding that success is not usually the result of chance, but more often can be traced to hard work, sound judgment, and good decisions.
I don’t believe that the pathway to personal success is purely formulaic. But I do know that desire, empathy, and work ethic go a long way to achieving career goals.
I’d like for it to be known far and wide that KSA is looking for future leaders with career ambition. In fact, we recognize that the long-term success of our company depends in part upon that very endeavor. Fulfilling our mission of building people who build the future depends upon this too. And we desire to be laser focused on that mission as we serve our clients with integrity, quality work, respect, and a focus on the future.
Mitch Fortner, P.E. is president and CEO of KSA. Contact him at email@example.com.