There’s no doubt about it, risk tends to turn the corporate stomach. In fact, risk has a bad rap for frequently causing the organisational equivalent of epic food poisoning incidents; think Qintex, Enron, OneTel, WorldCom, Barings Bank, and the most toxic one of all, Lehman Brothers. Risk might seem like a tasty idea at the time, but it ultimately leads to the kind of indigestion most CEOs have great intolerance for; that is, it can be a career-limiting move. The instinctive response from leaders when presented with a new idea that offers a healthy serving of risk? No thanks.
I was at Lehman 2 decades before poor risk identification, pricing, mitigation, monitoring and management tore it down. I saw the seeds of its eventual destruction, no question. I also saw a culture that had a keen appetite for risk; a thirst for it that could never be quenched.
What if you like risk?
You are constantly yearning for it. You feel famished if you haven’t had your fill of risk recently. After long periods of risk-free fidgeting, you grow weak in the knees, start to lose energy and waste away to mere skin and bones.
That would be a world away from the anathema of risk I often observe in large, established organisations that deliver steady (or even declining) profitability. Rather than look out for risks wrapped up in new market opportunities, they resort to a steady and ‘safe’ diet of capital management, cost cutting, spin-offs and divestments. These are all great dishes for the risk averse, but in the long run they leave shareholders starving for superior returns.
If you were devouring risk for breakfast every day, things would change. Imagine if risk were to become your favourite superfood—the quinoa of your corporate life—the dish that gives you razor-sharp reflexes, fills you with energy, fires your business brain, and nourishes your most valuable strategic and creative muscles. This is exactly what risk mastery looks and feels like. It is the lifeblood of the entrepreneur, too often lost as we succumb to the constraints of organisational life.
Anyone in the business of risk mastery will tell you that engaging with risk is one of the best feelings you can experience; it’s pure adrenalin. If you have stood on the precipice before an abseil, clung to the face of any icy mountain during a high altitude climb, perched on a flimsy platform way above a river tethered to a bungee cord, or walked out to stand on the wheel of a light airplane before jumping into thin air from 3,000 ft. with a parachute strapped to your back, you’ll know that it’s an amazing rush.
Your brain is on red alert. Your pulse is racing. You are charged with energy and excitement. You are out of your comfort zone and in the most productive place you can be.
This is how doing business should feel
It might sound mad, but this is how doing business should feel more often than not. In this high-adrenaline entrepreneurial state, we create value. Breakthroughs are brainstormed; obstacles are overcome; outrageous ambition is borne. Having a ‘bring it on’ attitude to risk, and the guts, skills and determination to manage it, is fundamental to the genesis story of any innovation.
I guarantee it was there when two young guys decided to ‘organise the world’s information’; when three young guys saw an opportunity in air mattresses while lying on the floor of their San Francisco loft; when Collette Dinnigan dreamt up a new line of haute couture; and when Janine Allis first struck upon her Boost Juice concept.
I have enjoyed such moments, but never frequently enough in corporate life. The important thing to remember is that you win some, and you lose some. If you take risks you have the potential to generate returns.
It’s a bit like paying tax. It is totally appropriate to minimise the amount you pay, but it is illegal to avoid paying your fair share. So it is with risk. Minimising the impact and likelihood of the risks you take on is critical, and the more you master the ability to do so, the greater your returns will be. However, looking to avoid risk altogether means cutting off strategic opportunities that you will only realise existed when your risk-proficient competitors capitalise upon them.
My recommendation is that you take a long, hard look at your corporate diet. Get risk-hungry; foster a risk-aware culture, and develop risk management skills and systems. This will enable you to do business as usual and drive business innovation.