Why a Limited View of Ambition Is Bad for Business

Recently, Business Insider published an interview with Kevin Roberts, the former chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, where he made some head-scratching, “Don Drapery” comments about the scarce numbers of women in leadership positions being the result of them putting “happiness” above the “ambition” it takes to get promoted to senior management. He also displayed his misunderstanding of millennials – something I myself was called out on (won’t make that mistake again) – saying they would rather navel-gaze than put in the effort required of delayed gratification. Saatchi’s parent company, Publicis, where Roberts also served as “head coach,” worked swiftly to publicly separate itself from his comments, which eventually led to his resignation.

There’s no room for that kind of blanket commentary about women’s ambition, or lack thereof. Period. What I find more interesting is the fact that these events reveal not only the outdated individual point of view, but an organizational anachronism. Leaders like Roberts have flourished in a command-and-control era of management that is no longer the competitive model for leading fields or industries.

In the 20-plus years since the mainstream adoption of the internet, organizations have seen a shift from being their own little kingdoms, where everything was kept behind closed doors, everyone “knew their place,” and innovation took years to realize, to places where anyone with a good idea and a laptop could disrupt almost any industry. In the emerging model of management, something I’m calling the New Work Order, leaders can’t afford to prejudge ambition or knowledge. In fact, they need to create organizations that give them line of sight – through their people – to the next disruptive technology or innovation. And the person with that knowledge might be the newest hire on an internal service team or even someone from outside.

Organizational structure today goes beyond salaried employees, because what drives business – influence, innovation, and even sales – is a combination of expertise from insider and outside an organization. Because of this shift, ambition itself, for most people, now lies outside old, hierarchical corporate structures. Leaders need to recognize this shift.

In my consulting firm, Ferrazzi Greenlight, one of our change programs cultivates a culture of inclusion. Inclusion is important to engendering all types of diversity to the benefit of society. But it’s also to the benefit of business. Research has shown that the more a team integrates diverse points of view into its daily work, the greater the team’s innovation and performance will be. As leaders, then, our role is to give a collection of high-performing individuals the environment where they form the kind of collaborative team that is more responsive, creative, and competitive than any of those individuals could be independently.

In this environment, many diverse voices aren’t simply bragging rights to prospective hires. Those different voices keep your organization current and viable. Digital natives understand better how to market to a consumer who’s grown accustomed to both avoiding advertising and getting their content free on the internet. Study after study has shown that when women, and girls, have agency and are fully integrated into the power structure of their community or culture, everyone benefits. And when that community is an organization’s senior management, they show greater profitability. People from different cultures, backgrounds, and with varied interests and expertise are needed, not because everyone has something to offer but because diverse points of view and experience are what an organization needs to compete and succeed.

What does this mean for leaders? In the new organizational model, titans of industry become titans of talent and innovation. The best among them scout that talent and provide it with the tools and resources needed to constantly change, constantly disrupt. And they appreciate the vital role every teammate plays, not just the ones at the top.

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Keith Ferrazzi

Keith Ferrazzi


New York Times best-selling author, speaker

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