Why women must embrace risk and take the road less travelled

Written by
Michelle Thomas

29 Oct 2018

29 Oct 2018 • by Michelle Thomas

Michelle Thomas, global leader of inclusion & diversity at Mars, reflects on her career and why continual re-invention of your skills is a key quality in the new era of work.

When Doug Sundheim, an executive coach with more than 20 years’ experience, was finishing off the final manuscript of his book ‘Taking Smart Risks’ he made an unsettling discovery. Of the 38 stories in the book, only seven featured women, he writes in Harvard Business Review.

The research points to a difference in the way men and women take risk when under stress – men increase their risk-taking behaviour, while females take less risks. The benefits of a risk-taking mentality can have a profound impact on unlocking opportunities for anyone in business, but especially for women.

Are you risk averse?

When you have a risk-averse mindset, you close yourself off to possibility. Throughout my career I’ve seen lots of female colleagues – and some males – say over the years: ‘I just want someone to believe in me. I want someone to convince me or give me a shot.’ Many of the women that I have spoken to list the reasons not to do something, or wait for a colleague to ask them to do it, before being willing to give it a try.

When women look at failure with a growth mindset, however, they view it differently – they see it as an opportunity to exploit learnings and develop themselves. 

My path to leadership was unconventional. After graduating with a nursing degree and entering the military, I entered corporate America and took on roles in sales and marketing. Eventually, I found my personal passion working with people, which led me to my current role at Mars, Incorporated. When each opportunity presented itself, I evaluated it with a fresh mindset of: what can I learn? What skills can I develop? Is it work that I really want to do and does it fit with my family? 

My eclectic background, I now realise, equipped me with a critical set of skills which I use every day as global leader of inclusion and diversity. My days spent in nursing taught me compassion and empathy, for instance.

It taught me how to connect with people, an essential skill in business. And my days in sales and marketing taught me how to simply, deliver clear messages and, most importantly, how to influence people.

Yet I know first-hand that the ability to take risks and re-invent yourself is not easy. It requires mental and physical resilience, tenacity and perseverance. Perhaps most important of all, it requires self-confidence and belief.  

The need for continual re-invention

Millennials are notorious job hoppers. HR professionals acknowledge the challenges this poses in terms of talent retention and development – after all, investment in employees needs to deliver a return.

Yet, if employees re-invent themselves in the pursuit of new jobs or careers, the talent pool ultimately becomes more enriched in the long term. The benefits of this filters into business through the talent pipeline and creates more cognitively diverse teams.

It is a well-documented fact that more diverse teams lead to better business performance.

Use your support network

For those women, or men, wanting to re-invent themselves in their careers, my best advice is to utilise your own support network for all-important stability and safety in moments of doubt and uncertainty.

For me, my mentors give me the assurance I need to tackle problems effectively in challenging moments. Support networks can take many different shapes and sizes; they can be family and friends, or found inside the workplace. Do not be afraid to use them.

With more of us looking to develop a portfolio of careers in the future, taking a chance and trying something new can sometimes be the best course of action.

The road less travelled won’t be smooth, nor will it be easy, but when you follow your own path – regardless of what others might tell you is right or wrong for you – you put something beautiful into the world that wasn’t there before.