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  • Sam Decker

How to Take Career Risks — 7 Principles

A reader commented and agreed that taking risks (Career Tip #12) would be great, but wondered how he could take bigger risks. I think he’s asking how to manage the career risk / reward ratio in a rigid organization.

Notwithstanding apathy, I think people avoid risks due to lack of confidence and/or lack of comfort and knowledge in the organization which has to accept their initiative. So how do you accelerate both of these?

As I thought back to how I developed the confidence to propose bigger changes, I thought of a 7 principles that helped me:

  1. Focus on Relationships It would be difficult and foolish to propose a major change in your first 90 days on the job. Who really knows and trusts you? How likely are people to accept your ideas? Focus on building relationships with colleagues and executives. Build up your political capital, which you will spend to make change happen. It is this capital that not only helps increase the acceptance of YOUR change initiative, but also the cooperation in execution.

  2. Know your Stuff You may have an idea and passion, but if you don’t know the business, your numbers and haven’t thought around most of the ‘corners’, then someone may try to throw a spear at your idea with an “edge case” scenario . The better you know your business, the easier it is to think through obstacles and increase your confidence proposing a risky idea. Get to know the P&L. Get to know other groups’ objectives and goals. Think through your idea and map out all the processes that would have to change, and who they would effect. Map out what would have to happen if the proposal is a success, and what could go wrong. Think through, preferably with others, potential objections and questions. Talk through the idea in 1x1s and practice your presentation in front of a less risky crowd.

  3. Speak up. Ask Questions Speaking up in a presentation, asking executives questions in public is a great antitdote for confidence troubles. Plus, it helps you stand out. Others realize you have a ‘forward lean’, curiosity, and you will be a force for change.

  4. Take Small Risks First If you don’t want to propose a huge project that will effect many, propose a change in policy or process with one other person, or one function. I did this countless times at Dell as our online team interacted with every function. Insituting small changes in our interactions with these groups helped build relationships (see above), helped me get to know my stuff (see above), and built personal confidence for larger changes.

  5. Seek to Understand Undoubtedly you will meet resistance from other functions and executives. Covey’s “7 Habits” way to address these conflicts is “Seek to Understand”. Usually someone objects because they don’t understand the idea, or vice versa. Approaching a person with questions to understand them better, rather than forcing ideas from your perspective down their throught, is the best way to reach harmony and cooperation.

  6. Align to Company Goals Who can argue with giving attention and resources to an idea that aligns to company strategy and goals? Make sure you wrap your idea in the essence and language of the company’s goals. Tie the ideas to issues that are priorities for senior executives. Even if your risky bet doesn’t pay off, it will be seen in the right intentions.

  7. Pre-wire Execs Once I was trying to convince the sales team at Dell to accept the idea of a Hispanic marketing pilot. I had an 8am “showdown” meeting scheduled with the Sales Director, who I knew was against the idea. He was brining along some of his managers and I was bringing some of my supporters. Although I knew there was resistance, I knew he never heard the full proposal. No one showed up to the meeting but the Sales Director. At 8:10, as he got up to leave the room, I stood in front of the door and said, “give me 15 minutes to take you through the program.” At the end of that I got his approval, which was critical prior to presenting it to the entire executive team. Had I not done that, I’m positive he would have thrown spears at the proposal in public. I’ve seen it happen many times. As a rule, never present a risky idea for the first time to a group of executives and influencers until you’ve had a chance to present it to them 1×1.

It’s easy to fall in the trap of ‘doing your job’, as you see its boundaries, perhaps as it’s given to your by your boss. There’s a standard deviation curve of employee performance, and doing a good job puts you towards the right of the curve, but it doesn’t not put you on the edge of the curve. It’s on this edge that people take notice.


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