UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Does your company have collective ambition? If not, here's how to get it


What allows some organizations to flourish in tough economic times when so many others flounder? How do they use a crisis as an opportunity to transform their business models, to redirect their strategies and to build momentum during a downturn?

“Great organizations share a common thread,” notes Douglas Ready, Ph.D., Professor of the Practice of Leadership at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.” It is, as Ready calls it, a well-honed collective ambition; a story that depicts an organization’s purpose, vision and plans on how to achieve their goals.

Collective Ambition

Seven elements comprise an organization’s collective ambition:

  1. Purpose: The organization’s reason for being; why it exists; its core mission.
  2. Vision: The position or status an organization aspires to achieve in a reasonable time frame.
  3. Targets and milestones: The metrics used to assess the extent to which the organization has progressed toward its vision.
  4. Strategic and operational priorities: The actions an organization will take (and not take) in pursuit of its vision.
  5. Brand promise: The commitments an organization makes to its stakeholders (customers, communities, investors, employees, regulators and partners) concerning the experience it will provide.
  6. Core values: The guiding principles that dictate what an organization stands for in good and bad times.
  7. Leader behaviors: How leaders will act, day-by-day and in the long term, to implement vision and strategy as they strive to fulfill their brand promise and live up to their values.

In successful organizations, these elements interact with one another. Leaders in thriving organizations shape a powerful, compelling story of their organization’s future, collaborate with others to build the human capabilities required to achieve that future, and unwaveringly follow that course in often choppy and perilous waters.

At the heart of an organization’s collective ambition is purpose. Purpose is the center around which vision, strategy, brand, values and leader behaviors should be mapped.  While many organizations want their purpose statements to address a noble goal, having a clearly thought out and communicated purpose–for example, to provide excellent entertainment or banking services– should be the main goal. An organization’s purpose does not have to be about saving the world.  It just has to be an authentic representation of why the organization exists.

Organizations thrive when they harness the power of collective ambition to chart their course in good times and in bad times. Successful organizations have a clearly defined purpose and genuine commitment at the senior executive level to execute that purpose. Purpose drives and informs employee engagement, leadership development initiatives and branding. It breeds trust, speeds decision-making and is the heart of compelling change initiatives.

Harnessing the power of collective ambition isn’t easy, but neither is charting the path to excellence. The good news is that it can be done if the organization pulls together with the commitment of all senior leaders to ensure that it has the right people with the right skills and cultural fit to execute its collective ambition.