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How to Manage and Develop Ambitious Employees

Dan Sines

CEO at Traitify | Star Wars & Superhero Fan, Adventurer, aspiring Renaissance Man | Inventor/Visionary in Work

Every company has a few ambitious employees – those high-achievers and independent workers who make it clear they want to move up. In fact, most employers wish they had more. And as long as we're talking about healthy ambition (as opposed to the unhealthy kind that leads some employees to manipulate managers or backstab their coworkers to get ahead), you should generally want as many such employees as you can get.

But managing ambitious employees is not easy. In fact, a common mistake that managers make is to let them do too much on their own – offering too-little supervision and guidance, under the assumption that they don't need the same level of direction as their peers.

This is tempting for busy managers, we know. If certain employees are just go-getters, it's easy to just let them do their thing while you attend to more pressing matters. 

But that you must not do. Because as we'll see, ambitious workers who don't feel challenged and mentored, and who don't see opportunities to develop their skills and be rewarded for the effort, will likely head for the door.

So let's look at some tips that may prove helpful as you manage the strivers in your shop.

Set Goals and Deadlines

As we say often, recognizing and truly understanding every individual's unique personality is an invaluable tool in hiring and managing employees. But you shouldn't stop there. 

With your ambitious staffers in particular, be sure to explicitly discuss goals, short-term and long-, big and small. This should be a two-way conversation. What do these employees hope to accomplish during the next few months, the next few years, and the next few decades of their careers? Sure, some of these goals may not line up perfectly with their current positions. For that matter, some will likely be pursued at a different company someday. 

Regardless, a creative manager can tailor a path that leads them in a direction desired by both parties. 

Just as important as setting goals is establishing deadlines that are real and enforceable. An ambitious employee is likely to grow demoralized and/or look for alternate employment if management doesn't thoughtfully assess performance. Ambitious people tend to seek new challenges, and substantive feedback fuels development – or at least it should.

Deliver Rewards That Matter

Speaking of feedback, it is critically important to deliver rewards and recognition that matter to individual recipients. For some, a slap on the back is sufficient. Others want something more formal. Some prefer a private word; others a public expression. You get the point: We're all different.

That said, ambitious people probably all have this in common: they'd prefer a promotion to a plaque. So we have a tip here, too: strive to routinely promote from within. Truly accessible opportunities for advancement will help with the management of the ambitious because such advancement can be a key goal that you and your employees set for their career, and the prospect of promotion is among the most vital factors in employee retention.

Mentor Above and Below

Every employee can benefit from having a mentor, to be sure. By being strategic, you can partner ambitious junior associates with more senior professionals who can foster and guide that determination.

You might even consider a match with an executive who's already climbed several organizational rungs. This exec can pull back the veil on what she does all day, how she goes about it, and how she reached her level. Perhaps she could throw in an assignment: "I'm working on this. How about we meet in two weeks to discuss your ideas for the project?"

At the same time, consider a program that matches ambitious younger employees with even less-experienced or brand-new workers. For the ambitious, this can serve several important purposes, such as:

  • Helping the employee to connect (or reconnect, as the case may be) with the concept of all for one and one for all, something ambitious employees are at risk of losing sight of. Through a mentor relationship, they can take a degree of responsibility for someone else's development and engagement, which could contribute to a culture of teamwork and collaboration.
  • Exposing the employee to the many challenges of management in a fairly low-risk environment. A mentor shares (at least to some degree) in his or her mentee's career success but is not usually that employee's supervisor. 

Encourage Risk

Corporate cultures that value playing it safe and that reserve rewards exclusively for successful outcomes stifle risk-taking – and ultimately kill innovation. Such organizations tend to be especially poor fits for ambitious-minded employees. Sure, they might advance in such a climate by learning to master the local brand of office politics but most want to move up because they're making a difference, and that requires taking some chances. 

Working with and cultivating ambitious employees can and should be a win-win situation for them and your company. A failure on this front can be costly. Inadequately managed, ambitious employees can go rogue, so to speak, undertaking unassigned work or exhibiting undesirable behavior. They also can quit, leaving your company without a potential superstar of the future. 

Of course, to really make the most of your ambitious staffers, it helps to know who they are as soon as possible. That's the kind of thing the right personality assessment can help uncover. For a demonstration of Traitify's unique visual assessment, just reach out.

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