Why Women Tech Execs Can and Must Thrive on Risk

1/14/13Follow @metricstream

The stereotypical image of women as risk avoiders is changing fast. More women are occupying the boardroom, making important strategic decisions, and taking on high-risk responsibilities as CEOs, CFOs, and even chief risk officers.

As a woman who worked her way up to various executive roles, and now as the CEO of a governance, risk, and compliance solutions company, MetricStream, I’ve witnessed first-hand how important it is to take risks in one’s career. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

Much has been said about Marissa Mayer’s “risky” decision to leave a top position at Google and join the struggling Web giant, Yahoo. Yet Mayer would not be where she is today had she not taken a similar risk about 13 years ago. Back in 1999, Google was still a little-known startup that Mayer believed had just about a two percent chance of success. But despite receiving job offers from other more distinguished firms, she chose to work at Google. Clearly, her decision paid off.

Similarly, Ellen Kullman, CEO of DuPont, was working her dream job of running the company’s then $2 billion titanium dioxide business. When she was asked to consider setting up a safety consulting business, both her mentor and advisor asked her not to do it. But Kullman took that leap of faith and eventually built an extremely profitable business .

So what prompts successful women like Mayer and Kullman to take big risks? And why is that so important?

Responsible Risk Taking

“No risk, no reward,” goes the old adage. It’s important to stretch one’s boundaries, try something new, perhaps fail, but learn, and move on. Yet many women allow their careers to meander. They wait for promotions, salary raises, or new opportunities to be offered without actively doing something about it. They believe that they will eventually get noticed. This is a very low-risk approach with low rewards.

On the other hand, some women take bold but ill-advised risks such as demanding a promotion when they haven’t actually accomplished anything meaningful, or starting a new business venture without a proper business plan or experience. Such risks only set women up for failure.

Most successful women strike a balance—they take calculated career risks by carefully weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each risk. Mayer took a calculated risk before she joined Google. She created a matrix ranking of how the company compared against others across various parameters such as location, salary, career trajectory, and happiness. Eventually, she chose Google, largely because she believed that the smartest people worked there.

Balancing Risks and Rewards

I’ve taken risks throughout my career. As a young executive at IBM, I took on an international assignment running a $1.6 billion Japan-based business unit whose growth had stagnated. I moved my family to Tokyo, strengthened the local teams, focused on the growth drivers, and ultimately took the unit from the bottom 10 percent of performers inside the company to the top in year-over-year growth. I was the first African-American female to take on an international executive role. Many people told me not to take it because the risks were too high for “a woman like me.”

When I was interviewing for CEO roles in Silicon Valley in 2002, just after the dot-com bubble burst, people tried to discourage me. I ultimately took on the role of CEO at a software company that needed a major overhaul. It had very strong technology, but no clear market. It was running out of cash, and many investors had written it off. This was a high-risk opportunity. But I believed that it could reap high rewards. In the worst-case scenario, I’d have to find another job, and I could live with that. Today that company is MetricStream, a leader in governance, risk, and compliance solutions, growing 50 percent year over year for the past few years.

Questions To Consider When Taking a Risk

1. If the risky move fails, can you live with the results?

Being rejected for a promotion is a risk that you could live with. But investing your life’s savings in a new business venture that may not work out isn’t wise. It’s important to calculate how much you’re gambling on a risk, and what buffer you might need.

2. What can be done to mitigate the adverse impact of risk?

Assume that you want to be part of an international assignment. Make the effort to periodically visit company headquarters, e-mail or call business associates, and participate in highly visible projects. The key is to get noticed instead of deflecting attention away from yourself.

3. How do you increase the odds of success?

Let’s say an opportunity arises for you to lead a global team. Prepare yourself for the role by finding a mentor or advisor who has done the job before and could guide you. Educate yourself on cultural differences in the team. Focus on efficient planning and coordination.

4. What value will the risk add to your career?

Develop a long-term career plan with clearly identified and prioritized goals. This will help you identify which risks you should take, and which ones you can afford to let go of. Focus on risks that will help you achieve your career objectives.

5. How will the outcome of the risk affect your professional brand?

If a risk entails you compromising either your own ethics and values or those of your organization, it’s not worth taking. At the end of the day, your integrity matters more than your professional laurels.

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A career decision is eventually a personal one. What you may consider risky may not be risky for someone else. The trick is to find a balance between the risk “downside” and the reward or opportunity—to thrive on risk. And of course, to open yourself up to learn from each success and failure. Those are the traits of any successful woman.

Shellye Archambeau is CEO of MetricStream, a Palo Alto, CA-based company offering governance, risk, compliance, and quality management solutions to enterprises in the pharmaceutical, medical device, high tech manufacturing, energy, financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, food and beverage, and automotive industries. Follow @metricstream

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  • Ilene Fischer

    Safety in life is an illusion, we have lived in a culture that says “do good work and you will be rewarded”. Our parents and grandparent held on to their “Safe” jobs for decades, the world has changed, and nothing is certain. As an entrepreneur my risk quotient is very high, but then aren’t we are always standing at the edge of the cliff looking out not knowing how it will all turn out. It is an illusion that we can predict the future, so why not take the risks?

    Ilene Fischer
    Founder/CEO
    WomenLEAD, Inc
    ifischer@womenleadership.com

  • http://twitter.com/RockiesVenture Rockies Venture Club

    We see women acting in a high risk environment. Women investors are not risk shy at all! http://www.rockiesventureclub.org/2012/12/women-investors-not-risk-averse/

  • Tamra Johnson

    When I decided to leave my corporate job to start the life of an entrepreneur, it was the first time I had taken that type of risk. It was tough to make the leap, but I also had realized that if I didn’t get more comfortable with taking risks, I would end up with regret wondering about what may have been.