“Shellye I have a job opportunity for you in … Japan”.
Talk about risk. Taking risks, calculated risks, became a key approach to building my career. My very first job was risky, a job in sales, on quota with variable compensation, where the base alone wouldn’t allow me to pay my bills and pay back my student loans as fast as I wanted. That’s taking a risk. But the upside, the opportunity, was to make much more than my target compensation. Risk and opportunity are two sides of the same coin. I was fortunate to learn this early in my career.
Turned out I was good at sales and typically beat my quota. I only missed once. I found that taking “risky” jobs not only provided great learning, but were more available, as people tended to shy away from them, and raised your profile when you did them well. Risky jobs also teach you resilience and help build courage. Key attributes for a leader. So the opportunities created by these types of jobs balanced the risk and frankly enabled me to move up the ladder fairly quickly.
I took that IBM job in Japan. It was a terrific opportunity. I uprooted my husband and two kids and moved to Tokyo for a 2-3 year assignment. None of us spoke the language. As an African American family with a stay-at-home dad, we not only stood out to the Japanese but there were very few of us in the ex-pat community in general. Add to that, the fact that I was fairly young for an executive, in my mid 30’s, a woman, and stand 5’ 10” in my bare feet.
There I was in a business culture that valued wise (that means old) men. The average height for men in Japan was about 5’ 7” and the Japanese executive reporting to me was in his late 50’s. There was only one female executive in all of IBM Japan.
So how did it turn out? Fantastic. Turned out I had a unique experience to leverage. As a minority in the US, I understood that when I show up for a new job, most people will underestimate me. They won’t give my past experience the same weight as they do for others. So, I always had to prove myself from the start. Given this, I’d learned that being an inspirational servant leader worked well for me.
I focused on how to make my teams successful, both at the individual and group levels. When they became successful, they then made me successful. In Japan, I knew I was a minority and I knew how to operate effectively in this paradigm. People who haven’t had this experience can struggle initially in such a different environment.
In addition, my overseas experience became a differentiator for me. It also gave me a much better understanding of how to get things done in different countries. So don’t shy from taking risks. Taking risks, calculated risks, help you not only build key skills, but when you execute well, they can actually propel your career. Risk and opportunity, two sides of the same coin.
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