You’re in the office kitchen/canteen chatting to a bunch of coworkers. The discussion moves to the traits of an individual in the company…

“Oh, you know <insert name>? Just be aware: they’re very ambitious.”

Political. Ambitious. Ruthless. 99% of the time I’ve heard these words used in an office environment, they’re being used to describe someone as a pejorative term. Those adjectives create a vision of someone not to be overly trusted; a Machiavellian-style operator who’ll leave no stone unturned to get ahead and work their way up the organisation. No doubt we can all think of people we’ve worked with who share some of those traits.

Now, there are times we’ve worked with someone whose “political” or “ruthless” way of doing things fully justifies the use of the word in a pejorative manner! However, here’s a question for you to consider: how much of that statement to “be aware” of the person’s ambition is about their behaviour, and how much reflects where yours might be lacking?

What if I phrased the statement about the same person in the following way: “Oh, you know <insert name>? They’re really ambitious about where they want to get to in the company – it’s like they’ve got a plan on how to achieve it.”

What thoughts do you have about that same person now?

The reality is that in most organisations demand outstrips supply when it comes to the opportunities for promotion. As you move up in an organisation, the pyramid comes into clearer focus: there’s often limited opportunity to take the next linear step up. When you’re starting out or embedded in a more junior role, there’s less concern about what the landscape looks like too far above your current position.

In The Unwritten Rules: The Six Skills You Need to Get Promoted to the Executive Level (Beeson, 2010), the author explains that the deciding factors for promotion to the executive level fall into three categories:

1.    Non-negotiables

2.    Deselection

3.    Core selection

Beeson’s definitions of the traits within each category make for compelling reading on their own (link at the bottom) and I’d argue that they’re helpful for you to understand regardless of the level you’re aiming to be promoted to. You might find yourself reflecting on where your strengths and weaknesses lie and what actions you could choose to take to close the gap.

Returning to my three example adjectives (political, ambitious, ruthless) from the beginning of the post. These need not solely be negative character traits. Rather, these traits speak to someone who’s totally clear-eyed and focused about what they want from their career.

When you create a career plan with what I call “strategic rigour” – that is, someone or some process in addition to you who can challenge, ask thought-provoking questions and exchange ideas – you’re committing to a new way of working that’s going to give you the best possible chance of success. Coaches can introduce you to a process like the GROW Model (Whitmore, 2017) to guide you through the process of creating your goals and beyond.

We’ve all had “ideas” about what we’d like to achieve in our careers. As an executive coach, let me share an inconvenient truth: I see a very strong correlation between my clients who possess a clear plan of what they want and take actions to achieve it, compared with those who never move on from the “ideas” phase.

Something profound occurs when you commit pen to paper (or cursor to screen) to create a strategic plan for your career. Firstly, you’re introducing accountability into the equation; no longer can you say you had an idea about what you wanted but for some ill-defined reason it didn’t work out. The very act of writing that goal down rather than letting it swirl around in your head is, in my experience, a major step forward.

Secondly, you’re setting out a clear timeline: a well-written goal will contain a “what” and a “when” for the goal you want to achieve. This process of “what” and “when” gently directs you to come to terms with the goal you’ve articulated. It’s often the case as a coach that I see a client modify the “when” for what was previously just an idea or a dream; now that they’re writing it down in a plan they are thinking more deeply about the goal itself. Fantastic: that’s exactly what the process should do!

If anything in this post has resonated with you about where you currently are in your role and where you aspire to get to, ask yourself: what’s holding you back from creating that plan with true strategic rigour?


Beeson, J (2010) The Unwritten Rules: The Six Skills You Need to Get Promoted to the Executive Level. New Jersey: Jossey-Bass

Whitmore, J (2017) Coaching for Performance, 5th ed. London: Nicholas Brearley

Additional reading:

Beeson, J. (2009). Why You Didn’t Get That Promotion. Harvard Business Review. Available from