Grip the Wheel and Take a Chance at Work

When was the last time you applied for a new job, volunteered for a special assignment, or said "yes" to a new project, a stretch beyond your current work role?

Throughout my career, managers gave me chances to do new things and I took chances, too. Early on, when my mentor encouraged me to gain experience in business operations, I accepted a job in our collections department. This was a risky route for me; my experience was primarily in communications and marketing. The closest I came to operations was my performance as the recorded voice on the "please press 1 to speak to a representative" customer service line, which hardly counts. Some colleagues assumed I had been demoted from my seemingly higher-status job at headquarters. After all, collections did not have a very glamorous reputation. Collectors worked retail hours, had challenging performance goals, and collected payments from consumers who would rather not speak with them. Still, I decided to take a chance turn in the road, believing that the more I knew about our business the stronger my opportunities would be.

On my first day, my team of 15 collections employees took a nice long look at their new manager. They were polite, but I saw it in their faces -- Here comes another one we'll need to train. And train me they did. It was an exhausting orientation. But I gripped the wheel and worked diligently to learn the computer systems, understand the reports and trends, and support my team. I even collected my share of "promises to pay" (and recorded at least one promise broken, since the customer was calling from jail!). My team was phenomenal. We turned in strong results, and I enjoyed battling with my colleagues to vote my team "collections unit of the month" on several occasions. Collections was one of the most fulfilling and important moves of my career. I learned to understand our customer base and business operations, and became a better manager. This role propelled me to expanded leadership roles and even greater career satisfaction.

Sometimes we resist taking career chances. We stay in our lane, keep our eyes on the road, and take comfort that we can perform well. After all, it feels good to be secure in our experience and know-how, and the unknown can be scary.

Today's economy exacerbates this "steady as she goes" approach. Many tend to hunker down, eyes averted, hoping to go unnoticed when the next round of cost cutting is discussed. But do the opposite. Keep learning. Stand out as the "go to" person -- the person who can get things done, is willing to step up and be counted, and counted on. Taking chances doesn't come without risk, certainly, I had a few flat tires along my path. But my mistakes always taught me more than my successes. And ultimately, more experience is better than less, especially in a tight job market.

While it takes courage (sometimes naiveté!) to try new roles and take career chances, it takes an equal amount of courage to provide such opportunities. If you are a leader, when was the last time you actively supported an employee seeking a new job in your organization, or created a new opportunity for an employee? By new, I do not mean "more." Piling on is not game-changing for individuals or your organization. But a fresh, creative assignment that develops an individual and enhances overall team capability helps drive the success of an organization and your success as a manager.

Whether taking or giving career chances, here are a few "rules of the road" to help steer you in the right direction:

As an employee:
Don't be a "serial searcher!" Capabilities rule, so don't pursue roles solely for a promotion or salary increase. Pursue assignments that stretch but also complement your skills and experience.

Be aware of road conditions. If you wish to volunteer for a special project, you will want your manager's support. Your current performance should meet/exceed expectations, and you'll want to be comfortable that your organization's culture supports and rewards individuals willing to take chances.

When the light turns green, go! When asked to take on a special assignment, go for it with enthusiasm! Your manager is telling you they are confident in your capabilities. Agree the project's key goals upfront; defining "what success looks like" is a positive approach.

Re-fuel along the way. Be sure to check in, ask questions and agree next steps. Remember that you don't have to drive solo, everyone wants you to succeed.

As a manager:
Give your people the green light. Don't be the selfish, busy manager who holds on to their employees with a death grip. You want to be a leader, not a manager of tasks. Empower your employees so that they feel a sense of ownership and job fulfillment.

Offer career chances responsibly. Identify and match business needs with individuals who have the desire, potential and related skill sets to succeed. Remember the goal is to provide a new opportunity and move the needle for your business, not simply assign more of the same work.

Be a good co-pilot. Once you give someone a chance at a new and different assignment, coach and encourage them. If an employee struggles at any point, support them by re-framing the project, or adding a new resource. If you believe in the assignment's value, help your employee re-think the route to enable success.

Be waiting at the finish line with a "high five." At the conclusion of a special project, or once an employee settles into a new role, be sure to recognize their achievement!

Good luck to workplace road warriors everywhere!