When Taking a Big Career Risk Pays Off

By: | November 27, 2018 • 4 min read
Martha Finney is HRE’s Advice from the Top columnist. She is a lifelong HR career trends watcher and best-selling author or co-author of 26 books on HR career management, leadership and employee engagement. Her passion for the HR profession has given her unique access to CHROs, current and past, who trust her with their most powerful insights into what it takes to build a world-class HR career destined for the C-suite. She can be contacted via LinkedIn or at http://marthafinney.global/lets-get-started.

Any world-class corporate career is nothing without the willingness to take a risk now and then—ideally a calculated risk. That way you can at least justify the thought process that went into the risky decision even if it turns out to be a failure later.

As with most elements of the corporate HR career, risk is often experienced differently on the people side of the business. Some risks aren’t justifiable in the post-mortem analysis, because they’re often not quantifiable. Some risks involve the lives of real human beings and the welfare of their families. Other risks require HR leaders to look deep inside their own hearts and choose to do the brave thing, even though the projected numbers advise them to go the opposite way. In all the years I’ve written to and for the corporate world, it is only the HR profession that has repeatedly told me, “If you want to be successful in this career path, you have to be prepared to lose your job every single day.”

Here are three stories where HR professionals put their careers on the line. You most likely will never be faced with these scenarios in the exact same way, but hopefully their examples will give you the heart you need to say to the doubters, “This is how it’s going to get done.”

“I allowed myself to truly feel my frustration and unhappiness.”

– Catherine Carr, former project manager for Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders)

I was living a life that was nothing to complain about. I owned my own home in a city that I chose, I was in a relationship that was leading toward marriage, I had three dogs I loved and I was the CHRO of a highly respected local nonprofit run by a founder I deeply respected. Then things started gradually changing. The personal relationship ended and the founder retired, to be replaced by three new leaders, one of whom clashed with me. Still, I had so much more than most people do in this world. How ungrateful would it be for me to feel dissatisfied? So, I tried hard to push that feeling away.


My mother posed the question to me that cut through my denial: “Is there anyone in your life you truly admire right now?” The answer was unmistakably “No.” Then a therapist posed the next question to me: “Why not check out Doctors Without Borders?”

I had been doing some international traveling at that point, but only as a tourist. Trips to China, Peru, Spain and Mexico planted the seed in my mind that it would be nice to build international work into my career. From where I sat in my small American city, though, I couldn’t connect the dots. But after my counselor suggested that I apply to Doctors Without Borders, I spent one idle Saturday morning filling out an online application—just to see what that experience would be like. Then I closed the laptop and resolved to put it out of my mind and returned my focus to my work in this small local nonprofit.

Eight months later—and a round of unexpected interviews that required travel that I had to pay for myself—I was walking the streets of Paris in between intense training sessions to equip me for a life that I never allowed myself to dream could be mine. In the nine years I was associated with Doctors Without Borders, I’ve been assigned to Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Nigeria, Iraq/Kurdistan, Haiti and the Philippines, as well as one location I cannot name for security reasons. My projects were nothing like the challenges I was addressing in my small American city life: malaria, hurricane devastation and civil wars where I could hear gunfire from my office desk.

When I walked away from my old life (my dogs found homes with close family and friends, the only part of the transformation process that made me cry), my friends were incredulous: “What are you doing?” It was the Big Unknown I was stepping into. So I could only answer: “I don’t know. All I know is that I can’t do this anymore.”

What was the payoff? The payoff is freedom. I have done things and gone places I never in my life imagined I had the capacity to do, let alone see and experience. I have freedom in my heart. Freedom in my mind, knowing that extraordinary things really are possible. I still have doubts, don’t get me wrong. And I still unnecessarily limit myself when I think I can’t do something.

But the things that I don’t think I can do today are so much better and more interesting than the things I didn’t think I could do 10 years ago.

We all have the power to do this. You don’t have to win the lottery or have wealthy family to pave your way to the life that exceeds your imagination.

Someone asked me just today, “What do you do?”

“Anything I want,” I replied.

“I once shut down a production line for safety reasons without clearing it first with the general manager.”

– Charlie Piscitello, retired CHRO at Petco

I was once an HR generalist with responsibility for safety and environmental health for a medical-equipment-manufacturing facility. One day, I received an anonymous note telling me that the procedure for cleaning and sterilizing the product was not being followed. Immediately, I sent my security engineer to observe the process. While not an expert in biohazards, he noted that the process was not being followed consistently. I then watched the process myself and agreed.

The biohazard risk to both employees and customers was significant, so I shut down the process instantly. Not long afterward, I heard from the general manager, who was wildly displeased with my decision. “That’s not your call or responsibility,” he said. “No one should ever make that call but me.” And he threw some expletives in as well.

Still, I knew it had been the right decision to make. Someone might argue that I didn’t have all the information that would have been useful to make a perfect, informed decision. But these devices required an exacting process, and all you needed was one poor result to pose a risk. The minute I made that decision to shut down the line, I thought, “My career could be at risk here.” I drew confidence in my decision from the fact that I was willing to risk being wrong in shutting down the line. I felt personally responsible for the safety of our employees and customers. My colleagues felt that way too, as everyone who is in leadership should.

After retraining, we restarted the line. Later, employees thanked me because they were concerned as well. There were goal conflicts where the line supervisors were pushing for productivity, and training shortcuts were taken to meet a higher output standard. Goal conflicts exist in businesses every day, but being principled about quality, efficacy and the commitment to customers and employees help organizations stay the right course when those conflicts arise. While my job title was HR generalist, my responsibility was to stay true to these principles.