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Not a risk taker? Then chances are you're a woman

Of all the competencies emphasized in leadership programs, risk-taking is by far the hardest to teach. Perhaps that's because many of us need to experience risk ourselves--followed by ceremonially screwing up, prospering or something in between. What's more, women may have a bigger mountain to climb when taking chances compared to their male counterparts.

After all, men are reared to shoot from the hip early on. Sports provide a competitive landscape custom built for risk taking. "Get out there and give it your best shot," and, "You can do it," are oft said charges from sports coaches. With playing the game comes the risk that you'll lose, make a mistake or embarrass yourself; but in the end, these possibilities are okay. Even the least successful kid on the baseball team is encouraged to keep trying.

Girls learn about risk differently. Risky behavior, girls are told, is dangerous. For many young women, perfection is the more popular state for which to strive. Being simultaneously popular, a top student and pretty becomes a recipe for greatness. As you get older, this ideal morphs into Superwoman syndrome--the pressure to be that strange creature with endless energy who manages to be smart, unflappable, beautiful and selfless. And always at the same time.

It comes as no shock, then, that when I talk about risk-taking in my seminars, women often share their reluctance and discomfort. Yet when interviewing 30 top-ranking women for my book, I learned that female business leaders don't shy from taking risks; they engage in activities considered to be "high-risk" on a regular basis. They repeatedly link risk-taking on the job to career advancement, citing the importance of a "resilience" mindset.

Many a paralyzing belief exists that keep us from taking risks. It could be a perfectionist outlook, the need for a guaranteed outcome, maybe even one's perception of readiness. One executive I spoke with--Jeanine Becker, senior counsel at Motorola--commented on this phenomenon, noting, "I often hear women colleagues say, 'I need one more year in my job in order to be ready for that opportunity,' or, 'If that job opportunity came up in two to three years, I would take it.' Women feel a need for a certain level of prior training and experience that men do not necessarily demand in order to jump into a new role." Becker went on to advise that women ask themselves what it would take for them to be comfortable enough to take a risk, whether that means the support of the organization, a mentor or a training class.

Becker's observations are buttressed by data. HP did its own research showing that women applied for open positions only if they thought they met 100 percent of the job requirements listed, while men applied if they felt they met 60 percent of the requirements. What's more, internal research conducted at Lloyds TSB showed that while female employees were 8 percent more likely than males to "meet" or "exceed" performance expectations, women tended not to apply for promotions.

Perhaps it's the fear of a risk back-firing that restrains us. Donna Callejon, chief operating officer at GlobalGiving, shared her own observation of this trend when she noted, "I regularly see a pattern of younger women who are not sure what they want to do and are afraid to take a wrong step. They seem to think if they screw up, they won't be able to bounce back." Could it be that we disqualify ourselves from plum assignments, projecting that the potential damage could be permanent?

If conditioning is partly to blame, then reconditioning is part of the answer. Each of us can find a paradigm that works for us. If you're not comfortable seeing yourself as a risk taker, consider adopting an entrepreneurial mindset. Anyone that's operated independently knows that entrepreneurs don't have the luxury of ideal conditions. If anything, they're continually making quick decisions with partial information, solving problems with limited preparation time, and generally doing a lot with a little.

Adopting a "just do it" mentality can make all the difference when otherwise waiting indefinitely for the perfect setup. As the saying goes, "Fear regret more than failure."

By Selena Rezvani

 |  December 20, 2010; 6:21 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Compensation , Corporate leadership , Leadership development , Women in Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please report offensive comments below.

I am a dude -- no mountain man, but successful career, hetero, enjoy sports -- and I am very much NOT a risk taker. And I know quite a few other guys a lot like me.

So, speaking of taking things with a grain of salt, I would recommend doing so with this article.

Posted by: tomguy1 | December 21, 2010 1:10 PM
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I am a dude -- no mountain man, but successful career, hetero, enjoy sports -- and I am very much NOT a risk taker. And I know quite a few other guys a lot like me.

So, speaking of taking things with a grain of salt, I would recommend doing so with this article.

Posted by: tomguy1 | December 21, 2010 1:10 PM
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This column is comical, given recent economic history.

The gambling addicts, professional risk takers and criminals at the top of Wall Street and the rest of our financial sector just crashed our economy, in part because of their lack of aversion to risk.

If anything, more women who understand the difference between a calculated risk and a foolish risk, need to be employed in these organizations, instead of the current group who have turned thriving markets into socialized soup that taxpayers have bailed out and will continue to bail out and subsidize for the next several generations with interest.

You are asking entirely the wrong question. The question is not why women don't take more risks, but rather, why do our failing institutions, systems, and organizations continue to employ and promote men who take foolish risks which prove costly and destructive.

Take for instance that CEO from HP who had another job waiting for him at Oracle before even his non-compete clause had expired from the last job and 45 million dollar walk out package had been delivered.

Can you see what is being rewarded in our system?

See the problem.

Posted by: aes7 | December 21, 2010 11:56 AM
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OK so I am middle-aged so maybe in a different category than many respondents, but I see a definite kernel of truth here. But I consider it from a somewhat different direction. If a man working for me says he can do something, I take it with a grain of salt because I know that men often are over-confident and may be BS-ing me. But if woman says she can do something, I believe it. Whereas with male supervisors it is the other way around, they tend to believe women a lot less than they do men, which is kind of backwards.

Posted by: catherine3 | December 21, 2010 11:52 AM
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This article is ridiculous. This isn't the 1940's anymore. Most women entering business these days grew up playing just as many competitive sports as their male counterparts.

Posted by: esq19 | December 21, 2010 10:56 AM
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A bunch of superficial generalizations. And the "just do it" advice is about as profound as the "just say no" slogan was.

Posted by: Birdland | December 21, 2010 10:25 AM
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I'm not a big risk taker. But I'll tell you one thing. You call me a lady again and I'll hit you with my purse! ;-)

Posted by: exPostie | December 21, 2010 9:43 AM
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Personally, I don't recognize "risk taking" as a good leadership skill. Much preferable is the skill of sound cost-benefit analysis.

Posted by: nobody12345 | December 21, 2010 9:40 AM
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What a bunch of balogne this article is. I work with women managers all the time. They make the same stupid decisions and take the same foolish risks men take. The writer must have regressed back to 1980 under hypnosis when she wrote this load of hooey.

Posted by: JHG_sec405 | December 21, 2010 9:14 AM
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Average persons problem isn't lack of ability, it's more a lack of knowledge about what they should be doing. Having a baby is more of a risk to anything a man can do. She had to take a risk on him for starters.

Posted by: jobandon | December 21, 2010 8:28 AM
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