How to … become a risk taker

by 17 Apr 2007

Why is it important?

The mere mention of the word “risk” can be enough to send many senior executives into a state of panic. But while considerable organisational resources and time are allocated to reducing risk, taking risk is also necessary to drive innovation and develop a stronger competitive edge.

And personal risk-taking is vital if you are to avoid career stagnation. Knowing when and how to take risks and to do so intelligently is one of the most worthwhile skills you can develop.

Where do I start?

Carry out a self-assessment of your perceptions of risk-taking as well as your tolerance for risk. Closely study the conduct of accomplished risk-takers who display the characteristics you’d like to replicate. Consider which of their effective traits or attitudes you already possess and the areas where you are risk-averse and that you need to develop.

If you’re used to playing it safe, the next step is to be prepared to step outside your comfort zone.

“Focus on doing the things that will bring about the best return, instead of just those activities that are unlikely to attract any criticism from anyone,”says David Cumberbatch, a director at business psychology firm Xancam.

“Anticipate your personal reaction to risk, be that fear of failure to fear of ridicule and embarrassment if things don’t work out, then try to establish what is and isn’t a well-founded concern.”

Personal qualities

Effective risk-takers are instinctively courageous, questioning and attuned to feedback. Typically, they are at ease when dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and react favourably to a lack of structure in their work. They also have a good analytical capacity for weighing up the pros and cons associated with any risk.

“To be a risk-taker, you also need to be prepared to draw attention to yourself,” explains Cumberbatch.

“By nature, risky projects are also high-profile projects. High-flyers are essentially risk-takers that fast-track their careers by getting themselves noticed after taking on projects and challenges that other people shied away from.”

Right frame of mind?

When taking a risk, keep in mind the long-term goal you wish to attain and concentrate on the potential returns if the risk turns out well, rather than being deterred by any negative consequences. Avoid becoming too single-minded or authoritarian in your approach and push through a decision because you believe strongly in it or simply to get it out of the way.

“Stay flexible and be prepared to admit when something isn’t working so you can try out something new,” says Cumberbatch.

“At the same time, don’t become a half-hearted risk-taker doing a little then stopping as soon as you get a small result when there is still a much greater reward to be had.”

Springboard for others

Since a major part of HR’s role is to establish policies and procedures that reduce risk and control unknowns as much as possible, the profession tends to be more risk-averse than most.

But the downside of being overly cautious is that you will not attract independent-minded, high-flying types into the company, nor will you succeed in growing your own skills. Play a part in creating a work setting that doesn’t stifle new ideas and allows staff to move forward with confidence when they take smart risks.

Second opinion on becoming a risk-taker

By David Cumberbatch, director, Xancam

Why is it a good thing for HR professionals to be risk-takers?

HR is uniquely positioned to encourage change because of its role in dealing with complex issues, such as culture change and employee engagement.

Instead of just being invited to help manage risk, HR should be driving change and that means taking risks.

Are there certain types of organisations or sectors that have a more relaxed view of risk-taking?

No sector is immune to the need to change and evolve, so no sector can afford to be relaxed about the need to take risks. Even the public sector, typically associated with being cautious, is being encouraged to make radical changes.

Risk-takers are often best suited to work for organisations that have become stale through lack of change and are wary of taking risks, as it is here that their efforts will have the greatest impact.

What is the biggest risk or gamble you've ever taken?

When I sold my house to move 4000 miles from the UK to take up a government job in Barbados, moving from private to public sector. There was no expatriate support or easy way back if it didn't work out.

The risk paid off and it gave me the confidence to take the risk to come back to the UK again when I felt it was the right time.

How can you judge whether it's a "safe" risk to take?

You can never be totally sure. If it's 100 per cent safe, it isn't a risk. Focus on becoming an informed risk-taker by exploring and researching potential options, but not to the extent that you never get round to taking any action. It is far better to test something out and stay open to the impact it's having.

Remember that risk isn't something you do once. It is something to be embraced every day.

Top tips

Focus on the positives that could result instead of the negatives.

Stay open to feedback and embrace the exposure that comes with risk. Keep going until you get a result, then keep going some more.

By Scott Beagrie. Courtesy of Personnel Today magazine. www.personneltoday.com

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