Smart Risks vs. Foolish Risks

Playing it safe with your career may seem smart. But to really get ahead, you may need to take some risks.

“Nothing gives your career a boost like succeeding at a risk,” says Sheila Wellington, author of “Be Your Own Mentor” and a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “It helps you break out of the pack.”

Still, before you take a risk — whether it’s quitting your job or confronting your boss — consider whether it’s smart or foolish.

Make sure you know yourself and your organization well enough to understand what happens if you take a risk and it doesn’t work out. Will failure damage your career, or will coworkers admire your initiative? Will you be devastated, emotionally or financially, if you don’t succeed? Or do you have a high tolerance for failure?

That’s what Wellington and other experts say you should consider when evaluating career risks such as these:

* Taking on a tough project. Succeeding where others have given up is a great way to make a name for yourself.

“It’s a way to get ahead, to take something that’s big and dangerous,” says Norm Meshriy, a career counselor and principal of Career Insights in Walnut Creek, California.

But look at what has happened to others who have tried. Have they had their reputations tarnished? Or have their efforts been rewarded?

* Changing careers. It’s exciting to think about making a fresh start. But especially in today’s economy, make sure you have a Plan B.

“The biggest risk in terms of a job transition is going to a different job in a different industry,” says Michael Beasley, owner of Career-Crossings in Portola Valley, California, and a consultant with Right Management. You’ll have a lot to learn — right at the time when you need to be proving your worth to your new employer.

* Taking a contract job. If you have to choose between a contract job at a company where you really want to work and a permanent position at a less desirable company, taking the contract job is the bigger risk — but could have the bigger payoff.

The key to your decision is “finding out every single thing that you can know” about the company, Beasley says. Assess your chances of being hired on permanently at the end of the contract.

* Taking time off between jobs. This risk can have big personal payoffs. It can also give you time to explore new career options. You can make it less of a career risk by keeping your network current and having a compelling story to tell about what you did with your time.

* Confronting your boss. Disagreeing with your boss in anger, without having thought through what you’re going to say, is a foolish risk. But arranging a meeting with your boss outside of the office and offering a rehearsed, well-crafted explanation of how you feel can be a risk worth taking, Meshriy says.

You may not get the answer you want, but you will get better insight into your situation.

Whenever you are contemplating a risk, remember that doing nothing can also be risky.

“Your performance will suffer if you’re not happy in your job, or an opportunity could slip away,” Beasley said.

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