The career risks you must take to get ahead

The career risks you must take to get ahead

Do you take risks in your business life? Would you define them as gambles or well-thought-out judgments? Do you expect more than 50% of your risks to pay off? Does your score so far support that view? Can you remember when you didn’t take a risk but now think you should have done? These are all good questions about commercial risk, something every business person has to handle, something they cannot always get right.

Taking risks with the shareholders money is one thing. Taking risks with your own career, quite another. But you have to if you don’t want to stagnate. What sort of risks should those be and how should you prepare for them? People have argued over this since time immemorial. Those aiming for the top have had to calculate extremely carefully how big a risk, at what stage of the career. And, even then, can I handle it?

Some people are born risk takers, the majority are risk averse. I’m going to assume that you are not a natural and experienced risk taker. In other words you are much like your peers when it comes to taking risks. Nothing to be ashamed of, and you will make a reliable supporter, probably for a risk-taker whom you don’t much like. But before you settle for that, think about this. The risk-takers are the people who drive the world forwards – and sometimes backwards. Not to be one of them is to miss the greatest opportunities in life. And the greatest fun.

The major career risks you must be prepared to take are:

[1] to step up above your position in the organization or group to which you belong. When you see some opportunity you think that your company ought to seize, you have to step up and say so. You will be seen as impertinent by your colleagues, especially those above you who you challenge and those of your peers who wish they had had the guts to do what you have done. Your case must be solid. You must be prepared to answer aggressive questions. Your proposal must represent common sense, too – that’s something people often forget.

[2] to challenge your pay scale. As always you must have sound reasons for doing so, not just a weak comparison with others in your age group. Don’t talk about perks others receive. Don’t whine about being treated unfairly. Above all don’t complain that you ‘cannot manage’ on your present wages – unless you really can’t, in which case you should leave anyway. Speak from a position of worth, with evidence to support it. That means you must convince your bosses that you are worth keeping in the company. Best to be sure about that.

[3] to insist on a right, when the commercially good decision is to gainsay it. I made my case for the fairer treatment of women from early in my career. I had to put up with a lot of snide remarks about it but I stuck to it and in the end was admired for doing so. People usually come round to what is right even as they hate you for promoting it.

[4] to suggest the outrageous when it might make a big difference to the business’s future. Every business, every organisation needs a WOW factor from time to time. Few will either recognise it or, even if they do, do something to make it happen. You can be the person to suggest the outrageous provided it is visionary. This initiative needs to be presented sensitively and in a spirit of ‘there must be many ways to skin this cat’.

[5] to build a team with capabilities not job descriptions. Organisations think of their employees as pegs to fit holes. They go to enormous trouble to ensure that the round peg gets into the round hole. The best companies don’t do that. They hire talent and let it develop the business the way it will. Building your team you should get good people, not ‘suitable experiences’. The former are difficult to find, the latter are all around, because so many of them have failed.

The confidence to make all this work is part real and part trick. You have to get the balance right between the two or you end up like Trump or Johnson, successful disasters. Your confidence must be real. If you don’t have it, get help. It will certainly be worthwhile.

Your presentation of that confidence will be the tricky part.

You can learn that too.