Get Naked With Your Ambition


Originally published in INC. Magazine on January 7, 2014

Your company’s goals set the tone for the entire organization. Are they inspiring or are they just corporate boilerplate? Here’s why it pays to do some soul-searching when establishing your objectives.


“We want to double sales in five years.” If I had a nickel for every time a client or prospect stated that as their primary business goal, well, I’d have a lot of nickels.

Don’t get me wrong – doubling sales is certainly a reasonable objective for an organization, and one that many companies would happily embrace if reached. But to me, the “double in five” reflexive answer was either taught in a business class that I missed, or is a bit of a crutch when it comes down to defining a company’s aspiration.

“Big results require big ambitions.” So said Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Don’t believe him? Well, perhaps you’ll find these words of wisdom more your cup of tea: “Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.” That’s from the more contemporary philosopher known simply as “Elvis”.

So, what is your company’s ambition – what is your purpose, and what is the prize you seek? And what does this commitment (if there is one, for that matter) tell your employees? What is the impact of this declaration? Is it galvanizing your troops? Leaving money on the table? Keeping the hands of inertia firmly on the wheel for yet another year? Or are they merely words in an annual pep talk that fill a managerial obligation? Words without any real teeth, clarity, or intention behind them are simply a dream without an engine.

While defining your organization’s ambition is an absolutely critical first step to developing any strategic plan, it can be – and I truly believe should be – an engaging and even exciting opportunity to really dig into your aspiration. “Get naked” with it, if you will. Look in the mirror, ask yourself some challenging questions, and stand face-to-face with the truths of you and your business.

First, take time to really explore the possibilities for your organization. Where are you now? Why are you there? Where are your competitors? Where were you (and them) five years ago? As you plot the shifts within your category, what are the implications for possible ambition paths? What are different aspirations that you’ve discussed? What could you own? Where is your heart? Your head? What new options might you dream up?

And as you contemplate these possibilities, try them on with a range of feasibilities – both organizational and personal alike. What will this type of ambition require? Do we (or I) have the stomach for it? What are the requirements of each ambition path? Can this ambition be properly funded? What are our odds of success? What do we really want to accomplish, why, and what does this mean for the organization?

While you may not always like what you see during this process, it will nevertheless build a firm, honest foundation on which to build your strategy – and without a doubt create a higher likelihood for alignment moving forward.

Furthermore, think not just about the size of your ambition, but its specific shape and definition as well. Be aware that the precise manner in which you codify this intention (e.g., a category position vs. something you want to own vs. a competitor you want to defeat vs. a sales goal) has an incredibly important influence on the future behavior of your entire enterprise.

The unfortunate reality is that far too often, the definition of one’s ambition is often given short shrift – and once you set a low bar (or put it in the wrong place) it’s hard to ever raise it (or move it) without a significant change in dynamics.

Salvador Dalí once said, “Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.” I think there’s something fantastic about that metaphor, the idea of ambition as wings. So in the context of your business, where do you want to go? How far away is your destination? And can your wings get you there?