The Power of Ambition

My brush with ‘the power of ambition’ – a personal experience

This is a story of how ‘ambition’ transformed an ordinary business unit, stuck in the rut of its own limitations and its industry’s limitations into a powerhouse of achievement.

Well.. let me start at the beginning. This particular business unit is the parent division of a large Technology company, but it operates in the Consumer Products space. The Consumer Products market, especially personal care products, has been increasingly tough in the last few years. This unit was facing considerable de-growth and coping with low morale of its employees. Historically, things, for some reason tend to get worse, before they start to get better… and this division was probably at one of the lowest points in its existence. 

A leadership change brought in a fresh perspective, new dreams, and a big dose of ambition. Ambition and passion go hand-in-hand and are both equally contagious. The leadership team became the real pillars of change. I remember meeting this team whist trying to make up my mind whether to join them or not… and I was struck by the largesse of the dream and the sheer resolve manifested. There was no way in the world that I was going to miss out on that kind of action!

The sheer volume of changes during that period is staggering – sales and distribution got revamped, SAP implemented, procurement and commercial were strengthened, huge investments on manufacturing were made in anticipation of future demand, ad-spends increased manifold, training for employees was a priority and significant investments were made in training and development, policies became more employee friendly, leadership development became a priority, heightened focus on growth and revenues, 4 powered growth engine driven by growth in existing products in existing and new markets, acquisitions and launch of new products ….. There was such a ‘buzz’ going around. Employees and customers, alike, saw the sudden vitality… Obviously there were sceptics, but, sceptics will always be sceptics… and their tribe was facing a serious threat of extinction because it was difficult to not get swept up in the frenetic pace of change in the organisation.

The one striking thing, if you ask me, was that the turnaround was brought about with much the same people as earlier. And I find that to be a critical learning – that everyone has ambition, everyone wants to be better than they were yesterday, everyone wants to expect more from life and everyone has the power to realize their ambition… people just need a little reminding at times, of this power, for them to transform themselves, and through them, the larger organisation. 

As for results, the division doubled its revenue in 3 years in a tough market, reported enviable operating margins, integrated 3 sizeable acquisitions and made huge bets on the future, took home the kudos for being one of the fastest growing Consumer Products organizations in India. It’s a recognisable name in the industry. But, far more important than these ‘numbers’, is the fact that the process of transformation that happened, touched people’s lives, changed perceptions and set in motion a philosophy of success and achievement that was bigger than all of us and that will exist beyond us.

I look back and I am amazed at what ambition can do. This experience has affected me for good. And I am a better professional for having been through it.

What the experts have to say:

I started reading this brilliantly written book called ‘The Arc of Ambition’ recently, hoping to understand the anatomy of ambition. Ambition is a truly fascinating concept. It is the driving force behind the world becoming a better place each day because individuals take it upon themselves to bring about change. I was hoping to find out the ‘why’ of ambition. Why are some people obsessively driven towards goals and others not? This book unfortunately does not answer that question… but it tries to trace the journey of ambition in an individual, i.e., the path of ambition becoming productive. It is an interesting concept and interesting journey peppered with some very interesting examples. I recommend the book. It is truly insightful. Here are some excerpts and a summary of the book.

The Arc of Ambition*

The book traces the Arc of ambition from rise to fall in a series of stages

Seeing what no one else can see:

Talent hits a target no one else can hit;
Genius hits a target no one else can see – Arthur Schopenhauer (German philosopher) 

It all starts with having a worthwhile dream. These dreams are usually “beyond the conventions of the day”, whether it is the Wright brothers’ belief that they could fly or Gandhi’s belief in freedom for his people. The conventions of the day exist because of limitations that exist in the world today. Seeing beyond the conventions is about seeing the world “unhindered by the obstacles” of today. “Beyond the ability to dream, though, we need the courage to ignore the odds against us and absorb the inevitable hardships and frustrations. Only a few get this far. Most dreams are stillborn, dissolving in the first encounter with the real world”, say Champy and Nohria. The one important common theme seems to be that ‘to achieve the impossible, you must first begin with the possible.” It is all about taking the first concrete step and yielding tangible results. Unless the dream is deconstructed into steps, it will always seem unachievable. Last, but not the least, a dream doesn’t go very far without courage and perseverance.

It takes a strong character and a lot of willpower to hold unto dreams under adverse circumstances”:

Nineteenth century French writer Gustave Flaubert took 20 years to write his first novel, Madame Bovary, which today, is a world classic. It has taken Edison, Mandela, Gandhi, Jane Austen, Picasso, Mozart and anyone else one can think of, more than a few attempts to achieve their dreams. Persistence is really the key.
What puzzles me though is what distinguishes the dreams of the Wright brothers to fly, from the Alchemists who spent lifetimes trying to turn baser metals into gold. What is it that made Galileo’s perception of astronomy right and made many others’ lifetime pursuits foolhardy. This is a difficult one… because there was no lack of persistence for sure. Probably what was lacking was the link to reality and the quick conversion of the first concrete and tangible steps.
Another interesting inextricable link seems to be that of perseverance and optimism. When they go hand in hand, dream-conversion becomes almost inevitable.
The other marriage seems to be between perseverance and learning. A process of continuous learning – from the environment, from the world in general, from setbacks and other life experiences, from experts … seems to enable ‘a move forward’ in the pursuit of dreams.

Seize the moment:

‘Carpe-diem’ gives an impression of swashbuckling heroes sizing up and seizing opportunities impulsively and ‘just knowing’ that they made the right decision. The fact is quite contrary though. As someone once said, ‘have you noticed how the more you prepare, the luckier you get?’, and that really is the crux of the issue. Intuition is not ‘just about the gut’; it is about the higher preparedness to receive incoming positive opportunity signals. Often these opportunities are in the form of crucibles – adverse times that require extraordinary skills and gumption to survive, and those who face their crucibles, emerge as transformational leaders.

Think of the leaders you know about – Nelson Mandella’s 27 years in prison and his victory over apartheid, Mahatma Gandhi’s unceremonious removal from a train in Pretoria and the Indian freedom struggle, Buddha’s encounter with a leper that propelled him towards enlightenment, Einstein, Mother Theresa, the Mumbai spirit… the examples are endless and all of them tell a story of triumphing over the odds and surviving and growing. Each of these people faced a choice of either being paralysed by fear or of facing the adversity head on. They chose the latter.

Seizing the moment is thus, about the state of preparedness, having the proper knowledge and skills, sensitivity to the environment in terms of being able to pick up opportunities that ‘knock softly’, mastering the crucibles, and reacting timely.

Temper Ambition:

Is there any such thing as too much ambition? Think Napoleon, think Alexander, and the answer seems to be ‘yes’. Unbridled ambition is a victim of egotism, greed, lack of pragmatism, growing disconnect with reality with growing success and blind spot to risk. And that … is THE END.

Greatness must be driven by a purpose beyond money:

Money is a man-made concept and has limited motivational value. Researches have shown that rewards in the form of money usually have the least positive impact over a period of time. What kind of purpose then is worth pursuing? The most satisfying purpose empowers its pursuer to enlist others in a quest for some higher good. Think of the 2 greatest instances of mobilising people across the ages – war and struggle for independence / revolution. Both derive its motivational power from a cause that is far bigger than you and me. The world wars, the French revolution, the American civil rights movement, the Indian freedom struggle, the end of apartheid… were all a fight to preserve our way of life, a fight for our identity and hence they rallied the masses. Every single person on the picket line could identify with the dream.
Organisations today, however, seem to be losing out on the power of purpose at times in their effort to please or appease the stock market.

Man’s greatest fear is to die in insignificance, and his greatest desire – to leave a legacy behind…

Never violate Values:

Integrity is too precious to squander away on short-term gains. Values are what you stand for, they are the touchstone of your existence. Having worked in a value-driven organisation all these years, I can honestly say that the feeling of not once ever having to do something that is against your value system at a personal level is quite indescribable. And that is possible because the organisation is clear about its value system and it is practiced by all, and led by example by the chairman Mr Premji. Nohria quotes Mr Premji as saying “Never let money muddy your concern for your company’s integrity. Once you start calculating the numbers, it is almost a foregone conclusion that you will end up compromising your values.”

Keep control by giving it up:

A person can’t succeed alone. It is the shared vision, the shared control and partnership which is greater than the sum of its parts.

Change or die

Change is the way of the universe. There is a constant paradigm shift with the old being replaced with the new – manual watches by Quartz, snail mail by e-mail, analog by digital… the list is never ending. The challenge for an organisation is to discover the new sigmoid curve and avoid plateuing. The change is often driven by innovation and thus, ambition, success and innovation are inextricably linked. 

Leave gracefully:

Every leader has his or her time, when they are best suited for the job, but times change and so must the organisation, to survive. Think Narayan Murthy of Infosys, think Anita Roddick of Body shop, Bill Gates of Microsoft, all of who handed over the reigns gracefully to their successors in a bid to give their organisations a life beyond their own.

All logic and rationale apart, there is a certain magic about ambition, about inspiration that is indescribable. It is more than visible behaviour and much more than stated intent. It defies all explanation and will continue to fascinate us for times to come.

References :*The Arc of Ambition (1999) – James Champy, Nitin Nohria, Perseus books Cambridge. A brilliantly written book and a must read for those interested in ‘achievement orientation’

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