No matter your place in the organizational hierarchy, do you embrace risk as an essential part of your contribution to the company? Or are you comfortable in your position, happy to let someone else bear the burden of risk? It's interesting—people often talk about starting their own business but then don't because they say the risks are too great. When pressed, these individuals may say they're afraid of losing money. In my opinion, I think they're more afraid that their risk may end in failure. As we all know, however, working for someone else doesn't insulate you from failure. In fact, when we sit back and let someone else take the reins, we may think we absolve ourselves of risk, when in fact we're engaging in the riskiest behavior of all: giving up control over our own destiny.
I'll admit, I've indulged in that kind of thinking. At my former company, my colleagues and I would refer to "the chess-board." We often felt we were at the mercy of the machinations of upper management. But I was wrong—far from being some inert pawn, I had full control over the quality of my work and the strength of my relationships throughout the organization. In fact, I had enormous influence on how management viewed me, and could create opportunities for myself—if only I took ownership of that power. For example, let's say that an important position was being created to oversee a new product. The rulers of the chessboard would sit down and ask, Who has been creating the greatest results in our organization? Who not only has the experience but also the drive to make this product a success? Who is connected and knows how to manage relationships with others within the organization? Who is smart and dynamic? Who is a proven leader?
During my last year with that company, my wife gave me a framed picture of a large sailboat heading out to sea. Entitled "Risk," it was one of those popular motivational posters that peppered the halls of corporate America at the time. The caption underneath the picture read: "You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore." Every day I went to work and looked at the poster—it was a constant motivation to me as I contemplated starting my own company. But its meaning was the same for me as for a stakeholder in a large corporation.
There are plenty of opportunities within the corporate culture for taking risks, be they large or small—approaching a problem in a new way, taking that innovative idea and giving it life … making your own destiny by being creative, courageous, and conscientious to the best of your ability and to the greatest extent possible within your environment. The path won't necessarily be easy: there will be ideas that don't work, roadblocks to execution, resistant managers who are themselves threatened by risk taking. But if you persevere, odds are that you will differentiate yourself—and make a difference in the process. Perhaps you will inspire your colleagues to take some risks; maybe one will get up the nerve to propose that idea he has been silently harboring. At my former company, my most memorable achievements resulted from projects in which I took a significant risk. Spread the word, lead by example.
No matter what business you're in, as an employee-stakeholder you have signed on to participate in a collective endeavor of creativity. In a rapidly evolving marketplace, companies must continuously innovate to keep providing value for their customers, both external and internal. You have a vital role in this process: it entails realizing how your own creativity and initiative can make a difference, and doing something about it. Don't discount your importance—stand up and make that difference.