We all think that what we do in our jobs is so specific. But in fact the questions that crop up around ambition in the workplace are the same. How can you ‘fix’ a person who is blocking you at work? How can you ask for a promotion or more money? Should you leave a job that you hate? How can you get your brilliance noticed? What do you do if someone keeps interrupting you in meetings? Everyone wants, more or less, the same things. And often these are to do with wishing that they could control other people’s behaviour. But whilst we all might have common aims (an interesting life, a fulfilling job, work–life balance, financial comfort …) and we often have common problems (difficult bosses, lack of flexibility, annoying colleagues …), how we respond to these things needs to be intensely personal. You can’t effect change by adopting just one course of action. This is not a one-size-fits-all fix. It depends where your ambition lies. And it depends where you work. The solutions can be very industry-specific. Some life paths involve the cultivation of extreme, hard-nosed ambition. Others are far more relaxed and fluid. It’s important to try to choose a path that fits you as a person and matches with your own definition of ambition.
So, for example, one question that comes up a lot when I’m presenting at a corporate event is what to do if you don’t know the answer to a question. What do you do if you are in a situation at work and you are exposed as ignorant or stupid? This could happen if you’re talking on a panel, if you’re in the middle of a broadcast discussion, if you’re at a job interview or if you’re giving an important presentation at work. Or, more generally, if someone senior puts you on the spot and you have to disappoint them. My own advice would be either to be honest or to style it out. You could say, ‘I don’t know the answer to that but I do know who I can ask …’ or, ‘I don’t know the answer to that but my educated guess would be …’ Because I am not answerable to anyone in my work, it’s OK for me simply to say, ‘I don’t know.’ In fact, it’s probably good for me to say that because it’s pointless me pretending that I know the answer to something when I don’t.
However, there are many industries where this response is categorically impossible, for example in the manufacturing of playground equipment. This question came up when I was doing an event for the financial sector and I realized from the intake of breath in the audience that this was a sackable offence. My usual advice to style it out was not going to wash. A senior woman piped up: ‘All you can do is say, “I should know the answer to that but I don’t have it to hand. Let me get it to you as soon as this meeting is finished.”’ In another walk of life, where creativity is important, the ability to say ‘I don’t know’ may be celebrated or even admired. In banking, however, forget it. You need to have a high level of traditional ambition to work in that sector. And you need to feel comfortable working in a place where it’s culturally unacceptable to admit you’re wrong. Or you could make it your ambition to change that culture. If you are extremely patient and resourceful.