The Importance of Taking Risks
Juanita Dawson, a senior manager responsible for cybersecurity compliance, governance, and risk management for Raytheon, might not be the first person you’d expect to champion risk taking. After all, her job is to make sure her company is compliant with rules and regulations.
But this Girl Scout alum feels strongly that in order to be successful, professionals should take risks. In her world, that can mean trying to project how new regulations will change the work they’ll do in the future.
“I think risk taking has a lot to do with having the courage to step outside of what you usually do, to resolve some problem or work on a project that’s outside your norm,” Juanita—who was active from Brownies all the way through high school—explains. She adds that risk taking in a STEM environment can mean anything from trying new tools or programs to using entirely new skill sets.
Here are her top tips for risk taking as a STEM professional—or in any workplace, really.
1. Do the hard things nobody likes to do.
A great example of this: having the courage to course correct when a team is struggling with a project.
“Nobody likes to be the one to make hard decisions, especially unpopular decisions,” observes Juanita. “It’s hard to say that a project isn’t going well or is running over budget and to explain what to do to turn it around.”
2. Be willing to talk to the most difficult people.
“Sometimes there’s information that you need from others in your organization and you would like to collaborate but there is some difficulty,” she says, adding that a lot of people will create work-arounds to avoid the discomfort of working with someone with a challenging communication style.
“That’s usually not optimal because you’re missing an opportunity to get the information you need when you bypass people.”
3. If something goes badly, learn from it.
“A lot of time in the work that we do it’s out of your control if something goes badly, so you can’t take it personally—look back at the lessons you can pull from it.”
This can mean learning from a mistake after the fact or making a change in the middle of a work stream.
Course correcting is a skill Juanita first learned as a Girl Scout. When she was a Brownie, she led her troop in developing its own take on uniforms, with skirts and vests instead of pinafores. Partway through, she noticed the hems were unraveling and added piping. “That project helped define my leadership skills and my ability to make process improvements.”
4. Derive your own courage from the tone at the top.
It’s easy to tell someone to be brave, but Juanita points out that some organizations actually work this into the corporate mantra.
“The tone starts at the top,” she explains. “My leadership has empowered me in certain areas. I in turn empower my team to step out and try new things. I think you can train people to be risk takers by setting that tone—you’ll get people who say ‘let me try it and see what happens.’”
5. Remove barriers so others can join you.
“I think removing barriers that possibly interfere with success is very helpful to a person that may be hesitant to take a risk. If they know I am going to tackle some of the issues for them, that’s empowering.”
For some people fear of risk taking is fear of failure, but for others it’s the concern that you could lose your job if you don’t succeed.
“You’re not going to get fired if you make a mistake,” explains Juanita. “There are policies at the company where you have to go XYZ to get fired—your project going bad isn’t grounds for termination. You may be given guidance if you fail and you may be offered more training or certification.”
6. Understand that risk taking isn’t for everyone.
“Everyone can’t be the same, and it’s not a bad thing to be cautious,” she says, adding that some people just have a lot of difficulty with risk. “I can empower them but if their decision is to wait until they have the answers to proceed, to say that they can’t see five years down the road to how something might impact us, that’s OK too. You can think in the now and still be a good employee.
“But,” she adds, “if you can look down the road you will have faster personal success because you are thinking ahead.”