If you’re looking for a way to interrupt a linear career trajectory and take a bold leap forward, risk taking is it. Yes, it requires placing a bet on yourself. But when you commit to pursuing a worthy but uncertain outcome, take action, and persist beyond the point of comfort it changes you. And when others see you acting decisively with imperfect information and no guarantee of success, it registers as leadership.
So why do people avoid risk-taking? Pamela Stewart, Vice President, National Retail Sales at The Coca-Cola Company, says one reason we fail to take risks is that we fear being the target of scapegoating if something goes wrong. We’re afraid that someone will ask, “Who failed?” and then point to us. “The most important thing you can do for yourself and others is to take risks,” says Stewart, adding that it’s a common opportunity for growth she’s spotted in the emerging leaders she counsels.
Her own experience with risk-taking and audacious goal-setting pre-dates her professional career. When Stewart was entering high school, her Mom had just gotten a divorce, and the family’s finances were tight. At that time, no one in Stewart’s family had ever attended college, and there were few African American female leaders as role models in her life. “I didn’t have a prototype or a mentor whom I could call up, so I defined and envisioned who I wanted to be,” recalls Stewart. “When everyone else wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, I decided I wanted to be one of two things: U.S. Secretary of State or a United Nations ambassador.” As Stewart mapped out her plan, she realized it would require a full-ride scholarship.
The next four years required a lot of hard work, including applying herself academically, participating in extra-curricular activities and doing well in sports. But it paid off. Pam entered college on a full-scholarship, becoming a first-generation scholar.
Sometimes opportunities to take risks are hiding in plain sight, so it helps to become adept at spotting them. As I reflected on Stewart’s personal story and her other talking points from a webinar about leading boldly, I realized she was naming four scenarios that are ripe for risk-taking.
1. When you lack mentors and role models
Sometimes, taking risks involves not seeing a prototype or role model before you,” says Stewart. In high school, Stewart didn’t see a whole lot of African American women in the roles she wanted. The same is true of being a female in a high-level role. “But, I knew that I would not let myself fail nor would I let myself down,” she says. “It takes understanding yourself and taking a risk. If you can see your vision and stay focused, you certainly can achieve it.”
2. When you’re setting goals
“I would also encourage you not to define your boldest dreams by the evidence or history. Dream bigger,” says Stewart, who presses mentees to expand their vision of who they can become. “If you feel 50% or more confident that you can achieve the dream, you’re not dreaming big enough.” The trick, she says, is to envision the possibilities while developing the innate belief you can achieve them. “Make sure that it is truly bold and aspirational, then apply your unique capabilities to the hard work that will close that gap.”
3. When the going’s good
Once you can do your job in your sleep, it’s time to take new risks, Stewart says. “You start getting enamored by the credibility and respect that you have in that role and it just becomes second nature,” she adds. “If you wake up every day, and know what to expect, and you’ve learned all that there is to learn in your role then that’s the moment where you have to step out of that complacency and go build impact elsewhere.”
4. When you can’t change jobs
Taking a risk doesn’t necessarily require getting a new job, says Stewart. “There will be life circumstances where it’s not the right time,” she explains. Perhaps you’re newly married, supporting a family or caring for aging parents. In those situations, take a fresh look at the work you do. “Are you pushing hard enough?” she asks. “Is there another way to look at this role? Is there non-productive work that you’re doing or your team is doing? Is there another way to unlock the growth and impact in this role? Look for ways to take a new approach by turning the role on its head.”
It’s rare to come across a proven short-cut for advancing your career. Now that you have a starting point, what’s the next big career risk you’ll take?
Jo Miller is dedicated to helping women around the world advance into positions of leadership and influence. Jo speaks at leadership conferences, professional associations, and corporate women’s networks at companies like Amazon, Bank of America, eBay and Microsoft. Read more from Jo at Be Leaderly.