My Biggest Career Risk That Paid Off

When I started at GE there were very clear career paths. You knew if you did ‘this,’ you would then go on to do ‘that,’ and so on. Today, there’s not a linear career path, which unsettles some people and excites others. To me this uncertainty is exciting and offers great opportunities if you can deal with risk and learn to adapt.

Back in 1984 I was attending a conference and ended up sat next to Jack Welch over lunch. He was talking to the table about cross-functional moves and I boldly said, “Jack, it isn’t happening the way you think it’s happening.” I was working as an auditor in the finance department at the time and told the Chairman that I would love to take a job in manufacturing. The next working day I got a call from the vice president of manufacturing, Dick Burke, saying “I understand you are coming to work for me.”

This was a risky move, no doubt about that – putting aside the audacity of telling the chairman that something he thought was happening was not! Everybody in Finance thought I was crazy. The head of the Audit Staff took me into his office – the only time I had been in his office in four years – and tried to convince me not to do it. He talked about the careers that people on the audit staff would have, becoming the CFO of this business or that business. It was interesting, but I wanted a stretch.

I was single and I had one mouth to feed. I said to them, you might be right, but if I am going to make a mistake, then 26 years of age seems like a pretty good time to do it. It is easier to take a big risk when you are younger.

If you are going to develop a career, it is hard to do it and not take some risks – at any age. There are some people who take the more established and comfortable path, and it can work out well. You may not end up in jobs that are as stimulating or as impactful as you want them to be. It may end up being the perfect job for you, but people who say they want to be CEO or fill another big leadership role should be prepared to take some personal risk and get out of their comfort zone.

Determining your own goals and plotting the right path – when others will question your logic – can only be done by you.

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