top of page
  • Writer's pictureAmii Barnard-Bahn

Since when is ambition a bad word?

One of my VP clients has stepped up to cover SVP responsibilities (on top of her own work) after that executive departed six months ago. She had a solid business case for a promotion. I helped prepare her for negotiation with her boss.

When we met last week, she was deflated — despite getting the promotion she deserved.

Her boss’ first reaction, after she laid out the facts, was “you’re too ambitious.

She was flabbergasted. Wasn’t she supposed to be ambitious? Isn’t that what was expected of executives at the Fortune 500s? She got along well with colleagues.

She had been driving strategy and achieved major success for this company for more than 10 years.

Why did ‘ambitious’ feel like a bad word?

I understand how she felt, because this has happened to me as well — on both sides of the desk. When you pitch yourself for a raise or title increase, you may catch your boss unprepared, on their back foot.

Here are some suggestions to move the conversation forward to a better place:

  • Get curious. Ask for more information, such as, “I work hard and I care about our results. Can you tell me more about what “ambitious" means to you? Are there some negative behaviors I’m not aware of? Because that’s not my intent.”

  • If you’re a woman, you’re probably aware this type of situation is more common than not. The same issue applies to people of color. Gender dynamics play a role in pay and promotions, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that how women ask — and the potential for being penalized for being as direct as men tend to be — can work against women. On the other hand, it’s also proven that if women don’t ask, they don’t get. So map out your strategy, and ask.

  • There’s a big difference between showing ambition or aggression. Make sure your discussions are always a dialogue, or a partnership. Words matter, as does tone and body language. For more tips, see my video short here and two-part series on negotiating compensation here and here.

These conversations shape your relationship and work experience. Trust either increases or decreases. A good reminder to leaders that your words matter, and pay equity is closely watched (for guidance on how to identify and fix pay inequality, see my HBR article here).

Speaking of ambitious, I have a small favor to ask. Please consider nominating me for the Thinkers 50 Radar (I was a nominee for “new thinkers” last year). The entry is simple and takes only a couple of minutes to submit here. Thanks in advance!

To your success,


PS For more tips on accelerating your career, listen to my discussion with Leigh Martinuzzi on The Hidden Why podcast.

19 views0 comments


bottom of page