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Some employees have it. Some employees don’t. While some managers fear ambitious employees, today’s guest Cheryl Johnson literally wrote the book on it and says your employee’s ambition is really the key to your business success and she explains how you can harness it.

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What You’ll Discover About Ambition (highlights & transcript):

ambition* Why ambition is often missing in employees 

* How organizations dampen employee ambition and trust 

* How fear of failure crushes ambition 

* How to encourage employee ambition and initiative

* The pivotal connection between ambition and confidence 

* How better on-boarding and managing expectations builds confidence, initiative, ambition and trust 

* How businesses can hire for good, not ruthless, ambition

* The single most important thing managers need to know about ambition 

* And much MORE.


Ambition. Some employees have it, some don’t, and while some managers fear ambitious employees, my next guest literally wrote the book on ambition and says they’re really the key to your business success.


This is Business Confidential Now with Hanna Hasl-Kelchner helping you see business issues hiding in plain view that matter to your bottom line.


Welcome to Business Confidential Now. I’m your host, Hanna Hasl-Kelchner, and today’s guest is Cheryl Johnson, the author of Ambition: The Missing Attribute in Your Employees. Cheryl is a performance solutions specialist with more than 20 years of experience in coaching, learning, development, and workplace training performance, and with her pioneering attitude…


She has made substantial contributions in the area of learning with an emphasis on behavioral change, and the behavior were zeroing in on today is ambition. So, let’s have her join us now. Welcome to Business Confidential Now, Cheryl.


Thank you. Glad to be here.


The word ambition seems to be a two-edged sword. Those with no ambition are often labeled lazy, and those with too much are often feared. So, help us understand what you mean by ambition and why, as your book subtitle says, you say it’s the missing attribute in employees.


It’s interesting because when I first started down this path of writing the book and deciding how to label whatever attribute it is we were looking for, the word ambition came up and it resonated with me right away, and I didn’t think too much about it, and somebody came along, and kind of like you said, it’s a double-edged sword.


It’s like, oh, ambition can be seen as people trying to climb the ladder of success in ways that are less than desirable, oftentimes stabbing people in the back or skirting around things, just doing anything and everything to further their own cause. And rather than the cause of the organization in general, and I step back for a minute and I thought, “Well, that’s true.”


I think a lot of people do view ambition that way, but in the context of what we’re talking about, I’ve noticed in my many years of working as an independent contractor and hiring a lot of other contractors to work with me and also working in corporate environments, I hear a lot of managers, in particular, complain that their employees or their contractors or whoever just aren’t very ambitious. They just show up and they expect to be told what to do, when to do it, how to do it.


They don’t take a lot of initiative on their own. And so, as I kind of was thinking about it, I was thinking back long time ago, we hired employees based on their IQ, their intelligence quotient.


How smart are they? That was going to be a determining factor as to how well they’re going to succeed in life and how well they’re going to do at a job. And then, the term emotional intelligence came out, and so EQ became everybody’s go to. Okay, so maybe you’re smart, but you don’t really know how to get along with people. You don’t know how to communicate well with them. So, we also need intelligence, we need emotional intelligence.


And that still didn’t seem to be cutting it with a lot of employers. And it was probably back in 2012, 2011 I started doing a lot of research and there seemed to be five core skills that employers across the board, and there was a lot of research to back this up and it’s in the book, that talk about what they felt like employees were missing, and it was like creativity, team building, communication, resilience, off the top of my head. I never can remember all five of them, but – and so I kind of grouped all those into what I call ambition.


If people are creative and they’re self-motivated and they work together as a team and communicate, those kind of fall under the EQ umbrella, but if people are really driven to do a good job and they also have the ability to work well within teams and communicate effectively and also are interested in furthering the organizational goals, then to me, that is a good definition of an employee who is ambitious that you definitely want on your team.


Absolutely. We want all of those attributes and maybe some problem-solving skills there, too. I’m just curious that it seems like when somebody starts a new job, they start with great high hopes. They have ambition. This is going to be a stepping stone. This is going to advance their career. They bring a whole lot to the table, but then stuff happens.


I don’t know about the independent contractors when they go on site, but certainly, the employer-employee relationship somehow seems to plateau their setbacks, their disappointments on behalf of the employee. And they aren’t always vocalized, verbalized or confronted, but people start to backpedal a little bit because they realize, “I don’t need to put in this much effort. It’s not being recognized. I can get by with 80%, 60 %.”


They’re doing their job and maybe they’re waiting for the business leader or the supervisor to tell them what to do because when they took the initiative, they got shut down. So, in your experience, the ambition starts to wane. How do you recharge? How do you reactivate that?


Yeah, that’s interesting because [Laughter] there’s a lot packed in what you just said, and the first thing that comes to my mind is my mom taught piano for a long time and she always used to tell me when she was teaching piano that she would take a student who was just super exuberant and super just like wanted to play super-fast and wanted to do really loud.


And she says, “I’ll take that student and harness that passion any day before a student who comes and sits on the bench and just looks at me like, ‘Okay, what next?’” Kind of thing. And I do think, and I’m going to base this off my own personal experience as a contractor and as an employee, is I was labeled a maverick.


And once again, that’s kind of a double-edged sword. A lot of employers don’t like mavericks. They don’t like people who are super exuberant and passionate and willing to take risks and everything. And they’re like, “Oh, let’s slow this down,” and you take a person like that and you start to put a straitjacket on them, and a lot of cases, that’s the way I felt, like I was being put in a straitjacket, and you’ll lose them in a heartbeat. They’re not going to even going to stick around.


But if you take somebody who’s just there to do a good job and is willing to put forth 100%, 110% – and another experience that kind of comes to mind for me is actually my daughter. She went to work for a large organization and she was really excited. It was kind of her first career out of college, and they were – the salary was good and the benefits were good, but for the first three weeks, she did nothing but sit in front of a computer that she couldn’t even turn on and have access to because they didn’t have her network credentials and everything.


She wasn’t even allowed to read a book or anything or bring a magazine, and she was just really discouraged. So, she was – they were like, “Well, let’s just wait till we get you to training. There’s a three-week training program in Chicago. Once you go through that, then we’ll be able to turn you loose and blah, blah, blah.” So, she was, “Okay. I’ll just – I’ll provide my time,” but that really tends to dampen a lot of enthusiasm, and I find it’s really common when you first start a new job. I’m just amazed at the number of people who’ve told me that the first little while, all you do is just sit there.


And even if you’re working in vocational type environments, It’s like, “Well, we don’t trust you yet. So, just kind of sit and watch and observe.” And although they’re – my husband’s one, he can learn well by watching and observing. Most people don’t learn a lot by watching and observing, and they generally tend to tune out. And so, any enthusiasm they may have come to the job with tends to wane if you don’t capture that right at the beginning.


I had a job that I was working several years ago for a venture capital company, and from day one, they assigned me a mentor and that mentor had me just – she was like, “Here’s all the information – here’s where you find all this information. Here’s what -” they gave me a project from day one, and they gave me all the resources that I needed to do it, and they gave me a mentor to help guide and direct me. It was like, okay, I turn in this little piece of information, and they give me feedback, and we’d move on and go on our way. I think that a lot of employers are really concerned about failure, and we live in a world where failure is perceived as another – real negative.


So, employees are afraid of failing and employers are afraid of employees failing because it costs them money, and employees are worried if they make a mistake, so they’re really cautious and they’re really careful not to make a mistake so that they don’t get in trouble because that doesn’t look good, especially out of the starting gate. So, there’s just a lot that goes into making sure that you can harness the passion that people come with.


And then as you go down the road, and like you said, you’re going to experience some setbacks and I think – when people always ask me, “Well, what’s the solution?” I’m like, “A lot of times, we overthink things.” A coach and a mentor are probably the best thing you can give an employee, along with a well-suited project that’s not just busy work, so that they are being guided and directed and they’re given meaningful work.


They have somebody that can give them immediate feedback and make sure that any mistakes that are made along the way aren’t too costly. Mistakes truly are a welcomed learning opportunity for both the employee and can be for the employer if they’re harnessed and captured appropriately and remedied in a way that’s positive.


That sounds like a good plan, and especially if there is a mentor or a coach that is providing some guardrails so that before the mistakes really blow up in anybody’s face, they can help with a course correction. So, that’s  good. And I understand your comment about it’s easier to tame a tiger than to puff up a pussycat, but aren’t those tigers valuable assets to organizations? I mean, do they have to be put in straitjackets and basically neutered?


Once again, that’s kind of interesting because it goes back to the concept of ambition, and I’ll dance around this rather delicately. There are some managers that, for whatever reason, are a bit insecure, and so somebody who comes along and who is that tiger and is just a really go getter, and they’ve got the EQ, the AQ, and the IQ, sometimes, that poses a threat.


And so, they kind of want to just not let them shine and not let them do everything that they’re capable of doing. And so, there’s a lot of those type of dynamics that go on in the workplace that are really challenging to manage. Taking somebody and helping them harness ambition or even develop ambition is much easier than navigating the dynamics in the workplace of a person who others may perceive as a threat.


So, you’re saying, if I understand you correctly, that ambition can be a learned skill as opposed to some are born with it, some aren’t?


Definitely. A lot of my experience goes back to my own. I always joke. I said the thing people like, “Where did you learn to be such a good trainer?” Well, I was a mother and I had four kids, and each of those kids came with varying levels of ambition and varying levels of intelligence, and all of that. Definitely four different personalities to deal with. And one of my children struggled a lot with learning disabilities.


And he experienced failure can be a good thing, but failure can also be absolutely devastating if it’s experienced over and over and over and over again, and there’s been no positive remedy to fixing it. My one child just struggled all the way through school, got out into the workplace and continued to struggle a little bit, but the one area where he really excelled was in – he played American football and he was really, really good at it. Now, there was no lack of ambition when you saw him on the football field.


I mean, he was a football star, but that’s because he was good at it. He wasn’t so good in other areas of his academic career, and as he moved into the workforce, because he didn’t experience any real success. And then through a series of different experiences with some various managers and that type of thing, he worked in the vocational field. They really helped him hone and develop some skills and gain some confidence. And the more confidence he gained, the more ambitious he became.


And I have decided and my research and looking through all the data and everything, there really is a direct correlation between ambition and confidence. Sometimes, we’re too confident, but for the most part, you really need to hone and develop confidence if you want to take an employee who may be struggling. Once again, it goes back to needing a really strong coach and mentor, somebody who can really help them find their niche, what are they good at, and how can we just harness that and really help them feel good about what they’re doing.


One thing I’m curious about concerning your book is the subtitle “The Missing Attribute In Your Employee.” You call it “Ambition: The Missing Attribute.” Do you really feel that so many employees are missing it?


According to managers, that’s this – in my book, I kind of outline a lot of the data. Like I said, it goes back to this one study in 2011 or 2012, maybe in 2010. I’m not sure exactly. Right in that time frame is when this study came out, and it identified those five key attributes. I guess what you want to call. I’m the one that grouped them all into one and said it’s ambition.


But over the course of the last 10 years or so, I’ve followed this extensively, and the more I study it and the more – as a contractor, I work in a lot of different environments with a lot of different managers. So, it’s not like my experience comes from working in one particular industry or one particular company.


I just finished up a job not too long ago for a university, and I worked two years in that environment, and one of my jobs was taking college students. There was a group of five of them, and they were our interns, and they were helping us in the procurement department and helping us with a whole host of different tasks and things like that.


The reason I ended up with them, because I’m an instructional designer and – I wasn’t hired to oversee these five interns. It was because everybody else was frustrated with them. Everybody else was like, “These guys, they just come sit at work, put their headphones on, pull their hoodies over their head and stare at a computer screen and don’t get a whole lot done during the day.


They don’t ask a lot of questions. We give them projects; they don’t finish them.” And my job, [Laughter] mostly because they were aware of the book I’ve written, was like, “Those five are your project.” [Laughter] And I was like, “Okay,” and it was really fun. By the end of the two years, two of them had graduated and gone on to do pretty good things. And there’s been several contractors that I’ve worked with. Some have gone on and worked for Disney and other great big organizations and things.


I won’t ever say that, especially early on, that I was a great coach or mentor. They were definitely skills that I had to learn, and these are things I had to learn as a manager along the way, not just a manager of employees, but a manager of contractors, and a lot of the contractors that I worked with or college students. I hear it time and time and time again. In the procurement department, there was probably 15 to 20 people and there was two or three people that the boss deemed worthy of having. And the rest of them were all kind of underperformers, and they’d been there for a long time.


How did you break through this?


With the five interns I had?


Yeah. Or any of the others where, like you said, they’re there, but they’re really not performing to their full capacity, and the motivation has waned. They’re doing their job, they’re showing up, but that’s about it. They’re showing up.


It started quite a while back. I started – I mean, I was off-and-on-ish employee/contractor for a long time, and then probably in 2008 is when I went almost exclusively doing contract work. I stopped for two or three years and worked for a company, but during those years were the years that my oldest children were in college and they were all like, “Oh, mom, we want a job. Can we work for you?” Because they were pretty – my older three were pretty gifted and talented in terms of getting good grades and things like that, and oftentimes, I would need writers and graphic designers and people like that.


So, I was like, “Yeah, sure. You guys want to come?” Instead of just giving money to my kids while they were in college, they worked for me, and my one daughter, in particular, was really pretty astute. I will admit, the first three or four years that I did this, I probably hired – I went through probably 10, maybe 15 college student contractors, and I was ready to throw my hands up and say, “No, forget it. This isn’t worth it.”


And she’s like, “No, mom. Let’s just sit down on this. Talk about this.” And she’s pretty astute, like I said, in that area, and she really helped me put together some good policies so that when I would bring on new contractors, it was very clear what the expectations were because they were all super excited. They’re like, “Oh, we get to work whatever hours we want,” and I gave them a limit. You can only work 20 hours, but I don’t care when you work, just get the work done.


You have a deadline. Deadlines are deadlines. And they really struggled at first with the concept of deadlines because they just thought that they could work whenever they wanted, that they didn’t have to have work done on a certain time period.


So, we really – so much of it came with her helping me outline expectations and policies up front and helping onboard them in a much more productive way and giving them the tools that they needed to be successful, but that – it still took me several more years to really hone that and to really – and that’s what with these – by the time I got to these five interns in the last couple of years, that’s really what it came down to. Even though they had already been onboarded by the time I got there, we kind of went through that onboarding process again, and we just sat down and clarified what the expectations were, and constant feedback.


I mean, we continually had meetings. At first, we had meetings every day. “Here’s your assignment. Let’s go over it today. There’s your assignment. From there, the next day, we’ll go and just keep on that way.” And then we got to where we were meeting like every week or so. It was a process. I definitely came by a lot of this experience that I write about in the book through a series of failures, and a lot of other people helping me figure out exactly what it was that was going to work and not work.


So, setting the expectations so they understand here’s the hard stops and here’s where you got flexibility. Here’s where you don’t. Because after all, you have to produce. I don’t care what the job is, XYZ has to get done somehow, some way. And having flexibility as to how to achieve it is fine.


But it also sounds like the feedback is where you were actually providing them with the reinforcement to help build their confidence on, “Yes, this is working. This is not. Let’s, of course, correct. Let’s do this. Let’s do that,” until they got to the point where they didn’t need your course corrections on a daily basis or guidance, they had more confidence and built their skill set to where they didn’t need quite as much mentoring. Sound right?


Yeah. And actually, I was really pleased at the end of one of the students term with me. He was the one that came to the table with the least amount of motivation. But oh, my goodness, he was – we were so successful at the end that he was teaching me a lot of things and we were having quite a bit of success with him along the way.


That’s interesting. So, just the collaboration. It sounds like you built a lot of trust and helped this young person develop their confidence, which is great. I’m curious about as you’ve worked in this area of ambition and all that it entails.


What do you recommend for the business leaders, the business owners that are listening? How do you hire for ambition? How do you find the right combination of skills so that you don’t have the ruthless, overachieving, ambitious person, but not the bump on the log either that you have to puff up?


A lot of that, I think, comes – I actually did a whole separate thing on failure and there’s a whole section in there that we talk about how to go through somebody’s resume, and that resume doesn’t necessarily have to be work history. It can be school history. Just having people – instead of looking at exactly what they’ve done in terms of a job, talking to them on different levels about projects. What did you do on this project? What exactly were your responsibilities? What were you assigned to do, and what did you kind of take the initiative to do?


And there’s just a lot of questions you can ask during an interview that can elicit that kind of thing. We do a lot of behavior-based interviews in our world today, and I think that’s good. Talking about different situations, communication. Were you ever been in a position where you feel like you communicated well? When was the time when you didn’t communicate well and how did you remedy that?


And how have you solved problems? How do you solve problems using communication, and when have you demonstrated resilience? That’s really a big one, because if you can get somebody to talk about their failures, even if they haven’t overcome them yet, if they can talk about them in a positive way that indicates that they understand that failure is a part of life.


I oftentimes tell people – when I talk to people, I don’t want to talk about the trophies on your wall. I want to talk about the scars that you have because how you deal with those scars in your life is far more important to me than what you’ve achieved. People who are naturally gifted in terms of intelligence or musical ability or athletic ability or something, they can have a whole host of trophies on their walls, for whatever reason, but it probably came easy to them.


I really don’t care what comes easy to you. [Laughter] That’s kind of harsh to say. We all have things that come easy to us, but talk to me about what’s hard for you. And I don’t want to just tell me briefly how you have overcome some of those challenges, but let’s talk in depth about it, people…


When I wrote that presentation on failure, they’re like, “Oh, don’t use the word failure. That’s so negative. We don’t want those negative connotations.” I’m like, “No. I want to use the word failure. Failure hurts and it hurts bad, but it’s those really painful things in our life that if we can learn how to harness them in a way that benefits us and the people around us, then I know you’re the kind of person that I want on my team.”


Perfect. What do you think is the single most important thing that a manager, business leader, business owner needs to know about ambition?


We think that people come with ambition, and there are some that do. There’s no doubt. There’re some people that just naturally are motivated, and I happen to be one of them, but I’ve dealt with so many people that aren’t. It can be developed.


You can take somebody who is that bump on the log, for lack of a better word, and turn them into one of your most productive people. If you just get to know them and really understand what it is that makes them tick and provide them with a lot of really good guardrails and a lot of really good feedback and just positive reinforcement.


So that they know what they’re good at. That seems to be the key because it may be an underdeveloped talent. So, thank you, Cheryl. This has been great.


Hanna: [00:25:57] And if you’d like to contact Cheryl, if you’re listening and learn more about how to improve workplace performance or learn about her book, “Ambition: The Missing Attribute In Your Employees,” or how learning in your organization can be adapted so that your employees stay ambitious and contribute to your organization’s success, you can find those links in the show notes for this episode at


And if you know someone who could benefit from Cheryl’s advice, please tell them about today’s episode. Share the link to the show. Leave a positive review on your podcast app or at BusinessConfidential so that others can see what you’ve heard and come listen for themselves.


You have been listening to Business Confidential Now with Hanna Hasl-Kelchner. Have a great day and even better tomorrow.

Best Moments

How to Encourage More Ambition and Initiative in Employees

The Pivotal Connection Between Employee Ambition and Confidence

How Business Leaders Can Hire Employees with Good, Not Ruthless, Ambition

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Guest: Cheryl Johnson

Cheryl JohnsonCheryl Johnson is a performance solution specialist with more than 20 years of experience in coaching, learning, development, and workplace training performance. With her pioneering attitude, she has made substantial contributions in the area of learning with an emphasis on behavioral change. Cheryl has been recognized as a leader in the architecture and design of interactive multimedia learning systems and strategies. She was also published by well-known educational psychologist Michael Allen in his 2012 e-Learning Annual. She has dedicated her life to developing learning solutions that drive performance at work and in one’s personal life. 

In the late 1990s, Cheryl embarked on a journey to create a distance learning program for people using voice recognition technology because it was not cost-effective to train individuals one at a time in remote areas. The technical aspect of the program was primarily developed by a friend and peer and eventually patented. This program is still widely used today in various forms by voice recognition software companies to teach people to use the technology effectively. In the early 2000s, online learning became a much more widely used means of delivering education, and it turned out Cheryl and her friend had been trendsetters. 

Cheryl implemented one of the first learning management systems (LMS) in 2005. This LMS has undergone rapid change over the years and is still a critical piece of most organizations’ learning programs. She continues to work with a multitude of vendors to implement their technology. 

She went back to school in 2008 to learn more about the world of gaming to ensure her knowledge of how to build effective learning using games was up to par before the rush to incorporate gaming into the corporate learning space was introduced.

 From 2010–2015, Cheryl spent time fine-tuning the skills she developed over the years and experimenting with various implementations in her environment and at different workplace locations to iron out the wrinkles. She has been actively involved in writing about the future of learning and delivering workshops to prepare interested instructional designers for the coming tsunami of change in the learning world.

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Contact Cheryl and connect with her on LinkedIn and her business website.

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