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3 Ways to Encourage More Women to Take Career-Advancing Risks


You might have read the article that summarizes the results of a survey by KPMG LLP titled "Will Women Take Big Risks?"
It was disconcerting to see that less than half of the 2,000 respondents of the Risk, Resilience, Reward survey were open to taking big risks to further their careers. 
Key callouts from the survey:
  • Less than half (43%) were open to taking big risks associated with career advancement
  • A larger number (69%) were open to taking small risks to further their careers
  • Women with less than five years of experience are more willing to take risks, (45%), compared to those with over 15 years experience (37%)
  • Race also has its influence with women of color willing to take risks at a higher rate (57%) versus white women (38%)
  • Forty percent of the women said that the opportunity to make more money is a reason to take a risk, however, only 35% said they were confident about asking for a higher salary
My own quest for understanding professional risktaking began in the early eighties. I had just joined Intel Corporation after returning to work following the birth of my daughter. 
New hire orientation was informal with a big chunk of time focused on covering Intel's culture and the company's core values
"What does risktaking look like at Intel?" I asked.
The trainer paused and appeared to struggle with a response.  
"It's when you go out on a limb...when you reach for something bigger, something beyond what you're comfortable with."
So, I decided to come at it another way. "How will I know when my risktaking efforts have failed?" 
"Oh, you'll know."
Thus began my mission to learn more about risktaking: 
  • What did successful risktaking look like at the company?
  • Who modeled best practices?
  • What were the consequences when people got it wrong? 
  • How was risktaking behavior measured, tracked, reported and celebrated?
  • How did this behavior fit within Intel's reward structure and performance reviews?
  • Would I learn the rules via formal training, informal mentoring or by trial and error?
I wound up asking lots of questions and asking people at all levels what risktaking meant to them. I watched people in action, made lots of mistakes and learned along the way, took some baby steps, and even a few badass leaps that disrupted how business would be managed in future. 
All in all it wasn't as easy as I would have liked and it took longer to learn than I would have preferred. 
Given my own field experience I would suggest three surprisingly straightforward ways to shorten the learning curve that could encourage more women to take bigger, bolder career risks.

Knowledge is key to successful risktaking. 

First steps shouldn’t feel risky for people to take. 
Teaching people how to tap into the best that they have to offer is a great way to build confidence. What do small risks look like in action and how do these incremental risks differ between big, bold risks. Clearly spell out the criteria that the company uses to tell the difference between the two. 
People need to be taught efficient and effective ways to research so that they’re able to gather enough correct information to make informed risks. You want responsible risktakers investing time in researching known possibilities based on knowledge and the quality of the information. 
Training ideas for onboarding / reboarding
  • Scenarios and cases based on examples unique to the company's culture help learners to visualize what it means to differentiate between the different levels of risktaking at the company.

  • Invite guest speakers to share their stories and best practices of bold endeavors and the challenges that they had to face and overcome along the way. Prepare people for the real possibility that taking on more complex programs and projects often require pivots—a need to shift gears somewhere along the timeline—something that should be anticipated and accounted for. The intent is to bring risktaking and entrepreneurial skills from the rafters of theory into practical experience. People need to see themselves taking bold actions! By bringing an element of excitement to the room—four walls or virtual—you raise the energy level. “If they can do it, I can do it too!” 

  • Onboard new employees with an assigned “risk buddy” who commits to spending the first six months to a year with the new hire. Why not reboard employees who have become too comfortable with incremental risk and apprentice them with teams that have managed to start, implement, and launch large, complex initiatives—successfully—and who can show them the way on making the transition to a bigger playing field.
Focus on encouraging and preparing women and men on the various ways to leverage informed, responsible risktaking as a jumping off point to innovation while steering them away from playing it too safe as a fallback position. Informal training, mentoring, and career advisory boards could provide ongoing support during the implementation of high-impact/high-payout opportunities. 

Complacency is not our friend.

Big risks should test the limits of our knowledge and skills. But complacency can act as a deterrent for not doing so. 
What made the cohort of women with over 15 years of experience (37%) less willing to take incremental risks to advance their careers? Did they oncetake bigger risks earlier in their careers similar to the women with less than five years of experience (45%)? If so, what triggered their decisions along the way to scale down their vision for themselves?  
Questions to ponder
  • Is there a correlation between economic conditions with someone’s willingness and desire to take on initiatives, programs, or projects with a high degree of risk associated with them? Could a healthy economy make us morecomplacent because we don’t see stepping out of our comfort zones as offering a big enough benefit / payout? 

  • Does a regular, dependable paycheck feed complacency? Are organizations at risk of instilling an undercurrent of complacency if people believe there is less need to take big risks that drive innovation?

  • Does economic turbulence or uncertainty introduce an element of fear that motivates us to raise the bar for ourselves in order to stand out in the workplace and marketplace? 

Rewards need to match the level of risk. 

Change leaders often look at the reward structure of a company to get a sense of what’s contributing to the undercurrents of any resistance to change. 
  • How do you reward incremental risktaking versus high-impact initiatives, programs, or projects? How are they tracked, measured and celebrated? How are they tied to the company’s super strategic goals?

  • Are your measurements consistent across the company and not subjective to the biases or whims of individuals within different functions? What successes have you had in taking office and gender politics out of high performance risktaking?
Although successful, incremental risktaking results should never be discounted, does your workforce know the difference between incremental risk that meets the company’s criteria for success and one that pushes the boundaries? People who consistently push the boundaries of smaller risks would be prime candidates for training, coaching and mentoring so that they’re ready to take on bigger, more complex strategic risks within the company.  
Is your reward structure tied to the amount of time someone must commit to before they can lead or participate in big risk efforts? In other words, would someone’s family obligations prevent them from stepping up to take on a highly visible, complex opportunity if they chose to do so? What can you do to create a level playing field for everyone who’s willing to take on high-impact projects? Perhaps, a tiger team could explore and expand your approach to workplace flexibility.

My 80/40/20 Rule 

[] Personal life humming along? Consider investing 80 percent of your time at work pursuing high payout / beneficial opportunities. This is the time to aggressively move your career forward. Note that I don’t mention age as a factor. Re-entering the workforce after a break or deciding to step up after successfully leading incremental projects is not associated with age, gender or other false limiting factors. You might consider locating an “orphan” team that’s in need of a leader who will step in to help them raise the bar on what looks to be a promising project, maybe one with big risk potential. Don’t wait for an opportunity to present itself. 
[] Personal life feeling stressed? Pace yourself by tapping 40 percent of your time at work serving as an active team member who’s supporting a complex, bigger risk initiative, program or project. Even if your first instinct is to go underground or become less visible in the workplace due to personal stress, keep the momentum going. You don’t have to lead the charge, but don’t become a complacent contributor to the cause either.
[] Professional and personal life fighting for your attention? Slow things way down without stopping momentum. Using 20 percent of your time at work on incremental risks keep things moving along. Strategically source for an existing team that needs someone with your skill sets. Nice-to-have option? A team with members who can teach you something for when you’re available to take on something bigger. 

What did I learn during my own risktaking quest in the 1980’s? Workplace environments may or may not provide us with opportunities to step up and reach way outside our comfort zones, but at the end of the day we choose whether to take the leap. 
You might also be interested in reading 5 Reasons Why Risktaking Should Matter to Women in Business.

What others say on this topic

How Economic Insecurity Affects Worker Innovation
5 Ways Full-Time Employment Can Hurt You
Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose
Kara Swisher’s Recode Decode podcast with Case Foundation CEO Jean Case on pushing back fear.