Taking Risks

A week or two ago, I picked up Fortune Magazine’s 50 Most Powerful Women.  Virginia Rometty, IBM’s 9th CEO and first woman chief executive, was named the most powerful woman, chosen for her influence on the world of technology and her company’s impact on the financial markets.  IBM is the 9th largest US company by revenue and the 5th largest in market valuation at $235 billion.

Rometty’s 30 year career at Big Blue spans a transformation that has been underway for more than a decade and is still unfolding.  Some years ago, Rometty caught the eye of executives by championing the $3.5 billion acquisition of Price Waterhouse Coopers consulting business. Charming and cajoling 150,000 IBMers to integrate with 30,000 PWC consultants, she turned a risky business venture that could have been disastrous into a huge success.  She managed to forge together a mishmash of cultures, while simultaneously  squaring up the complexities of two disparate compensation and operational structures.

Rometty became known as a leader that takes risks and wins.  Fortune didn’t really go way back into her history to say why.  However, when we went searching, we found a fun little video clip where she speaks quite candidly, almost girlishly, about that day early in her career that many women have. Her boss offered her a big job.  Like women sometimes do, she over-analyzed it; standing there, she reacted, told him she wasn’t ready, needed to go home and thinking about it.  “So I was blah blah blahing to my husband about it,” that night she shares, “he stopped me finally and said, do you think a man would have said that?”  She took the job.  She did it very well.  She learned that even if you don’t feel confident, you have to believe in yourself.

One thing I’ve noticed about leaders (men and women) is that while early in their careers they do take risks, they grow more reticent as they get promoted because there is more to lose. Not Rometty.  She kept going, which is what got her to the top of one of the largest most successful companies.  Of course, it’s never enough for the press. “Ginny Rometty isn’t trying to reinvent Big Blue,” says Fortune, “but she has to live up to ridiculously high expectations…IBM has said it will add $20 Billion in revenue growth in the next three years,” To put that into perspective, that’s a business roughly the size of Nike, according to the magazine, a company that is #136 on the Fortune 500.

There she goes, making another big bet!

What inspires a leader to keep taking risks?  I mean, after they have the big job, when there is so much at stake, when everybody is watching.  I’m talking about what could happen to the company, its position in the marketplace, as well as the CEO, and his or her reputation; their legacy.  It’s all on the line!  After all, when you look around corporate America, you have to look for the risk takers.  Why don’t we take more risks?  I think it’s simple. First, there isn’t a lot of reward, really, for those who do.  Second, the resources of the organization often aren’t marshaled around risky moves.  Third, if you miscalculate, the downsides aren’t so painful. Or so goes that kind of thinking.

Trouble is, very often, working on the margins isn’t treading water, it’s going under.  Plus, meaningful change is exciting and motivating for a team and an organization.  When they understand where they are going and why, they can move mountains.  You may know the story of Daniel Burnham, the architect of the amazing, absolutely incredible feat that was the Chicago World’s Fair.  If you’ve never read  Devil in the White Cityby Erik Larson, put it on your list.  Burnham was responsible for that often mangled quote, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

Burnham believed you had to think big or go home.

There is one more factor, which Burnham’s story highlights.  It isn’t so much that we’re afraid to take risks, as we don’t imagine bigger things.  Of course you have to analyze the risks and rewards of a big play.  But to do that, you have to start witha big idea.  Big ideas inspire us, and our organizations.

I would really encourage you to read the Fortune Magazine profile.  I was inspired.  Made me think about what I’d really like to shoot for.

Tell me about a risk you took that paid off!