Women must take on risk to climb the career ladder

Many women rely on hard work alone to climb their company’s career ladder but they would be wrong to play it safe. Although studies show that there are no gender differences when it comes to an appetite for risk, women perceive certain risks to be greater in some areas, such as finance, than men. But being courageous and taking considered risks is the secret to enjoying a supercharged career.

Banker turned entrepreneur Lyndsey Simpson says that it was her calculated risk-taking that fast-tracked her corporate career at Barclays. Now co-owner of an HR company in London, she advises against following the herd and going for positions in less popular departments or locations. It was a strategy that worked for her when she took several posts in geographic regions that Barclays found difficult to fill. She moved to Africa to run a Barclays division just as the bank was flying staff out of Zimbabwe after its Africa CEO had been carjacked. She also moved to Spain for eight months to run the bank’s operations but without being able to speak a word of Spanish.

What she earned in company kudos made the fear worthwhile, says Ms Simpson, now CEO of the Curve Group. She ended up with greater negotiating powers than her peers and won important perks, including leadership coaching. “It also gave me the option to say no to the next thing without it being a career limiting move.”

Ms Simpson says moving between sectors, and leaving the long-term employment of a business — although seemingly terrifying — prevents you from becoming a one-trick pony. Along the way you build confidence and accumulate broader experience, which widens the pool of available jobs.

This is exactly the approach Carol Sawdye, PwC’s US chief financial officer, has taken, though the sense of urgency she feels towards her career is unusual. Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease when she was 25, she was given a 50 per cent chance of surviving to 30. Unusually, she has left the safety of the firm several times, first to become CFO of a law firm and then of the National Basketball Association. She credits her highflying career to her willingness to take career risks that have given her the responsibility and expertise that have made her stand out from the crowd. “Do not rely on passive career planning to get ahead,” she says. “Don’t wait for a wake-up call like I did. If your next opportunity feels a little scary, it’s probably the right one to take.”

Both Ms Sawdye and Ms Simpson have cultivated a courageous attitude. “Raise your hand for projects even if they might be slightly beyond your reach,” says Ms Sawdye.

Risk the disapproval of peers by speaking up when you disagree with business decisions, advises Ms Simpson. “These are the sort of people who get promoted,” she says, since “you are not seeking approval but respect”.

Of course, not all risks pay off. When they do not, “learn to be agile and resilient, to understand what went wrong and avoid that bump the next time”, counsels Ms Sawdye.

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