The extreme, personal ambition of the late 90s has dropped significantly as business people reevaluate what's important. Triggered by the events of Sept. 11, two years of harsh economic forces in business as well as family pressures, executives and managers are re-calibrating the intensity of their drive.
Two years ago, 69 percent of executives and managers considered themselves extremely ambitious in their professional lives, based on a survey NFI Research conducted among senior executives and managers in more than 1,000 companies worldwide. Today, only 40 percent consider themselves extremely ambitious.
This is a fundamental shift in attitude, which could have a profound effect on business as people begin to balance their lives more holistically, bringing a different perspective to the workplace.
Though the reasons vary, many say they are re-allocating their time and energy on what matters to them now. This is consistent with other findings of NFI Research, which show that the majority of managers feel that the work-life situation of people in business is unbalanced.
"A few years back, my drive was very high," said one survey respondent. "I'm not sure if it's burnout, family commitments, satisfaction with my current position, or being near the top of the ladder that has slowed the ambition level, but it definitely is not what it used to be."
Many respondents repeated parts of this sentiment, highlighting work, economic or family situations.
"In the last two years, I have been marginalized to the point that I have lost any ambition for my present job," said one. Said the 56-year-old CEO of a small company: "The recession makes me feel like a boxer who knows he's losing in the twelfth round." Said another: "The decline of ambition is less the wisdom of age and diminishment of expectations than it is weariness of the battle both within the firm and in the face of external forces."
Market forces from customers also are decreasing drive. Said one respondent: "The constant push by our customers for cost reductions makes it harder to be as ambitious as we were two years ago. A continuing struggling economy is also a factor."
Internal company politics also was a consistent theme from executives: "I have become disillusioned with my role in corporate America; too much politics and not enough reward for value given," said one.
"My ambition is now tempered by the increased level of stress, chaos and uncertainty in the workplace," said another.
It's All About the Family
However, the most common reason cited for a drop in ambition centers around family life. "Family and personal life have taken on a greater significance, particularly in light of Sept. 11," said one manager.
"Having a child took a lot of the drive out of my ambition," said another. "It opened my eyes to what is truly important in my life. Those above me work 24/7 and the politics are fierce. I don't find the game attractive anymore. I get more satisfaction out of 'Green Eggs and Ham.'"
The irony is that a dramatic decrease in work ambition can actually improve business. Executives and managers who better balance their work-family life will bring to their job a healthier and broader perspective. A personally balanced view from the top also can help trickle down to the troops the idea that a more balanced life is okay.
Efficiency can increase, as managers push more for project execution so they can get home sooner. "As my kids get older, I am more willing to prioritize my projects at work to spend time with them," said one manager.
This re-prioritization of work and home life coupled with the death of the extreme work ambition of the past will give birth to a new kind of ambition. Rather than the intense, self-centered ambition of the late 90s, there will be new, balanced, leaders with a more external viewpoint.
These people will rise steadily and consistently through the ranks, helping others along the way, repeatedly doing what feels right for the business in the most efficient manner. Promotions will be only natural, though never sought after. Welcome to the age of the selfless manager, where the mantra will be: "It's about them, it's not about me."