Taking the Big Risk: Career Changing Decisions

Years ago the COO of my company came into my office and said, “I need you to do me a favor.”

By the look on his face I knew he was serious. I was running a fairly small marketing and communications department at the time, a job that I loved and that had allowed me to leave implementation project management, a role that had taught me a lot but wasn’t my passion.

He came straight to the point, not tap dancing around what he wanted even though he knew my reaction wouldn’t be met with immediate celebration.

He asked me to take on running the company’s account management team. Whoa – this was no small favor. Half of the clients were at risk, IT was behind on delivering client commitments, the company had perpetual layoffs, we had an ongoing travel freeze and associate morale was low. Not to mention he was asking a 26 year old to manage employees many years her senior.

I knew it was a great opportunity, but I also knew the strife that would result from it. Friends would become direct reports, relationships would change, and my learning curve was huge.

I never questioned whether I could handle the management of client relationships or the financial responsibilities of the job. I was fearful that I didn’t know the health systems that served as the core component of the programs we were providing, and that my clinical pharmacy knowledge was inadequate, especially since half of my direct reports and nearly all of my clients would be pharmacists.  I was insecure in my technical knowledge and felt limited by what I didn’t know.

I would never have applied for the job had it been posted.  But now, here was a terrific opportunity presented to me on a silver platter.  I didn’t know at the time that I was approaching this opportunity in the same manner than many women do.  I’ve since learned that studies have found that men will apply for a position when they meet 60% of the qualifications and women tend to wait until they meet 100% of the qualifications. I was fearful of what I didn’t know instead of looking at how I could leverage the skills I did have and the potential within me to close the gaps.

I was overlooking my strengths that had propelled my career at an early age.  Strengths  including organizational and project management, the ability to manage teams effectively, and a communications approach that fostered team building among different groups.  All of these skills were far more important than technical knowledge of business systems which could be more easily attained.

After asking to think about it for a couple of days, and getting an offer letter in writing, I accepted the job.

It was a big risk, but it catapulted my career. It forced me to learn how to manage more effectively (indeed from making many mistakes and learning what NOT to do).  This experience stretched me beyond my imagination, it toughened me up (you can only imagine the dissidents I had after my promotion), but it was the best thing for me for my longer term career success.

Did I have the requisite experience for that job when I took it? No, but the COO believed in my potential. He knew I would do whatever it took to learn the job and he supported me in the early months when I had more questions than answers.

I appreciate the day he asked me to do him that favor. It changed my career.  It remains the toughest three years of my career journey thus far, but I learned a decade’s worth of lessons during that time period which I have carried with me throughout all future roles.

Over time, I have learned that every new position should have areas that are a stretch for you.  It’s only when you step outside of your comfort zone that you experience the most growth, providing future opportunity to tackle bigger and better roles.

Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of PepsiCO, said:

“Embrace tough assignments.  Conventional wisdom suggests that it’s easier to take the path of least resistance by signing up for an easy job, doing it well, and moving on to something bigger.  The problem with that theory is that nobody notices when you do an easy job well.  It’s far better to challenge yourself by raising your hand for the toughest assignments and work to solve problems that no one else has been able to solve.  That’s how you truly become a trusted leader inside an organization.”

I couldn’t agree more with this statement.  I could have remained in my existing role where I was performing well, but I wouldn’t have experienced much advancement.  It was only when I was willing to step outside of my comfort zone and take on a significantly more challenging role – a role where I’d be alleviating a problem area for my manager – that I began to achieve accelerated growth.

Thankfully, my calculated risk worked out.  I performed well and I learned a lot.  It served as a springboard for my next position.  But even if I hadn’t succeeded, I still would have gained more learning moments than I would have in my previous position, and I could have catapulted that experience into my next career move.

In looking back at how I responded to that request for a favor, I only have one regret.  I wish I would have realized back then that I could have negotiated for more before taking the job.  Not just for a larger salary increase, but for the COO’s commitment to address some of the broken areas of the company impacting account management and the team’s ability to succeed. Eventually I was able to make the changes needed, but I had leverage at the time the job was offered to me and I didn’t use it effectively to accelerate the pace of change.  That was a lesson I didn’t learn until many years later.

 

Betty James
Artemis Emslie
CEO, myMatrixx
President of the Alliance of Women in Workers' Compensation