The Rules of Achievement

Start with ambition, hard work and imagination. And be prepared to recognize your opportunity when it appears

By Don MacRae

We have all heard the same remark made countless times before: A newly elected president or prime minister will declare that, as a boy, he knew he was destined to lead his country. Or else an athlete, after winning the Olympic gold, will tell her interviewer that she always knew she would achieve that goal someday.

Some people might say these folks are full of themselves. I say they have ambition -- that urge to achieve or create something truly great. Ambition shapes our efforts in life and drives our success. It can turn a simple, innovative idea into a global business. Indeed, greatness is impossible without it. For this reason, whether in business, sports, or the arts, we take our lead from people who succeed in their ambitions and dismiss those who don't.

I'm not sure why I'm ambitious, but the clue may lie in something Howard Schultz, who built Starbucks from a single coffee shop into a worldwide chain, once said. "From my personal experience," said Schultz, "the more uninspiring your origins, the more likely you are to use your imagination and invent worlds where everything seems possible. That's certainly true for me." Schultz traces the roots of his ambition to growing up in poverty. I can relate to that experience. Of course, not everyone with ambition has a meager upbringing. Ambitious people come from all walks of life, from every socio-economic, cultural, and ethnic background.


  My ambition has led me to develop a theory of human interaction and teach it to management teams around the world. It has allowed me to consult senior executives on strategy implementation and leadership concepts. Others express their ambition by pioneering new products, developing cutting-edge technologies, or creating business models that no one considered before.

My guess is that everyone has ambition, but many of us don't know it yet. Those poor souls are waiting for a eureka moment that will magically transform them into go-getters. I've got news for them: That moment will never happen if they don't make it happen. In their book, The Arc of Ambition (Perseus Books, 2000), James Champy and Nitin Nohria craft a nine-stage process for people who want to realize their ambitions. In my work with senior executives, I have found two of Champy and Nohria's stages to be most important: "dare to dream new dreams" and "seize the moment." Without the dream, you'll never start the journey. And without the willingness to act on the dream, you'll never finish.

Many successful people hit goals that no one else can. But real achievers reach targets that no one else can even see. They bring fresh insights to a situation and brush off criticism from people who are stuck in mediocre ways. They have the guts to ask "what if" questions -- and the creativity to find answers to those questions. How do these people learn to think this way? My experience is that they program themselves to look beyond the immediate horizon. Even as they're taking care of business today, they're always scouting for the next big idea that could improve their company or be the seed for a new business.


  Like other management consultants, I try to keep one step ahead of my clients by reading about every new approach toward improving the bottom line or preparing an organization for the future. When I find a great new book, I usually buy a bunch of copies and give them to executives I'm advising. I remember back in 1995 delivering copies of James Champy's Reengineering Management: The Mandate for New Leadership to a client when I met up with the company CEO. I was about to present him with his copy when he enthusiastically explained that not only had he read it but had just delivered a talk on it to a class of MBAs at his alma mater. I shouldn't have been surprised. This guy is an ambitious achiever. He sees what others don't because he is constantly looking beyond the obvious and has the courage to explore new ways of thinking.

Daring to dream new ideas isn't enough, however. Many talented people never realize their ambitions because they're too paralyzed to act. Various factors help achievers "seize the moment" -- including being in the right place at the right time. The key factor, though, comes straight from the Boy Scouts' handbook: Be prepared. Knowledge, experience, hard work, and presence of mind will prepare you to recognize opportunity when it appears.

I've worked with a bright, ambitious executive for the past 15 years. During that time, she has been promoted, demoted, moved laterally, and promoted again at her company. She has launched new ventures for the organization, boosted growth at established operations, and turned around divisions that were lagging. Despite her achievements, it looked as if she would never get a chance to realize her ambition of running the whole show. That chance finally came two months ago, when she became CEO of a world-renowned organization. Was she ready? Absolutely. Her years of hard work had prepared her to leave the security of her job and step up to a new challenge. She was willing to make sacrifices for the opportunity, including relocating her spouse and family halfway across the country. A less ambitious person would have been unready to act -- and, as a result, would have missed her chance.

It's never too late to realize your ambitions. Take the first step by daring to dream big dreams. Then have the confidence to take a few risks and make those dreams a reality. You'll be glad you did.

Don MacRae is president of the Lachlan Group in Toronto, Canada. He has taught and worked with corporate leaders for the past 25 years. You can reach him at or visit his Web site at

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