When Taking a Big Career Risk Pays Off

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.

In my career, I’ve been recognized for standing up for what I believed was right even without perfect, complete data. Making a difference requires taking responsibility, even though you also have to recognize that you can’t totally control your career. There will be times when you have to do the right thing, fully aware that you may have to suffer the consequences. There will always be others who get a vote in your success.

“I took a job that looked like a demotion to my peers.”

— Elease Wright, retired senior vice president of HR at Aetna

I was once the head of HR for Aetna’s financial division and reported directly to the CFO. Then a colleague asked me to consider a two-year assignment to re-engineer the HR operating model for the entire company, as well as the systems and technology that would be used to support the HR organization companywide. There would be no staff budgeted for me, and I would be reporting to someone who reported to the head of HR (so that’s a level below my current level on the org chart). There had already been two people in the role, neither of whom had done very well. Now she wanted me in the position.

But I was already in a position that had developed a positive reputation. I had a sizeable staff and I was reporting directly to the CFO, who told me this new opportunity was a terrible idea. Naturally, I said no. Four times. But she was persistent, which is what made her so good at her job overall. She pointed out to me that this experience would position me later for a larger corporate role because it would more broadly touch areas across the company. And my influence would be significant: I would be redefining how HR people interact with the business throughout the organization.

I ended up accepting the assignment. And that’s when I started getting sympathy cards from people. They thought I was being demoted. I moved from a downtown office that had windows on three sides to a desk that was surrounded by temporary walls that didn’t even reach to the ceiling. The department leaders I had to work with thought the whole thing was a big waste of time. And, oh, by the way, they had their own people working on the project, so they didn’t need my help, thank you very much. My message to them was, “We’re all in this together, so let’s figure out how we’re going to do this.” They came to their own realization that the old model of working in silos was preventing them from the benefits of working together.

The project was completed in a year’s time, instead of the previous estimate of two years. And my future was uncertain. My old finance role was already filled so I couldn’t go back there. My husband and I spent hours talking about what would come next. What’s the worst that could happen? Aetna had one of the most generous severance packages in the U.S at the time, so walking away wasn’t the worst scenario in the world. But I didn’t want that option.

To my great relief, the head of HR came to me and asked, “What would you like to do next?” I became the HR officer for all the corporate areas: law, technology, HR and finance. Finance ended up coming back under me after all.

Every successful career story has those moments in time when hard choices have to be made. In retrospect, those moments of truth–assuming they work out–have a “meant to be” conclusion in the retelling. But it never feels quite that way going into the experience, with no guaranteed positive outcome. Still, it’s those white-knuckle “Should I? Shouldn’t I?” moments that make a fascinating HR career over time, with great lessons to learn and teach with each risk taken. And, as they say, “the one with the best stories wins.”

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Martha Finney
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.