July 30th, 2010 | 6:00 am

Take More (Calculated) Risks: Five Ways to Build Your Risk Instinct and Get Ahead

filed under Next Level

Attractive business womanBy Kate McClaskey (New York City)

At The Glass Hammer’s recent panel on women in IT, several of the women spoke on the importance of taking calculated risks in order to get to the next level career-wise. But many women have a problem “sticking their neck out” and taking that big assignment. Why? Is it related a physiological or body-chemistry factor? Or is it about cultural conditioning?

One one hand, a 2009 study revealed that women with more testosterone take more risks than women with less testosterone. Maybe that’s a sign that risk-taking is related to physiology – and Sheila Kolhatkar’s NY Magazine article “What if Women Ran Wall Street” references several studies in favor of a physiological basis for risk-taking behavior. On the other hand, as Kolhatkar writes:

“[no one] would argue that all men are aggressive, egotistical, and stubborn—or that all women are conservative, rational, and levelheaded. And being reductionist about hormones and gender is a sure way to misjudge a complicated individual.”

Acknowledging that there are other factors at play in risk taking skills (like cultural, workplace, or family influence) means we can seek out ways to become better risk takers – and reach new levels of success in our careers. Here are our top five ways to nurture your ability to take risks.

1. Don’t be afraid of showing ambition

Anna Fels article in the Harvard Business Review “Do Women Lack Ambition?” says that women often demure from showing ambition.. She asserts that “far from celebrating their achievements in newly available professions, women too frequently seek to deflect attention from themselves,” – which can be a barrier to being recognized for the work they achieve and hinder their chances of promotion or advancement.

Tooting your own horn is a way to let coworkers and managers alike know what you have achieved. It doesn’t mean bragging, but listing what work was accomplished and the personal role in the process. Whitney Johnson of the Harvard Business Review also writes that having a conversation with a professional colleague about your current projects can help. “Reciting our accomplishments to another person who’s in the trenches is the emotional equivalent of saying our name,” she says. Simply doing high-caliber work cannot produce the proper recognition for accomplishments – your coworkers and bosses need to know about it.

2. Keep your plan in mind

According to a study by Catalyst [PDF] career planning was the third most important thing professionals consider when advancing their career. This includes “developing a long-term career plan, participating in career-related training, and proactively seeking a variety of assignments to increase both knowledge and skills.”

Mauricio Velasquez, from Diversity Training Group emphasizes that women should know what they want, and clearly define their goals and priorities. Keeping career goals in mind continuously can help keep women on track and more aggressive about their work. The HBR stresses that “to sustain their ambitions, women must formulate life plans that include the potential for receiving earned recognition…be based on talent, skill, or work.”

3. Communicate and get feedback

The Catalyst study [PDF], found that that seeking out performance and job-related information, to improve skills and better understand the workplace, was the most important unspoken rule about business according to 97 percent of the people surveyed. By reviewing mistakes and receiving feedback, women can identify skill gaps and what they can do differently – and better prepare themselves for their next career leap.

Professor Monica McGrath from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania says engaging others in personal learning helps keep an accurate picture of strengths and weaknesses. Learning to receive feedback is vital to ascertaining how effective a person is within their workplace – and by receiving affirmation of your skills, you can feel more confident about career risks and opportunities on the horizon.

4. Network

According to a Catalyst study [PDF], women are more concerned with visibility than their male counterparts. Asking people for feedback on their own performance and then acting on those recommendations can improve credibility and provide opportunities for more projects. Increasing visibility within a company was the fourth highest unwritten rule cited for career advancement

Selena Rezvani, author of The Next Generation of Women Leaders, writes that the key to networking is verbalizing interests and goals to better ensure people will respond to you. Just like a resume, networking is about leaving an open ending. This means that people will be more likely to contact you in the future and also conveys your level of interest in the field. Rezvani emphasizes that this includes developing strong relationships with others in the company, focusing on those individuals with high authority. A network means a safety net – other individuals to back you up when you take a calculated leap.

5. Get a mentor

In a study of female CEOs conducted by Eastern Illinois University, nearly two thirds said they had a mentor. This is someone to guide, to bounce ideas off of, to network with, and to nudge you in the right direction. It was found that executives who have mentors are also more likely to be promoted. The key [PDF] is to “learn by asking supervisors and mentors about what is needed to succeed and using that feedback to understand what is important and valued in the organization.”

Not sure if you should take that next big risky opportunity? Ask your mentor. He or she can serve as a great resource or counselor as you consider a risky move.

Even though there are biological factors influencing risk, these factors don’t have to define your career. By making smart career choices and recognizing opportune risks, women can achieve more career success and get to the next level!

1 comment

  1. Shayna

    Great advice! It is difficult though to achieve – especially the last one – finding a mentor. It is so hard to find someone who you can trust enough to take their guidance into account when making big decisions — trust that they have the knowledge, the experience, etc.