Does Collective Ambition Drive Business Growth?

Collective ambition is when the leadership team is united under a singular vision, purpose, and aspiration, fuelled by leaders who are both competitive and collaborative. How does this leadership model drive strong impact on business performance?

Does Collective Ambition Drive Business Growth?

4 Aug 2017 by  Boon Chong Na

ASEAN businesses have been facing headwind in recent years with the volatile global economies, depressed commodity prices and the geopolitical risks. On the other hand, the potential of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) as a significant regional bloc is hanging out there.

Aon recently conducted a People Fuel Growth study, surveying high-growth Fortune 1000 firms.100 percent of the firms profiled in the study agreed that ‘collective ambition’ was key to their growth trajectory. But what is collective ambition?

Collective ambition is when the leadership team is united under a singular vision, purpose, and aspiration, fuelled by leaders who are both competitive and collaborative. This is not about competing for competition’s sake or collaborating for collaboration’s sake. Instead, it is the result of having a strong desire to be successful, and awareness that success is only possible when leaders work together.

Interestingly, both the term ‘collective ambition’ and the latter sentiment of necessary teamwork were echoed by Singapore’s Education Minister, Mr. Ong Ye Kung. When describing the working culture of the Cabinet in a recent interview to the Straits Times, he said, “Disagreements are not treated as an ego contest. New ministers entering this kind of working culture know that while discussions are very robust, we are all on the same team. If there’s any ambition, it is a collective ambition for Singapore.”

Why is collective ambition so critical to growth?

Collective ambition ensures common goals are achieved. When leadership teams across different business units truly believe in the vision, purpose and aspiration of an organisation, they will share a common set of priorities. These shared priorities guide the decisions leaders make, keep them focused on the goals for growth, and help them to effectively leverage their team’s talents to accomplish results. Occasionally, these same priorities may even direct leaders to make the difficult decision of sacrificing the interest of their individual business unit for the good of the entire organisation.

The basis for collective ambition:

1. Select and develop leaders of substance

High-quality leaders are the basis for collective ambition to work. According to the Aon Hewitt Top Companies for Leaders study, high-growth companies are disciplined in grooming future leaders and much more selective in their talent identification process. They designate 10% less employees as high potentials each year while removing 15% more employees from the high-potential designation from employees who are already identified each year compared to average-growth companies.

2. Right strategy

According to the People Fuel Growth study, customer centricity is one of the three parameters of high-growth companies (the other two being collective ambition and intentional alignment). That is having insight and foresight about the distinctive needs of customers, and how an organisation is uniquely capable of delivering to those needs. The right strategy and direction for the organisation is necessary for collective ambition to work. Aon’s Aaron Olson discussed this in detail in his book, Leading with Strategic Thinking, which points the way to the deployment of both sets of skills effectively.

3. Managing collective ambition versus individual ambition

Collective ambition is a prominent factor for the largest commercial businesses globally today. However, the leaders of such successful organisations are typically highly competitive and achievement oriented. They strive to win.  Despite that, because of the complexities of the business, political, geographical landscape, they understand that there is a team of people behind their and the organisation’s success. The CEOs we work with today understand that collaborating with their teams is very important; as is collaborating with their competitors and other industry-players.

What must leaders do to bring collective ambition to life?

Collective ambition isn’t something that can be achieved by a draconian decree or simplistic declaration of a vision statement. For collective ambition to work, leaders must work in unison to create, review, and reinforce it.

1. Tie goals to concrete measures

Although these measures can vary, most of the high-growth organisations profiled in the study favour those of profitability and returns, and a purposeful redesign of annual and long-term incentive plans to tie leaders to collective goals. Incentives and rewards on achievement and penalties for non-achievement of group goals also help align business leaders from diverse units with their own profit and loss accountabilities.

2. Build a culture that reinforces common values and desired behaviours

A widely accepted definition in management is that culture is ‘the things you do when no one is watching over you’. A CEO of a major diversified company in Singapore says, “I look for three types of collaboration in my business leaders. One is easy, referring another business colleague to a client, here only good will is generated. The second one is that both colleagues work together to get new business from a client, and both win. The third one is the hardest and most crucial, one sacrifices for the larger good. For example, giving resources to help another business that is struggling. The third one can’t be mandated or measured as a KPI, but emanates from the culture and values painstakingly built over time.”

3. Execution focus

Very often, good intention fails because the essential components of strategy development, strategy cascading, business and budgeting planning, capital and resource allocation, and performance management are activities that take on their own lives and remain unconnected.

With collective ambition, an execution focus, and the right strategy, leaders can leverage their team's talents to achieve the organisation’s growth goals. In fact, by implementing these suggested practices, organisations are also laying the foundation for leaders to instil that same attitude of competition and collaboration in the rest of the organisation—and to groom the next generation of leaders.

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Boon Chong Na

Boon is Senior Client Partner, Talent Rewards and Performance, and is responsible for client development in Southeast Asia. He has extensive consulting experience in corporate governance, executive compensation, organisation transformation, post-merger integration, and enterprise performance management.

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Boon Chong Na
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