Bald ambition helps an executive land the top spot at some companies, but corporate strivers should take their cues from the internal culture. At the legendary consulting firm McKinsey & Co., reserve is the watchword in the selection process to replace managing director Ian Davis. That style is common among partnerships, says Laura Empson, director of the Center for Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School in London. "You have to show that you are ambitious for the organization, not for yourself," she says.

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