Recently, the Canadian Women in Mining described me as a risk taker when I was named their 2015 Trailblazer, a title which was both an honour and surprise. Me, a risk taker? Here’s the thing: I declined the opportunity to bungee jump in New Zealand, I always take a huge medicine bag to Mexico (just in case I get sick), and I prefer dividend paying investments. Not only that, but I worked at the same company for 26 years — never abandoning ship, even at the bottom of the commodity cycle.
Upon consideration, I decided it might depend on what you consider risk. For much of my corporate career I was the lonely woman in management without a power base. Making any suggestions for change was a risk, and I certainly never accepted the comfortable status quo. My drive to institute leading-edge programs was unrelenting, and these programs came with risk, as our legal counsel constantly reminded me.
For example, I convinced our executive team to establish a sustainability program long before it was fashionable. Many resisted, seeing it as an unnecessary expense, and others were uncomfortable with the extra transparency. The disclosure made our sales and operations guys feel vulnerable, but it improved our reputation with our stakeholders. Our higher trading multiple proved the risk to be well worth taking.
Others also questioned my decision to expend personal capital in order to encourage the inclusion of women. I didn’t consider the risk when I got on my big white horse and demanded that women attend sales meetings. It was easy to dismiss antiquated arguments that they would hear foul language. Similarly, I shone a light on our need to get more women in management and on our board of directors.
My passion and conviction helped me plough ahead, never allowing myself to be derailed. In his nomination letter for the Trailblazer award, my company CEO said that when he returned from business trips he would often wonder whether his senior executives had done enough in his absence. In my case, he would worry that I had done too much! Not getting ahead of the boss is safer, and though my riskier strategy was productive, it didn’t leave much room for error.
I don’t think that these attributes make me special; in fact, I believe they are typical of women. We take risks by fearlessly confronting opposition when it comes to taking care of our employees, following the ethical path, or ensuring that the company follows through on its commitments to stakeholders. We are very ‘other oriented’. Furthermore, we don’t perceive this as risky. We simply assume that we are just doing the right thing.
The traditional view of risk is taking the big financial bet, and in my experience this is where men excel. Women, however, always look at the people and the effect of the big bet on the company’s relationships. It can be a dynamite combination when these diverse perspectives are considered together, so organizations are well-served to have both men and women at the decision-making table. The contrast provides a compliment, improving the outcome.
When reviewing the letters written by my male colleagues included in the nomination package, I was struck by a couple of common threads. First, they praised my authenticity. I took the risk to be myself and it paid off. There is a lesson in this for all women. Second, the programs where my colleagues initially pushed back the hardest were exactly the decisions for which they praised me in later on.
Women are different. We see the world through an altered lens and therein lies our value. Putting forward diverse points of view feels risky. We don’t get the praise we crave and, even worse, we get criticized. However, when our projects are successful and our stakeholders happy, all is forgiven (we may even be lucky enough to win an award).
Even though not every risk delivers the results we desire, one thing is certain: the biggest risk for a woman is to hold back and try to be one of the crowd. If we hide what makes us special and unique, our companies will suffer and so will our careers. It is a lost opportunity.
If you are a woman working in a male-dominated environment, take pride in the fact that you are already a risk-taker. Then bring forth your special gifts and talents, because the more you do it, the easier it will be, and the more success you are sure to have. These are all risks worth taking. You will benefit, but more importantly, so will all those you care for — and that’s the biggest motivation of all.