Womentorship 2: Learning to Take Risks

A recent article in the Financial Times made an interesting discovery: publicly-traded French companies with a higher proportion of women in upper management performed better in 2008. The women’s fashion company Hermes, for instance, has the second-highest proportion of women in management – 55% – and was the only large French company whose share price rose last year. This is not an isolated occurrence; there have been multiple studies showing that companies with women in the boardroom tend to do better.

This raises an obvious question: how can we get more women into senior management? The answer, once again, is Womentorship.

Women need mentors, someone to help guide them through the unfamiliar corporate landscape as their eyes adjust to the dark. While the vast majority of women in business will tell you they had a mentor, fewer than 30 percent of successful businessmen will say the same. Is this because men don’t want to admit that they had help? Or that it just happens naturally when they go golfing, or out to a big sporting event? Perhaps it’s just not the same for women in business, and we need guidance and support to thrive.

Betty-Ann Heggie

When I first started working at Potash there were no women in more senior positions, so I turned to men who had wives or daughters trying to get ahead in the business world, reasoning that they would be sympathetic to my situation. I was lucky to have had many male mentors who included me in meetings, shared information, and generally allowed me entry into their world.

I remember once in the mid-80s when the fertilizer supply/demand balance was very loose, commodity prices were falling daily, and our company was losing money. My mentor came to me and gave me a pep talk. “There’s going to be a lot of changes around here, but hang in there,” he said. “The company needs people like you, and if you stick with it, it will be worth it.” Indeed, major layoffs were announced within the week, and all of the senior people – including him! – lost their jobs. It was a miserable place to work with all that blood on the floor: employees were paralyzed with fear, afraid to make tough decisions that could risk them their jobs. Meanwhile, the environment brought out the worst in people, as everyone tried to make themselves look better at the expense of their co-workers.

I chose a different tactic, keeping myself busy and making sure no corporate commitments fell through the cracks. My departed co-workers had obviously left considerable work behind, and I did my best to pick up the slack. I found myself putting in long hours, with a limited budget, trying to perform magic in a down market. In the midst of these depressing circumstances, another company offered me a job. It was tempting, but the words of my now-departed mentor rang in my ears. I decided to stick it out.

I’m glad I did. Things started to turn around, and I eventually got the title to go along with my newly-acquired duties. That new title was the first of many promotions, and started me off on a great, rewarding career.

Women can learn a few lessons from my experience. First, mentors provide real value. As we are driving on the road and unable to see what is coming over the hill, their perspective and vision enables them to see beyond the horizon. Second, do what you can to assume more responsibilities, and the titles and the money will inevitably follow. Finally, and most importantly, take a risk and pick up work before you feel qualified to do it. In my experience, women never apply for a job until they feel 100 percent capable of doing it. When I had an opening in my department, we’d get a lot of male applicants – they believed they could learn on the job – but only those women who were eminently qualified would send in their résumés. Men aren’t afraid to learn on the job, and arrive on day one believing that they can take risks and come out on top, even if they stumble a few times along the way.

A study by the Network of Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW) found that 75 percent of those surveyed believe women receive less compensation because of risk-aversion. Rather than applying for potentially higher-paying jobs where we’re paid for performance, we take lower-paying jobs that are more secure. Our fear of taking a risk is holding back our advancement; by not wanting to make a mistake, we do work below us when we should already be looking at the next level.

Taking a risk is the fifth Precarious Step, Self-Reliance. It is about taking a calculated risk – feeling the fear and apprehension, but doing it anyway. If you try something for which you’re not 100% prepared, you’re inevitably going to fall off the wagon at some point. But by limiting self-recrimination and having the confidence to get back up again, we can build self-reliance. As we pass each test along the way, we develop internal fortitude, and learn to assure ourselves that we are capable of great things. We no longer view the experience as a failure, but as a learning experience that transforms us and helps us grow.

It’s just like in business: with risk comes reward. We’ll see more women in senior management when they learn to take risks – and they’ll be prodded to do so if they have mentors to encourage them. Womentorship is good for the individual and good for the collective. So what are we waiting for?