The Risk of Not Taking Risks

My friend, Doug Sundheim’s new book, Taking Smart Risks, is an early winner for 2013 Must Reads.   Before I get to how great the book is, the story of how Doug and I met starts with taking a smart risk!  Doug had read a post of mine about my wonderful client, Menasha Packaging and asked if I would be willing to introduce him to them for a book he was writing.  Of course, I did a bit of due diligence into this Doug guy and said yes.  I’m so glad I did!

Part of the problem with risk today is how it’s defined and ingrained in our society.  Take the definition, “exposing oneself to the possibility of loss or injury.”  The definition talks about what can happen as a direct result of risk – the ‘output’ of risk but definitely not the outcome, which is what Doug eloquently supplies – “exposing oneself to the possibility of loss or injury in the hopes of achieving a gain or reward.”  For many people, though, “the emotional cost of not risking and having to live with that regret [is] much greater …than any career or financials … costs.”

By reframing the definition of risk, Doug shows the power of smart risk taking.  We rarely look at the risk of NOT doing, of NOT innovating, of NOT trying.  In essence, it a different perspective of opportunity costs – the opportunity cost of NOT doing something.  I see this everyday in my work – organizations that see innovation as a risk instead of seeing not innovating as a bigger risk.  Doug makes the costs of playing it safe very clear: we don’t grow, win, create and we lose confidence and bluntly, don’t feel alive and meaningful.  If we can get this to change, imagine the positive power that can be unleashed.

Which gets to another key point in Doug’s book – the paralysis of security.  We create an illusion of security around us today, one that is heavily dependent upon our other illusion of control.  The issue isn’t going from security to insecurity.  We’re already not secure in terms of ‘stuff’ whether we recognize it or not.  We’re already not in control of our circumstances whether we recognize it or not.  However, we can be secure in who we are and what we stand for and in how we control our own reactions to life. A key to smart risk taking is, as Doug says, the ability to “increase our tolerance for uncertain circumstances.” If we are secure in who we are, what we stand for and how we will react, we can welcome uncertainty for the opportunity it really is.   That is why I truly believe that entrepreneurs, for instance, are not more risk-o-philic but fundamentally define risk like Doug does.

The book’s practical wisdom, advice, and tools for how to take smart risks are critical.  This is uncharted territory for many and Doug’s practical guidance will make it easier for us to learn how to and actually take smart risks.   This is particularly important for some of the hardest areas of smart risk taking – our own ego and our ability to communicate.  Through stories about humble leaders and constant communicators, like Mike Waite, Doug demonstrates how critical the ‘soft’ skills are in successfully taking smart risks…and in the payoffs.  These are truly fundamental to taking risk. 

It’s been almost exactly 1 year since Doug and I met for breakfast in NYC and talked about his book and how I could help.  That was the start of our friendship!  I introduced him to the incredible leaders at Menasha Packaging and Thogus, my 21st Century manufacturing client.  The result of Doug’s taking the risk to “ask”?  He got some very real and powerful stories of leaders we can emulate and learn from, I got two of my fabulous clients in his book, and we all now have a field-guide for the New Year and beyond to help us take smart risks.  I look forward to seeing the great things that will happen because of it!

What's Your Company's Family Tree?

Another wonderful guest post by a friend & client, Lisa Lehman at Thogus.  It's not that I'm abandoning my posts here, it's just that so many wonderful things are happening that I want to share.  Thogus's president, Matt Hlavin, is blessed with 2 brains - one in his head and the other in Lisa's.  Her initiative to create a family tree atThogus Family Tree Thogus has had an impact beyond expectation.  Read it and see if you can create your own company's family tree!  And I'm sure Lisa would be willing to give advise. 

Getting to Know your Company “family” by Lisa Lehman

Studies suggest that most of us spend more time with our co-workers than we do with our families.  Not shocking if you have a commute that requires you to leave before the kids are up or maybe you work afternoons to accommodate your spouses work schedule so that a babysitter is not required.  Whatever your situation, working 40 hours a week is more than the waking hours you spend with your own family in a weeks time.

Thogus decided to take a look at every employee and sent out a brief survey (8 questions actually) to really get to know him or her.  The questions included asking about their families (spouses, children, pets), what hobbies or interests they have outside of work, where is their ultimate vacation spot, even something as simple as their favorite food.  The most important question to me as a resource to our Employee Management team was asking our employee to provide an unknown fact about themselves that they were proud of.  Reading those, at times, took our breath away.  How about our shipping clerk who tried out for three (3) major league baseball teams when he was 17 or our in-house fabricator who worked on the International Space Station.  We learned more about our employees in eight Thogus Wear Blue Day(8) questions then we had in years.  It was simply awesome!

Once the survey was returned, the employee’s name was placed on a leaf and put on our “Thogus Family Tree”.  Once the leaves started going up, the excitement was contagious.  We would receive surveys several times a day as each employee was ready to turn in their survey, laugh at what they wrote, and proud to see their leaf on our tree.  We kept each survey in a binder for quick reference when rewarding our team or when we see an article that may be of interest to them.  It’s amazing to see the faces light up when you ask them about something they love.  It is and will remain a defining moment in our culture.  We chose to dig deep and the payoff wasEmployee's Thogus Tattoo! BIG.

Our employees were able to share the things with us that are closest and dearest to their hearts.  We have many that are proud parents and grandparents (one employee has 11 grandchildren).  One was named after a Ninja Turtle and one who spends his weekends volunteering with his dog at nursing homes.  All in all, we have a group of employees that are as unique as their fingerprints.  In an effort to bring us together, we wanted to uncover the common and uncommon traits we all have and use it to gain a stronger and more loyal bond between the employee and the company. 

We made a decision to get to know our employees so that they are treated as an individual; one who just happens to also be an employee of our company.  Now we know that when we host luncheons, we have a vegetarian or when we raffle sports tickets, we have more Pittsburgh Steelers fans than Cleveland Browns.  The idea was simple.  Who are we as individuals and how can we help foster the morale in the Patrick Gannon & Matt in Stratasys "3D" printing machineeight (8) hours we are together every day.  One thing is for sure, we have a lot more to learn about one another and that makes us more than just co-workers, we are a family.

We use the information to better understand how our employees tick – giving us a chance to compliment their individuality.  If they are inclined to art and music, we know that they may be visual learners and great listeners.  If they have jumped out of an airplane to parachute, we know they are adventurous and may be up for any challenge we give out.  We noticed that 50% of our employees had a pet so we decided that our next community outreach would benefit a local pet shelter.  The bottom line is that we want them to know that we are listening.  That we understand who they truly are and respect that they have big, beautiful lives outside of work.

 

Someone = Us!

When you see a need or issue, what do you do? Most of us shake our heads and say, “Someone should take care of that.”  Well, someone = us!

Perhaps one of the reasons someone ≠ us is that the perceived risk of ‘doing’ diminishes our courage.  Perhaps innovators and entrepreneurs aren’t more risk-o-philic, they just define risk differently – not following one’s passion and purpose is a greater risk than financial or reputational security.  Perhaps this is a basis for Rebellious Optimism.

As some of you know, I’m so enthusiastic and hopeful about our future because of the people I’m serendipitously meeting, of all ages, shapes, sizes, creeds, and colors.  Let me highlight 3 companies, separated by 162 years:

NBA Math Hoops: What do you do when you’re 19, in college, and have a burning passion to help underprivileged kids learn math using their passion for sports?  You create a scalable solution! Meet Khalil Fuller.   The NBA has given him a free license agreement, Hasbro’s committed $100,000 to make the game, and Echoing Green named him as a finalist for their prestigious fellowship.   A national pilot with a majority of free/reduced-lunch students shows significant improvement in 51% of the math scores and improvement in attitudes about math – for both boys and girls.  Khalil is preparing for a 2012 Fall launch.

Lesson:  Get out, meet some Gen-Zs and Millennials.  We can all learn from their transformative innovations.

Thogus:  You’ve just spent big bucks getting ISO certification for half your revenue stream, the Big-3 Auto guys; but you’re tired of being their “bank”.  So you fire them!  Now what? 3rd Generation Matt Hlavin decided to create a 61yr old startup. He reinvented the entire business model and the company is growing exponentially.  What was a ‘job shop’ is now a high-tech and biomedical design and engineering company with rapid prototyping/additive manufacturing up to full-scale injection molding capabilities.  Matt is using design to balance the experience of age with the freedom of youth, from their gym to the plant floor to employees themselves.

Lesson: A key to success is the 21st Century is embracing, leveraging and balancing paradox. 

Menasha Packaging: Meet the163-year-old family-owned company who’s leadership team reinvented their business model and re-invigorated their culture 7 years ago, putting their careers on the line.  What drove this level of risk? Stewardship & Optimism. They view themselves as stewards of their customers, their employees and families, their economic and social community impact, and the family legacy.  They have Rebellious Optimism that they can and will succeed.  Menasha’s ongoing success, even in the recession, is testimony for “doing what is right”.  They are well known for bringing some of the most innovative, effective solutions to market.  They are hiring talent and growing.  And, as I post this, we are in the sunny Wisconsin woods, continually innovating the future.

Lesson: Don’t use a company and management’s age as artificial constraints for innovation.

What examples do you have of Rebellious Optimism? Please share and think about telling your story at Rebels At Work!!!