An Ambitious(?) Candidate

A friend recently described a hiring situation where he was evaluating an extremely ambitious candidate. Let’s call the candidate Mark. Mark exuded high energy, had a positive attitude, and was curious to learn about his potential career trajectory at the company. Mark met with several senior leaders and the reviews were mixed. Who doesn’t love an ambitious candidate? But was Mark TOO ambitious? He seemed obsessed with what it would take to secure a promotion, and he hadn’t even received the job! Is self-improvement and professional growth his motivation or is it only receiving the next title? Will he be an eager, high-performer or will he be focused on the wrong goals for the wrong reasons?

My perspective is nuanced. I strongly believe ambition is a positive employee trait and often correlates with strong work ethic, a desire to learn, and a commitment to producing quality work. But when that ambition causes an obsession with securing a promotion, raise, or some type of transactional reward, it often results in an employee who is high-maintenance and misaligned with the team’s objectives. Employees who are ambitious for all the right reasons will also want and need transactional rewards like promotions and raises over time too and that’s healthy; it just won’t be the sole motivation.

So how do you determine if an employee or candidate’s ambition level is beneficial or not? It’s difficult. Generally, what has worked well for me is understanding the motivation. If Mark believes a promotion is a key proxy and milestone in his own growth and development, that’s positive. If Mark is seeking a promotion for external validation, that’s cause for concern or at least further discovery.

One of my favourite interview questions is “what does personal success look like to you, one year from today? Describe to me some of the ‘truths’ you need, to feel you’ve had a successful first year.” Once they respond, I ask a follow-up “respond to the same question but now the time period is three years”. Responses are usually telling as it relates to motivations. I’m concerned when the candidate says, “success is being a Manager in one year and a Director in three”. I’m more positively inclined when a candidate says, “success is learning and mastering my role, building strong relationships with my peers and colleagues, and delivering quality work to clients”.