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Are You Taking Enough Risks?

June 9, 2011

I was doing an annual performance review last week with one of the managers, and, well… you know how these things go. We went over his objectives from last year, his areas for development, the priorities and accomplishments he is shooting for next year, blah blah blah. It was going stale, as these things sometimes do. So I threw in a zinger.

“What is the biggest risk you took last year?” I asked.

The droning stopped for a moment as he looked up at me, initially with a look of shock and horror, then quickly morphing into excitement.

Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere.

“Well,” he began, “It would be that time I confronted John about moving ahead with the xxyy idea. That could have blown up in my face, but it ended up having a huge impact.” We went on to talk about what made it risky, how he weighed the pros and cons, how he calculated the upside to his career.

I then told him about a risk I recently took. I am still not sure if it was a good career move or not, but time will tell.

If we are not taking risks once in a while – you know, facing the gaping abyss with palms sweating, heart racing, gasping for breath – then we are probably not growing in our careers. Or in life.

Think of it as an adventure.

When taking a risk, will you be perceived as a rabble-rouser or a visionary? Here are some guidelines to know if you are taking a smart risk:

1. You have a strong conviction. If you are doing your job, you should be constantly scanning, observing, reading the marketplace to develop insights and ideas about what could be done differently, or better. You have valuable opinions, ideas and recommendations. So don’t hold back.

2. Involve a trusted ally. Once you have formulated an idea that rocks, run it by some respected friends (those with credibility in the organization) to make sure you are not going off the deep end. Sometimes our mind can play tricks on us, or our political experience has not caught up to our ambition, s0 it’s a good idea to get an objective reality check.

3. Back it up with evidence. This may seem counter-intuitive, since the very idea of risk says that we don’t have enough data to guarantee an outcome. But no one in your organization will buy into a decision or new direction without some level of research to build a case for taking the next step.

4. Check your intentions. Be honest with yourself. Are you motivated for the greater good of the organization, of the customers, the shareholders and the other team members? Or are you just doing this to make a big fuss about yourself and grab attention? The best protection against a risky move is to back it up with an unquestionable commitment to the best interests of the organization rather than showcasing your ego.

Now, get out there and make it happen.

Photo by the one and only Nancy R.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2011 5:45 am

    Standing in front of that abyss right now… It is exhilirating but scary.

    Point number three eases the tension somewhat. And number four is a very healthy reminder.

  2. June 9, 2011 5:55 am

    The Swede is going to love one. An engineer who thinks and plans to a maddening degree of precision but also lives by the motto, “Live dangerously.” I think it’s easier for people who do their homework and ultimately believe God is good and He’s got it, to take risks. Me? I take huge risks with every sentence I write. Good stuff here. As usual.

    • June 9, 2011 5:57 am

      *The Swede is going to love this one.* Sheesh. Coffee….

    • June 12, 2011 12:38 pm

      Thanks, Nancy.
      That is an odd paradox, isn’t it? I mean, planning to the nth degree and but at the same time taking “dangerous” risks sometimes? I like the way you put it — Let’s do our homework and then leave it up to God to cover the rest. What else can we do?

      And yes, writing – especially blogging – does feel risky sometimes, doesn’t it?

      Keep putting it out there.

  3. June 9, 2011 6:58 am

    Nothing of importance or lasting significance was ever accomplished by playing it safe. (Somebody said that but for the life of me I can’t remember who it was, although Harry Gray, who was a CEO of United Technologies, said something similar — “No one ever achieved greatness by playing it safe.”)

    • June 12, 2011 12:40 pm

      I think a lot of people said that, in one form or another, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Lady Gaga. (All right, I don’t really know if Lady Gaga said that, but perhaps if I watched her MTV Documentary I would find out.)

      In any case, it is usually said by someone who has done something of lasting significance. We should include ourselves in that camp.

  4. June 9, 2011 8:11 am

    Oh how I love this post so much, and oh how it’s grace to me right now as I am also “standing in front of the abyss right now” (like Claire).

    {I so much appreciate all of your thoughtful comments on my blog posts recently, by the way!}

    And as a manager, I really appreciate the tactic (risk) you took with the performance eval! Challenge others and inspire them! Love. It.!!!

    • June 12, 2011 12:41 pm

      It was funny how boring that performance review was until I asked that question. We had such a great discussion once we started talking about risk taking. You should use it in your next review!

  5. June 9, 2011 9:18 am

    The #2, the trusted ally, is the part I am cultivating. I have an assistant editor who does 80 percent of the work because I work from home, 200 miles away. When we’re on the same page, we’re a great team. When we’re not …

  6. June 9, 2011 11:01 am


    Think of it as an adventure.

    To realize that life itself is an adventure, a gift of time, is accepting the gift.


  7. Phil permalink
    June 9, 2011 11:08 am

    Was talking recently with a friend abour risk as it relates to entrepreneurship. I always felt that being labeled a “risk-taker” was a good thing. She pointed out that tightrope walkers and lion tamers are the true risk-takers.

    We came up with an alternate attribute….
    A good entrepreneur (or leader/manager/parent/teacher/etc) is a person who is comfortable with uncertainty.

    • June 12, 2011 12:44 pm

      Or you could also use the word “ambiguity” there, too. A good entreprenuer has to be able to navigate the knowns and the unknowns in the face of constant change, right? Not always a straight line. And not everyone can deal with that… Although I find more and more that this is just a sign of life – the circuitous, evolving path. Nothing is linear, from A to B, any more. It seems like you get all sorts of glitches and surprises along the way, no matter what your plan is.

  8. June 14, 2011 7:00 am

    I love when the question I need to be asked is asked! Very timely, this. Thank you.

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