Extreme ambition

Aug 06, 2018

After just two years, they want to be the CEO. Molding the go-getters (early on) is crucial if you don’t want them to leave for better opportunities at another firm.

OK, two years might be a bit of an exaggeration. Or maybe not. We once had a young engineer who had been with the firm for only a few months after college. Upon meeting the president of our firm, the young engineer said, “Great to meet you, sir. Thanks for keeping my chair warm for me.”

Extreme personal ambition. How do you manage it in a consulting firm? After all, unless your firm is growing at warp speed, there are limited opportunities for rapid advancement of personal careers. The typical career progression for an engineer goes something like this: summer internship, full-time engineer in training or engineering intern, design engineer, project engineer, project manager, group leader, and then advancement to either a technical leadership position, business development leadership position, or corporate leadership position. It’s very rare for an individual to demonstrate such extreme leadership skills that they skip a significant portion of that career path. So what about the younger professional who desires an expedited ride to the upper levels of management? Is there some way to challenge and prepare them for upper level management without losing them to a company with more opportunity for their immediate advancement?

Over the years, KSA, just like every other consulting firm, has struggled with this issue. We have lost our fair share of talented and ambitious young professionals due at least in part to unmet career development expectations. These losses are exacerbated by a hyper-competitive employment market with extremely low unemployment rates. We are working hard to arrest this trend and find ways to channel that ambition into areas that are productive for the company and satisfying for the employee.

Extremely ambitious young professionals are typically very talented and quite often among the highest performers in their peer group. Rather than resent them for being yet another problem to deal with, maybe we should be thankful when they come to us and say, “I’m bored and need a new challenge.” But if we don’t have a position open and ready for them, how will we satisfy their itch? Here are four suggestions that have worked well for us at KSA:

  1. Discuss their career goals. First, and most importantly, sit down and talk about their career goals and next steps. Anticipate their need to have this discussion. Be proactive and don’t wait until frustration sets in. Consider questions like these: What are they passionate about? Where do they see their talents and skills leading them? What are their one-, five-, and 10-year career goals? As the manager or firm leader, once you are on the same page, you might consider the following: Is there room for additional responsibility within their current position? Are there gaps in their technical or soft skills that need to be addressed before they can firmly plant their foot on the next rung of their ideal career ladder? Do they demonstrate a healthy sense of self-awareness? Are they developing those who serve on their team? Have they developed a good succession plan for when they are promoted from their existing position? After identifying those areas within their existing position that they might focus on, work together to determine what type of position and responsibilities they might be best suited for in the future.
  2. Document a career development plan. At this point, you might consider preparing and documenting a career development plan that they can pour themselves into. Perhaps they should enroll in an MBA program and begin taking classes in the evening and on weekends. Maybe there are industry training programs that they should attend. Webinars on specific industry related issues. Maybe they need to start reading the business classics or take advantage of the services of a personal executive coach.
  3. Pair them up with the right mentor. One of the ways that we are trying to prepare the ambitious young professionals in our firm for future upper management positions is through mentorship sessions. Reading and discussing business books together. At appropriate levels, reviewing firm financial performance together and learning to read and understand financial statements. Working on special management or Human Resources projects together. When we notice that someone “lights up” on certain aspects of the management or operation of the firm, we try to assign them a few problems to solve, or better yet, let them lead a cross-functional team tasked with solving a recurring problem within the firm. And obviously, when a suitable position becomes available or can reasonably be created, remember these talented and ambitious young professionals and give them a chance as soon as they have a realistic chance for success in their next position.
  4. Be flexible and tailor your approach to the needs of the young professional. There is probably not a one-size-fits-all answer for satisfying and retaining employees with extreme ambition. But in an economy with 3.5 percent overall unemployment and 2 percent unemployment for civil engineers, there is a very good chance that your young professionals can find plenty of opportunities to move to another firm or start their own firm. We believe an open dialogue, career planning, mentoring, combined with a competitive compensation and benefits package, can help to reduce the risk of losing ambitious young professionals. We also believe that the effort to do so is time and money well spent. After all, as a firm leader, you are going to want those ambitious young professionals to ultimately take over and lead your company someday.

Mitch Fortner is president of KSA. He can be reached via LinkedIn, on Twitter @MitchFortner, or by email at mfortner@ksaeng.com.

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