I know a little something about taking career risk. I launched Ellevest after running some large Wall Street businesses and working as a sell-side research analyst. So my professional successes and failures have been in the public eye.
I’ve lived the downside of those risks. (Yup, I’ve been fired on the front page of The Wall Street Journal … twice.) But I’ve also had some of the most unbelievable jobs and career experiences, and the good has well outweighed the bad.
When I talk to professional women on this topic, I get this question again and again: How do you get comfortable taking career risk?
Most of my answers are likely the expected ones:
I map my upside and my downside.
Become CEO of Smith Barney, which was struggling at the time? Upside: I get to stretch myself — a lot — by doing something new. I get the opportunity to work to turn around a troubled business. I get to spend my days working in a business that can have a big impact on the lives of its clients and, of course, of its employees. Sounds good. Downside: Potential public failure and humiliation.
I think through what happens in the event of the downside.
When I was asked to become director of research, the job was so different from the one I was doing at the time — sell-side equity research analyst — it wasn’t clear to me that I could successfully make the leap. I thought through what would happen if I failed (in addition to public failure and humiliation; see above). In that case, I could most likely return to being a research analyst, as they were in pretty high demand at the time. So, not a terrible fallback option.
I get very clear on the metrics for success.
What is the budget? Is there also a management “stretch budget?” Will I be able to succeed with the budget I’m given? What are the non-budget metrics that matter? Do I agree with the importance of the metrics I’m being rated on? What will I directly control, as compared to influence — and therefore be able to be accurately judged on?
It pays to get this in writing.
Sometimes I have, and sometimes I haven’t. And every time I haven’t, I’ve regretted some part of it (like the time my boss retired pretty quickly after I took a new job … and the new guy didn’t uphold part of our handshake agreement on my pay).
All of the above matters. But for me, my willingness to take career risks comes down mostly to my sense of perspective.
It’s this: I recognize how unbelievably fortunate I am that I am even able to have these choices, that my husband and I have enough food on the table for our family that I can make job choices that are not just about salary, that my parents invested in my education that I am in this position (when they really couldn’t afford to). As I think about the downside risk (again, there’s that risk of public failure and humiliation), I also always keep the perspective that my worst day is better than so many people’s best day.
With that as a grounding, career risk to me isn’t risk; it’s a benefit. It’s a benefit to build a career that can be so fully engaging and sometimes scary, and that can have a positive impact on others. Career risk for me is part of a life well lived.
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