Friends and I got talking about why saying “I’m ambitious” in a job interview may be a bad move. One of us retorted, “I think this is quite a common reason for not selecting people, by displaying ambition it could give the indication that you only see it as a stepping stone and will only stay a couple of years.”
This was an interesting insight to me. It wasn’t something I saw, and I realised this was because the model I use to view what success looks like in the workplace is fundamentally different to other people. Looking at the landscape through my lens made me blind to this. With my mindset, ambition isn’t a problem. With others, it’s a warning sign. But what are the two mindsets? How could they change the way we view the world? These are the what I’ve called the entrepreneurial and the corporate mindsets.
I’d also like to call this the “ecosystem mindset.” “Entrepreneurial” refers to what kind of people view the world through this lens, and “ecosystem” describes the nature of the lens itself.
Those possessing this mindset views the commercial world as a series of ecosystems. We need to spot holes/opportunities in the ecosystem: maybe there’s an opportunity to automate a specific general process used in every company: a hole which is unfilled and ubiquitous across the industry? The entrepreneur then finds a way to solve that problem, add value, and realise that opportunity. She finds herself nestled in an ecosystem where she has symbiotic relationships with suppliers (animals she eats), stock-holders (a decentralised God – for lack of better objects for the analogy), employees (friendly gut bacteria) and customers (predators… which perhaps is where the analogy breaks down, because in real life you don’t want to be eaten, whereas in a business ecosystem you’d like to be as tasty as possible). If she’s first to market, it’s because she’s found an island where she’s the first of her kind there, and as long as there are the prey in place to live from and predators to eat her, she’ll grow. But soon there’ll be more of her species (her competitors) to fight over prey and predators.
Of course, the highest-level ecosystem is the global market, and here, an animal represents a company. But this model works within individual companies as well. Each company has their own micro-ecosystem: their own problems they need to solve, opportunities to find, niches to fill. Every individual in the company could be modelled as a unique animal: with their own unique skills and knowledge, who are well adapted to seeing holes that no-one else has seen and filling them.
In an entrepreneurial mindset, ambition is good. If you’re an employee within the company, you’re driven to be as vigilant as possible to spot opportunities and then to fill them. The company will grow as more problems are unearthed and fixed. As long as the company rewards the employees relative to the value they add, the employee is incentivised to stay within the company whose ecosystem is best suited to their own natural skills. Like a wolf staying on an island inhabited by sheep. Why would it ever move?
However, when a company is too restrictive in its role boundaries, the entrepreneur is unhappy. She wants to have the freedom to move around. If the company also doesn’t recognise the entrepreneur’s added value and give her proportional return, she will be unhappy as well. The open market and ownership of a company is alluring to her because there is no upper limit to the return on value added. When working for a company that offer only fixed income – an upper limit on return – regardless of value added, she gets twitchy.
A fixed income and strictly set role boundaries start to become properties of a different type of system, which requires a different model.
I’d also like to call this the “hierarchical mindset.” “Corporate”, again, refers to the type of people using this model, whereas “hierarchical” describes the lens itself.
This mindset is usually cultivated in people who are part of large companies. Over time, companies find their niche, more clearly defined processes are put into place, work packages are put into clear categories. Like water running down a mountain, over time the grooves will become more etched out and clearly defined. Each employee ends up have a very specific role to play, and if they play it well, they get to move up the hierarchy and be given a new role.
This mindset is less about being autonomous and looking for opportunity. Rather, that opportunity is known and given to you in the form of a work package by a higher power (your manager). By doing the allocated work well, you get to move up the ladder and are given larger work packages, which you can then delegate to others (your subordinates) and manage the work.
With the corporate mindset, ambition and twitchy-ness can be a bad thing. The aim of the game here isn’t to find opportunity, it’s to be the best at doing the work that is given to you by the higher powers. When you’ve proven your ability, you want to move up. Often, moving up means moving to a different company into a higher position. Ambition translates to only sticking around until you’ve proven your ability to do the work so you can get to the next level.
Ultimately, the line between the two models starts to blur when you get to higher levels of management. Management needs to be accountable for certain areas of the business, which means that they need to spot the problems/opportunities within the company and solve them. It’s only a matter of time between the ecosystem model becomes relevant in everyone’s life. For people new on the ladder, though, who have an ecosystem mentality while needing to be part of the hierarchical model, large corporate companies can be a tough place to operate, as the two modes conflict.