Transition’s Enabler….

As you look forward into the New Year have you been considering transition?  Maybe you’re rebounding from a 2013 job loss but you’re questioning if you want to get back into the same thing.  Maybe you’re someone who has prioritized other’s needs over your own and now find yourself ready to re-prioritize.  Maybe you are realizing that you need to regroup because your long sought after career choice isn’t all that you thought it might be.   Whatever the drivers transition simply represents a point in time when we’re faced with a decision: to change or to transition.   Which path will you choose?

I don’t ever remember a date or time when I decided, ‘hey, I think I’ll transition.’  When I pivoted away from an extreme job I knew that my journey would take me in an entirely new direction.  But transition?  The word escaped me.   In hindsight, however, there was an enabler that allowed me to start almost immediately after leaving my prior role.  I’m grateful for it – although it’s a hard-won trait.

Cinque Terre, Italy

Cinque Terre, Italy

Can you guess it?   Transition’s enabler is risk.

Long time readers will recall that last spring I attended the W50 conference at Harvard Business School.  It was a celebration of sorts for female alums.   Several well-known professors hosted discussions at the event including Rosabeth Moss Kanter, author of the 1977 breakthrough Men and Women of the Corporation.  Although I’d never heard her speak I was curious about her after panning her book, Confidence, Summer Book Review #16.

Moss Kanter’s break out session gave me an interesting view on risk.  “Women seek entrepreneurship as a form of escape,” she remarked at the outset of her talk. Recent grads in the room openly disagreed with her saying that women had every advantage in the workplace and therefore didn’t require an escape mechanism, entrepreneurship or not.

At its core Moss Kanter’s argument questioned the drivers behind a 54% increase in the number of new businesses started by women over the past 15 years.  (data)  Interesting given that 4% of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women, that’s 20 women, despite more than 20 million women holding baccalaureate degrees or higher.  The math alone suggests that Moss Kanter may be on to something.

After listening awhile I jumped in to support Moss Kanter.   “A classmate of mine and I did an informal assessment of our section,” I offered.  For those unfamiliar with HBS, sections are groups of students who take all first year mba classes together.  The students remain in one room, the professors rotate.

I went on to share that gender didn’t seem to matter in the first few years post graduation.  In that timeframe it appeared that if a woman or a man wanted to work they could find interesting and challenging work.

Our informal poll started to notice differences at 10 years post grad.  At that juncture women were getting incremental step function promotions – if they chose to remain in the full-time workplace at all.   The men on the other hand were being given reach assignments like, “Go run Asia” for XX company.

The career paths of the male and female peers began to veer away from each other at that point.   When we looked at the same group ten years hence, at our twentieth reunion, it was clear that the gap was near impossible to close.  Moss Kanter smiled as I told my story.

Why do I tell this story?  I like it for the image it creates – risk and divergent paths.

How could a simple opportunity, ‘go run asia,’ translate into acceleration?  Quite simply – risk.   I’ve come to understand it as a catalyst, an enabler, particularly but not only, in transition.

What is your relationship with risk?

I learned about risk early – mostly from failure.  Failed personal relationships.  Jobs that flamed out.  Rejections for entrance into desired college programs.   Entrepreneurial pursuits that landed short of Jeff Bezos’ Amazon.com returns.   Each in successive patterns let me try on risk in greater and greater proportions.

My father was a scientist and an amateur photographer.   From the latter he gave me a lens into my best understanding of risk, aperture.  Aperture is an adjustable opening on a camera that manages the amount of light passing through the lens.  Risk is like aperture.  It isn’t binary – on or off.  Risky or not.  It can start out small.   As your confidence builds and comfort level with risk expands so too your ability to take on more and more risk.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had about a year into my transition with a leading Bostonian who had been named one of the Top 50 most influential women in Boston by Boston Magazine.  “How did you go from entrepreneur to c-suite executive running HR and administration?” she asked with ad edge to her voice.  I heard the question through her own risk aperture, one defined by a long tenured legal career during which she didn’t pursue interests beyond where she was well-respected and known.

My response was simple. I honestly didn’t see any downside to the career choice because my risk aperture was so high on entering that job.  It sounded fun.  It solved for real problems that I’d been grappling with.  I’d learn….deeply.

As you look forward in 2014 take a moment to think carefully about your relationship with risk.   It may be one of the great fakes of transition, like isolation.   From my perspective small steps with risk can help you peer through its veiled power – and enable you to participate in dreams as big as you can imagine.

Tell me…do you know which will be your first step?

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