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The Strategic Risk Skillset for Career Center Growth

Starbucks. Netflix. Twenty years ago, who would have thought you would pay $5 for a cup of coffee and access all your favorite TV shows and movies online? If you had recognized how these companies’ innovation would transform our world, you may have taken a risk and invested in their stocks. In fact, if you had invested $1,000 in Netflix just 10 years ago, you would be rewarded handsomely to the tune of over $50,000 today!

Yet very few of us are willing to take the risk and invest $1,000 into the unknown despite the potential reward.

This applies to how we work in career services as well. Too often the field of career services has focused on the downside of taking risks, playing it safe, and ignoring the potential reward and benefit to our students, employers, and our offices. We settled with outdated technology platforms, old staffing structures, and crossed our fingers that students would find us. Recently, however, more and more career centers are stepping out and taking risks to help elevate career services and generate positive impact on our campuses.

The truth is... if we are committed to growth, innovation, and creating positive impact, we will be required to take Strategic Risks. After all, nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

Notice that I said Strategic Risks. We all have seen leaders who take risks that were not thought through and generated more harm than reward. Strategic Risk maximizes the chance of success. So what makes a risk Strategic rather than, well, Risky? Strategic Risks have a number of attributes that maximize their chance of success.

Key Stakeholders Appetite for Risk has been Identified

For a Strategic Risk to be successful, key stakeholders need to be on board. Bringing individuals and teams on board requires determining their appetite for risk. These fall into three categories: risk averse, risk neutral, risk loving. All three have positives and negatives. The danger becomes trying to force people into taking a risk (or not taking one) without understanding their perspective. Ultimately, without buy in from key stakeholders, taking a risk won’t be successful.

Risk Averse: Sometimes seen as Eeyore or Debbie Downer, individuals who are Risk Averse often have legitimate reasons. They may have had a previous negative experience when a big risk was taken. Instead of brushing off concerns, dig into why someone is Risk Averse to a particular change and allow them to generate potential solutions. You can find insights and preemptively address challenges which may have been in your blindspot. You can also engaged with someone who is Risk Averse to help find solutions. Ask them to think of three solutions that would help address and minimize the risk.

Risk Neutral: People who are Risk Neutral can turn out to be your biggest champions...or critics. Often times, one’s appetites for risk depends on how the Strategic Risk is being framed. In behavioral terms, this is known as Choice Architecture. If I say you have a 3 in 10 chance of failure, you probably will look at something negatively. But if I say you have a 7 in 10 chance of success, then you will look at it positively. For example, when proposing a new initiative, do you focus more on the costs related to the program, or the potential positive impact on students and staff time saved? Consider the narrative and framing when presenting a Strategic Risk . A strong narrative and positive architecture will help win over those who are neutral.

Risk Loving: Often early adopters or disruptors, Risk Lovers will often say yes to risk and change before they know all the variables. This can be a great asset as they are champions of innovation. Engage Risk Lovers to help create solutions or pilot a new initiatives. They can help persuade others with their enthusiasm for change, working alongside Risk Averse individuals to create solutions. Sometimes the Risk Lovers need to be brought back to reality, or reminded how a particularly risk fits into a broader strategy. Providing a clear strategy will engage all stakeholders, no matter their appetite for risk.

Time and Resources Have Been Strategically Allocated

We have all been a part of changes in technology, whether a switch to a new job posting software or a new campus email system. There are horror stories related to some of these switches, but these often overshadow the successes. However, most of the horror stories stem from not investing enough time, human capital, and financial resources. Whether you are considering moving to a new job posting system, restructuring your office, or launching a new student initiative, we often under resource endeavours, making them unstrategic. To maximize a Strategic Risk:

  • Plan for a financial cushion. It is much better to come under budget than to stop a project because the money has run out. This may mean adjusting your project timeline so you can spread the cost out over two budget years instead of one. Consider how a Financial Growth Mindset can help in your planning.

  • Determine a reasonable timeline to take a Strategic Risk...and increase it by one third. Humans are notoriously bad a predicting how long it will take to accomplish something. This is also known as Planning Fallacy, or that our estimate of time to complete something is always shorter than reality. Rushing into implementation will increase the likelihood of mistakes or setbacks. Allowing for more time to execute a Strategic Risk will allow time to address problems and increase the chance of success.

  • Allocate the Human Capital needed to be successful. Strategic Risk rarely involves everyone doing more work on top of their existing work. What will you and your team need to stop doing temporary or permanently to free up the time to take a Strategic Risk? This may involve utilizing student employees in a new way, hiring contract or temporary employees, creating new positions, or restructuring your organization.

Strategic Risks are Developed Positive Culture of Risk Taking

How is risk currently talked about in your office? Are risks only taken when a new technology vendor calls with a new product? The most successful Strategic Risks are born out of a broader ecosystem of planning and innovation. As teams and individuals, Strategic Risks should be developed and taken on a regular basis. When you set annual goals, develop new strategic plans, or conduct employee reviews, these are all times to look for opportunities to take Strategic Risks. This will also ensure that you are considering both short term risks, but long term risks that require more time and planning. Consider the $1,000 you could have invested in Netflix. While it grew to over $50,000, it took 10 years to reach that leave. Strategic Risks in career services is no different. The risks with the greatest return will often be long term risks. Whether creating a Career Ecosystem integrated into the university curriculum or changing the career center name, big risks often take years to implement. However, the return and impact of such long term strategic risks are often greater than many short term easy risks.

A culture of Strategic Risk will be fostered if wins are recognized and celebrated, but also if there is space for failure. Not all bets will pay off, but we can still learn from those risks. We need to ensure that our teams and the field of career services is okay with failure. Failure can point us in a new and better direction, and build upon previous efforts to increase our chance of success in the future.

Don’t be afraid to take a risk. In taking Strategic Risks you will generate more growth and innovation. Let’s make 2018 the year of Strategic Risks.

  • What is a individual risk you can take professionally?

  • What is one thing you can do to help create a culture of Strategic Risk this semester?

  • What is one Long Term risk you can begin planning for now?

  • What resources do you need to allocate to maximize the chance of success for your Strategic Risks?

  • How will taking Strategic Risks be celebrated and rewarded in your office?

Nick Cattin is the Consulting and Search Associate for The Career Leadership Collective, helping universities with systemic change efforts through organizational growth and talent search. He has worked for over a decade in higher education, focusing on liberal arts and undergraduate business education. Prior to joining The Collective, Nick was the Director of Career & Professional Development in The Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Oxford, OH.

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