Accelerate: How to Take a Calculated Risk

Taking a risk can be scary. But avoiding taking a risk can hold back your career. Here’s how to make the leap successfully.

By Lydia T. Blanco

Being risk averse in the workplace and in business can cost more than people realize or bargain for. That’s especially true for Black women and other women of color. In some cases, being risk averse can cost earnings, advancement in the workplace, or confidence and perception of self.

In Dr. Yasmene Mumby’s case, it was her sense of self, and even her health. After years of showing up as a top performer in the workplace, she experienced extreme burnout and the temporary loss of sight in one of her eyes from work-related stress. Because of that, Mumby—a leadership advisor with over 15 years of experience in K-12 teaching, community organizing, strategic communications, and humanitarian aid—decided that she needed to make a choice. Ultimately, she chose herself and her well-being.

Another factor in her risk calculation was deciding she would no longer work for less than the value she added. After years of advocating for herself and not getting the compensation she desired, Mumby bet on herself and started her own business, The Ringgold. Now she works with purpose-driven organizations as a sustainable leadership advisor to consult and collaborate on their organizational ambitions.

“The Ringgold was formed out of me taking a risk,” says Mumby. “It was birthed out of necessity. I was at a crossroads, a point when life pushes you to create something different for yourself, and see the depths of who you are beyond that moment. I was sick of getting underpaid and hearing through polite work-speak, vague platitudes, and fake reasoning that cover up bias, ‘You do great work for us. We’re so excited you’re on our team,’ and all the accolades and all the verbal recognition, but none of it showing up in my compensation or my title.”

Strategizing to win

Organizations must prioritize diversity initiatives, create environments where diverse perspectives are encouraged, and make resources available so that women of color can pursue their aspirations. Until those goals are met, women in the workplace will continue to often be overlooked when it comes to opportunities for professional development. For women, taking calculated risks is an essential part of career growth. Studies show that individuals who take risks experience greater success than those who don’t. A study published in PLOS One found that risk-takers—even when their risks failed—were more likely than risk-avoiders to be hired and promoted, in large part because the risk-takers were perceived as showing less indecisiveness and greater agency.

“Calculated risks have shown up in my life as an understanding that the work I’m about to do will propel me and grow me in ways I don’t know and might not be prepared for,” Mumby says. “At that time, I intentionally consider, at arm’s length, the supports, resources, and capacities I can access while embarking on this journey toward the unknown. That means I cannot stay within myself, afraid to move.”

Robust support systems, such as career coaches, therapists, and mentors, can help women take risks more confidently. McKinsey & Company noted in a 2018 report that, with the proper support, women find more space to take risks. Mumby, who partnered with a therapist during her decision-making process and journey, advises women to work with career coaches if they have the resources. Coaches can provide valuable guidance on navigating difficult situations and communicating effectively.

Dethra Giles, founder and CEO of ExecuPrep, says, “Good coaches have all the right answers, but great coaches ask all the right questions. A skilled coach can be an asset when it comes to evaluating risk. A good coach will help you understand the potential costs and benefits of taking a risk, including factors like worth versus value, impact on your overall strategy, and potential impact on your reputation.” When working with clients, Giles uses what she calls a 5D framework to assess risks:

  1. Describe: Be clear about what you want as an experience and outcome. This clarity is critical when using your tribe to help you reach your goal.
  2. Define: Create your definition of success and unsubscribe to everyone else’s.
  3. Develop: Develop a plan to act. This plan should account for obstacles.
  4. Deploy: Actually take the risk.
  5. Do over: Keep taking risks and following the 5Ds.

Risk and wellness

As resilient as people can be, there is often a negative physiological response both when enduring work-related stress in psychologically unsafe places and when deciding to take a leap of faith.

Therapists can offer support to manage the stress associated with taking risks, while mentors can provide a safe space for women to discuss their goals and ambitions without fear of judgment. Dr. Tammy Lewis Wilborn, author of Playing a New Game: A Black Woman’s Guide to Being Well and Thriving in the Workplace, says women have to remember that “doing well and being well are not mutually exclusive. They can and should co-occur.” She says, “You must prioritize your mental and physical health. The most important way to take care of both are daily self-care activities such as getting adequate sleep, staying hydrated, eating nutritional food, and engaging in movement throughout the day. These seem basic and commonsensical, and they are foundational, but are usually the first things we neglect when stressed or overwhelmed.”

Mumby says that when she reflects on the timeline of her declining health, she remembers her body speaking to her. “I recognize the signs that led to me being beyond burned out, and my body responding in a way that signaled, ‘You can’t continue living and working at this pace, because it’s not sustainable.’”

Lewis Wilborn also emphasizes attunement to the body. “Your body, by its very design, is made to help you survive,” she says. “Pay attention to your feelings and physical sensations and ask yourself, ‘What is my body telling me it needs?’ Your body is your most trusted advisor. If you will listen to anybody, listen to your body.”

After enduring a year of eyesight complications before regaining her vision, Mumby is now living out the lessons she learned from exhausting herself. She says she realized that “my work has to be sustainable for my well-being, and that’s threaded throughout the way I work, who I work with, and when I work.”

Mumby has built her business in a way that creates sustainability for her team. “We are full, beautiful, thriving beings, and we shouldn’t be in spaces, namely at work,where people spend most of their time on this planet, that limit us.”

To women calculating risk, Giles says, “You can avoid failure and go no further than you currently are, or you can take the risk and have wild success. Calculated risks are not about never failing. They are about doing the math to reduce the likelihood of failure. This means, ultimately, the math will work in your favor. Do the calculation, and then take the risk.” Bet on yourself. DW

Lydia T. Blanco, a business journalist covering the intersections of equity and culture, is passionate about building community through storytelling.



Is Risk-Taking Different for Women of Color?

Women, particularly Black women and other women of color, often lack the resources to take risks in the workplace. They may need access to mentors or executive coaches to support them through tough decisions or guide them in navigating tricky business scenarios. When asked whether Black women and other women of color have support when taking risks, ExecuPrep’s Dethra Giles says, “No, they do not, and as a result, Black women are less confident and less likely to take risks. When I refer to support, I categorize it into various forms. Some may argue that Black women have plenty of support, given the numerous programs recently made available to them. However, support is not solely dependent on systems and people. It is also about evidence. Black women frequently lack the evidence required to support taking a risk. For example, how many Black women hold senior positions?”

A lack of representation can leave women hesitant to make bold moves that could benefit their careers, leading to stagnation and loss of confidence in their professional abilities.

KPMG’s study Risk, Resilience, Reward: Mastering the Three R’s, which surveyed 2,000 women from diverse backgrounds who work in a corporate setting, found that “only one-quarter of responding women report that earning a more senior title or promotion has been a strong driver for risk-taking. Fewer than one in five cite gaining greater visibility, although this is slightly higher among extremely confident women. Beyond money, other factors that have encouraged women in the survey to take more risks include having had past success, a leader who encouraged them to go for it, working in a supportive culture, and having more training opportunities.”

Research has shown that BIPOC executives often feel like outsiders who must constantly prove themselves to gain respect and recognition from their peers.

“There is a prevailing expectation for women, especially women of color, to play it safe,” says mental health and wellness expert Dr. Tammy Lewis Wilborn. “We aren’t socialized to take risks. Take career choice, for example. Careers like entrepreneurship or the creative arts that fall outside traditional roles don’t often get support from family or friends because they are viewed as risky. This is why access to mentors is so important. It’s important to know that risk-taking doesn’t have to be big or a one-time thing.” —LTB

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