Think back over the course of your career. Indentify the times you were bold: changing jobs, moving to a new organization, offering to assist with a project, volunteering to serve on a committee or filling in for someone while they were on leave.
What do these and similar events have in common? They all involved an element of risk. And if you look back, I am sure you can directly trace some of the advancement in your career to at least one of these events.
Notice that I did not start by asking you if you are a risk taker. Most people would say “no”. It is better to look at the facts and identify risks you have actually taken than ask about your inclination. The result will be more accurate.
Let’s start by defining risk. What is this powerful but dangerous concept? A risk is any action with an uncertain outcome. Interesting. That’s it? Seems quite simple. Now if a risk is any action with an uncertain outcome, that means you take risks all the time. Exactly. You just probably do not think of it in those terms.
Functioning at any level, let alone as an accomplished business professional, requires taking risks regularly. Just getting through the day does. Think about all the actions you have taken today that had an uncertain outcome. Your commute to the office would be one that applies to everyone who is at work today. You probably don’t think of it as a risk because it is a necessity. But it still is a risk. In terms of the possibility of experiencing injury or harm, your commute to and from work may actually be the riskiest thing you do most days. But because it is necessary in order for you to perform your job, you accept the risk and do it every work day.
Risk falls into three categories: chosen, optional and avoided.
Chosen risks are the ones you have decided are required in order for you to function and as a result you have chosen to take them. Your commute to work is a chosen risk. You have to do it if you want to work in your office.
Optional risks are not required in order for you to function, but you have decided to take them anyway. Going to the theatre in the evening is an example. It involves an element of risk. It is not required of you, but you do it none the less.
Avoided risks are as they sound – a risk you are currently avoiding. An example may be a recreational activity such as sailing or hiking.
Here are two important points. You regularly take chosen and optional risks. Because they are integral to your life, you may not think of them as being risks – yet they are. The second point is that risks regularly move from one category to the next. When you take on a new responsibility in your position, you are moving a risk from the avoided category to the optional category.
Why is this important? Professional performance improvement requires that you to take some risks, even incremental ones. Understanding your true risk inclination is a vital part of this process. It is very likely that you are a much more accomplished risk taker than you give yourself credit for. Congratulations.
In future editions of Executive Secretary, we will continue to discuss the concept of intelligent risk taking as a performance improvement strategy. You will be provided with specific actions you can take to expand your qualifications and professional resume.
One of the themes will be “taking the fear out of the risk-taking process so you can harness it”. We will talk about what intelligent risk-taking is and what it isn’t. In the next column we will discuss how we are conditioned to see risk as negative. I very much hope that you decide to join me for the adventure.

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Books by Jim McCormick include Business Lessons from the Edge (McGraw-Hill), The Power of Risk, (Maxwell), and The First-Time Manager (Amacom). Jim has a degree in engineering and an MBA, he is a former corporate Chief Operating Officer and a World Record ... (Read More)

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