The Ambition Index Launches
New research from full-service law firm Shakespeare Martineau shows that age and location have the biggest impact on the ambition of senior leaders, with gender having less of an influence over confidence and drive.
The Ambition Index*, conducted with 1,000 senior decision-makers in UK businesses, showed that prior to the pandemic 90% of business leaders felt ambitious – including 46% claiming to be ‘very ambitious’.
During the pandemic, those feeling ‘very ambitious’ dropped to just 27%, with overall feelings of ambition down to 74%.
Now ambition levels are rising once more, with 84% of senior leaders claiming a positive outlook for the next 18 months.
As well as an adverse effect on ambition, the pandemic has increased feelings of loneliness and isolation across the UK’s top bosses: more than half (56%) of business leaders said they felt lonely or isolated during the pandemic, an increase from 29% prior to the pandemic.
More than a third of baby boomers say nothing is holding them back as a leader, compared to only 1 in 10 of Gen Z. Gen Z also twice as likely to say time is holding them back as a leader, compared to baby boomers
Younger generations are most ambitious post-pandemic
Millennials blame maintaining a work-life balance (29%), time (29%) and confidence (23%) as top three things holding them back as leaders
Imposter syndrome affecting 1 in 5 female leaders compared to just 15% of male bosses
Lack of family support makes women feel lonelier, whereas men hit harder by lack of backing from professional peers
Southern leaders struggle more with work-life balance
It’s great to see such high levels of ambition in the younger generations. They are our future, so we need to bottle up what makes mature leaders so confident and share it with them if we want to drive economic growth.
Delving into the detail suggests that confidence comes with age – as more than a third of baby boomers stated nothing was holding them back as a leader, compared to just 1 in 10 of Gen Z and 12% of millennials.
Sarah Walker-Smith, CEO at Shakespeare Martineau and member of the Society of Leadership Fellows at St George’s House, said: “The stats are telling us that younger leaders are lacking in confidence, which in a way you would expect, as confidence often comes from experience. However, if we want to improve productivity, innovation and diversity, it’s our responsibility as experienced leaders to mentor the next generation.
“But I also think that such high levels of imposter syndrome and openly talking about confidence is a generational thing – its great that younger people are much more open about how they are feeling as all need to be having open and honest conversations about the emotional side of leadership as well as the practical sides too.”
Across the board, market uncertainty and cash flow were the two biggest factors holding businesses back, at 28% and 27% respectively. Covid resilience and investment also ranked highly at 26% and 21% for businesses on the whole.
On average, factors holding leaders back from a personal level were work-life balance and time – both 26%, followed by confidence (20%) and imposter syndrome (17%). However, through the generations time affected leaders less and less, with Gen Z twice as likely to select this option than baby boomers (32% vs 16%).
Apart from feelings of imposter syndrome seen more commonly in women (20% vs 15% in men), there was very little difference in ambition between men and women, or the factors holding them back as leaders.
Maintaining a work-life balance affects 27% of men and 25% of women, while confidence affects 18% of men and 22% of women.
Lack of a support network within a business affects 13% of men and 12% of women, however it has a greater effect on the loneliness of men; with 63% of men stating that this made them feel more lonely, compared to just 57% of women.
Conversely, lack of support from family has a greater impact on the loneliness of women leaders: of those affected by lack of family support, 60% of women said it made them feel more lonely, compared to 47% of men.
“Where women and men get their support from is really interesting,” said Sarah.
“This might be a sweeping statement, but in my experience, historically men can find more comradery in networking groups and events, such as golf days or drinks after work – places that many women, particularly mothers, are not able to or chose not to be part of. So women tend to have more social groups and close friends away from work, who have supported them through the pandemic.”
However, Sarah suggests that while it’s encouraging to see the gender divide shrinking, the research may not account for the thousands of more mature female leaders lost to industry every year.
She said: “We know anecdotally that we lose a lot of female talent when women reach menopausal and peri-menopausal age – and research shows that women are more vulnerable to burnout than men - and so while I’m encouraged to see greater balance in the research, we must not forget that many talented women may have left leadership roles by this stage.
“More must be done to retain expert female talent; better education of the effects of menopause and increased flexibility for talented people who need it – and simply greater conversation at all levels.”
Younger leaders should keep asking questions, keep turning to trusted business advisors and have the confidence to make mistakes, take calculated risks and believe in themselves. Remember if you are good enough, you are old enough
Location also has an impact on leaders – significantly more southern business leaders are struggling to maintain a work-life balance compared to northern senior teams: 1 in 5 for the north and almost 3 in 10 (29%) for the south.
Commenting, Sarah said: “Rightly, there is a big focus on the levelling up agenda in boosting the north with investment, but are we missing a trick by not sharing learnings and lifestyle changes experienced outside of the M25 in order to level up productivity and job satisfaction within it too?”
When asked about future ambitions; Gen X (those aged 43 to 54) were the leaders most focused on profit as 61% of bosses in that age bracket said that growth in profit was an ambition for the next 18 months, compared to just 45% of Gen Z leaders and 56% of millennials.
Improving efficiencies was high on the agenda for millennial leaders and Gen X at 44% and 48%, respectively.
Increasing diversity was further down the agenda for baby boomers – just 12% had this as an ambition for the next 18 months, compared to around 1 in 5 of Gen Z (20%) and millennials (22%).
When it came to investment, the focus for most businesses was technology (37%), followed by IT (31%) and learning and development (27%).
Despite showing the greatest level of imposter syndrome, younger leaders were keen to grow their businesses; almost 9 out 10 (89%) millennial-lead business are looking to grow, compared to 1 in 3 baby boomer bosses not hoping to grow their business over the next year.
Sarah said: “It’s great to see such high levels of ambition in the younger generations. They are our future, so we need to bottle up what makes mature leaders so confident and share it with them if we want to drive economic growth."
“And younger leaders should keep asking questions, keep turning to trusted business advisors and have the confidence to make mistakes, take calculated risks and believe in themselves. Remember if you are good enough, you are old enough”
Get In Contact
Sarah looks to challenge the norm in the legal sector and wider business world. She is passionate about levelling the playing field, encouraging everyone to bring their authentic selves to work.
Jemma Page – firstname.lastname@example.org, 0796 720 7603, 0115 945 4617
Emma Houghton – email@example.com, 0771 142 5599, 0115 945 4641
Nick Brown – firstname.lastname@example.org
*Shakespeare Martineau commissioned Censuswide to survey 1,000 senior decision-makers within UK companies in November 2021. Full responses are below.