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Taking the right career risks: advancing your career means taking chances. Here's how to play your cards so that you come out a winner every time.

THE COMFORT ZONE. YOU remember it. It was that time and place where careers were made by getting the right degree, snaring plum job assignments and then producing results. No, it wasn't easy, but the path to the top made sense. You worked hard, stayed the course and eventually made it. In the end, you got the watch, the party, the works. Your kids would have an easier time, or so you figured.

Fast forward to 1995. With the harsh realities of today's job market, that little vignette may seem more like a trip through the Twilight Zone than any recent time or familiar place. Consider the givens in today's marketplace:

* Companies large and small are continually aiming to achieve best-in-class economics. Translation: They want to do more and make more with less.

* Everyday advances in technology are trampling on jobs that used to require people and technology marches on.

* More firms are buying into the value of contract workers who have fixed terms and can be fired easily. Temping has become the growth industry of the decade and a career unto itself.

In a nutshell: Times have changed, probably for good. If your career strategies haven't changed with the times, start right here, right now. This article will show you how to jettison old patterns and thrive in today's unpredictable, and often unkind, work environment.

"Half research, half roulette." That's what Hal Gieseking says it will take to be successful in 1995 and beyond. Gieseking is president of the Career Advisor, a consulting group in Williamsburg, Va., and co-author of 30 Days to a Good Job. So, if you're not a gambler, rethink your priorities. Getting ahead nowadays depends heavily on your ability to put everything on the line.

In the past, making measured, cautious moves in your career was the surefire prescription for ultimate security and success. But job security is a disappearing phenomenon. Most of the old rules no longer apply. The experts' new mantra: Take a risk. Take a risk. Take a risk.

If the notion of risk-taking in such an unstable environment is too frightening, ask yourself this: "What's scarier, taking charge of my career or living on the unemployment line?" Now, then . . . .

In fact, "not taking any risk is the biggest risk of all," says Gieseking. Carol Kleiman, a nationally syndicated careers columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of The Career Coach (Dearborn Financial Publishing, Chicago, 1994), agrees. "It's risky to apply for new jobs," she says, "to move to new divisions, to go back to school, to seek a promotion, but to sit still and do nothing is beyond risky. It's downright dangerous and totally self-destructive."

The advice is unanimous as experts put their own spin on the same basic truth. "When I think of career risks, I think about the risk of not redesigning your job when you know it's expendable, not getting out and meeting people who can help you, and not improving and broadening your skills," says Marilyn Moats Kennedy, managing partner of Wilmette, Ill.-based Career Strategies. "Despite all the literature on the need to be proactive, people are not getting it. They're not doing enough, if anything, to get ahead."

However, the following people are doing all that they can to succeed in today's fiercely competitive business world. Their stories are different, but each says a lot about the realities of today's job scene and the daily choices we must make. Approaches and philosophies also differ, but each professional profiled below shares something crucial: a commitment to reassessing their current position and status, while asking themselves what they want and what they're willing to sacrifice to get it. Toward that end they have taken some huge--but carefully calculated--risk's.


Rueben Stokes was in an enviable position at Allied Van Lines in Chicago. At 34, he was national sales director for the world's second largest van line. He had been promoted to the post over six more senior managers after only eight months with the company. Stokes had direct access to the president and was just a step away from a vice president's slot. By his own admission, he was "one of the golden boys there."

But when Stokes got a call from a corporate recruiter last March, he listened to what the man had to say. The call was about an opportunity at Ryder Systems, one of the nation's largest full-service transportation companies and an outfit about eight times the size of Allied. Stokes was interested. Although a fast-tracker, Stokes had felt like his career was on hold for the past year. Whenever he inquired about his next step at Allied, he was told: "Don't worry. It's coming. Be patient."

"I'm a black man in his late 30's and I don't have the luxury of being patient," says Stokes, now 37. "I knew I was ready to accept more responsibility."

So, despite his plum spot at Allied, Stokes pursued the opportunity with Miami-based Ryder Systems Inc. "There are people who will never take a risk, who will never realize their full potential because of it," Stokes says, explaining his decision. "Personally, I like to take risks. I'm a salesman. I like to put myself in unfamiliar situations to see how I'll do. There's a certain amount of excitement in seeing what's on the other side."

Still, says Stokes, the importance of risk management cannot be overestimated. Noting the importance of keeping an updated resume, Stokes sent his out through a private secretary. He asked the headhunter to call him only at home in the evening or on the weekend.

Once contacted by Ryder, Stokes took a vacation day for the initial interview process. His final interview was held during a business trip to Florida. Arranging to meet a potential employer must be done "very discreetly, covertly if necessary," stresses Stokes, adding that he never compromised his duties at Allied during the process. "You never want to interfere with your present employer's needs. That must be a priority."

About 30 days after getting that first call, Stokes was offered the position of national sales director for Ryder Move Management, part of Ryder's consumer truck rental division. The job would allow the California native and his family to move from Chicago to a warm climate again. The salary and benefits package was better; the total package would bring him just over the six-figure mark and 15% above his Allied salary. He would be given greater responsibility and challenge, as well as heightened visibility and opportunity for advancement. Still, Stokes wanted to give Allied a chance.

"I don't believe in confronting people by flaunting an offer and saving, 'Match it or I'll leave." In my case, that would not have been tactful enough." Instead, Stokes cold a colleague about his offer and asked that person to "leak" word to the senior V.P. and Allied's president.

"My boss asked me if it was true," Stokes recalls. "He told me I was on a great path, management thought the world of me, but they would not get into a bidding war. Then the president called me in for a meeting where he was very noncommittal." So, Stokes resigned, taking pains to leave on good terms--which included having his new company coordinate his move using Allied.

Although happily settled into his new job, Stokes still scans the want ads occasionally, a practice he adopted after he was fired at age 24 from his first full-time job. "I was fortunate to learn early that I can be iced at Stokes says. any time, However, given his obvious savvy about career management, that's unlikely to happen again.

"Corporations have reinvented themselves," says Stokes. "They've gone from the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it mentality to if-it-ain't-broke-break-it. As a people, we have been content to stay and be overly loyal Lo our employers. A lot of people fall prey to the 'I'm taken for granted but this is a good job' routine. Today, that is detrimental. If you don't take the risk, someone else will. They'll et ahead and you won't."


Debra Matlock is not one of the folks to whom Stokes refers. After five years earning high praise as a contract negotiator for Honeywell Inc.'s Military Avionics Division, Matlock left the company and the state of Minnesota. She left for three reasons: Although her level of responsibility and track record were more impressive than some managers, she was told it would take 15 years to attain the title of contracts manager. Second, she was in a nontraditional legal role and wanted a job that would allow her to blend more of her legal training with her business experience. And finally, she was going through a divorce.

So, in 1987, Matlock moved to Barrington, Ill., to join Recon/Optical Inc., a $60 million manufacturer of targeting equipment for the defense industry whose new CEO was a Honeywell veteran. As contracts manager and assistant counsel, she was doing exactly what she wanted. Since the company was small compared to Honeywell, in her new position she was now able to directly impact the bottom line.

Unfortunately, peace has not been profitable for Recon. Says Matlock: "I was there for three years and I watched the company drop from more than 1,000 people to 300. 1 watched it deplete its revenues because of a lawsuit. I witnessed the overall demise of what had been a very promising niche position." When Recon was put on the block, Matlock decided it was time to go, "not because I sensed personal vulnerability, but because I was wondering what would happen if this little company just went away. By 1990, the real risk for me would have been to sit around and walt."

Matlock immediately contacted a few executive search firms, but she also did the unthinkable. She began answering blind ads, something career experts have historically advised against. One blind ad resulted in an attractive offer from Chicago-based FMC Corporation, a $4 billion Fortune 500 company. In 1991, Matlock joined on as manager for all computer-related contracts worldwide.

No sooner had she begun to feel at home at FMC, than the company began issuing memos about best practices, reengineering and increased efficiency. Three years later, while sitting in a purchasing meeting in Green River, Wyo., Matlock sat through a presentation about the need to reduce the corporate staff by 1,200. Matlock remembers all too well the moment the dreaded word "downsizing" was spoken. "Although I was assured that my job was safe, I was not going to subject myself to this again. I had already learned that you aren't safe in small companies, and now I knew the same was true for big companies," she says.

Matlock wasted no time. The next day she called the service that maintained her resume on diskette. She faxed in her changes and requested that the revised copy be sent to her via Federal Express. "Five days later, I had 10 copies of my new resume," says Matlock. "On March 10th, I answered my first blind ad." She also sent copies to three executive search firms, but was not solely dependent on them. "I have almost always made moves through my own networks," she explains.

In September, Matlock was hired to replace the manager of the commercial department at Motorola Cellular, who was leaving for another opportunity within the company. By the time Matlock started on October 10, the previous manager's opportunity had disappeared ("Talk about a risk," she says), so she had a brief run as assistant manager before taking over. With six lawyers reporting to her, Matlock is responsible "for all contracts for cellular infrastructure systems worldwide," she says, unable to contain her glee. "I like that." With a bonus, she will easily clear $100,000, a longtime financial goal.

"I'm more reflective of the X-Generation that's expected to go through seven to 10 careers in their lifetime," says Matlock, who is 42 and recently remarked. "I'm in my sixth job since law school, and I'm not afraid to keep going. The high-tech industry is very attractive because it has a future--that's not so with the defense industry. But if somebody were to tell me tomorrow that things here were shaky, I'd get that resume out. I don't like to be acted upon, I have to act."


Acting, as Matlock puts it, does not always mean leaving. Case in point: Glenda McNeal. Reflecting on the last year at American Express--a company that has been in a massive reengineering mode since 1992--she is the picture of calm and self-assurance, and with good reason.

At 34, eight years out of the Wharton School, McNeal is vice president of MOD retention and loyalty. What that means in plain English is that the young MBA creates and carries out the marketing campaigns aimed at keeping five million of the company's best customers happy. These MOD's, or "Members of Distinction," are basically the high rollers of the gold-through-platinum set, those cardholders who spend the most and have the best credit profiles.

On paper her career path looks as smooth and worry-free as her pleasant, professional demeanor. McNeal graduated summa cumlaude from Dillard University before Wharton, went on to Salomon Brothers in Chicago, then, in 1989, to American Express. In making that move--precipitated in part by her impending marriage--she switched from a highstakes sales and trading career to marketing. Her salary dropped (by $20,000) as did her gloating rights with old business school chums. The decision made some who had always admired McNeal for her steady, measured perfectionism, question her common sense. Not for long, however. McNeal's October promotion represents a significant turning point on what has been a very fast track.

But as recently as last spring, McNeal wasn't at all certain of her future at Amex. And she wasn't alone. What her resume doesn't detail are the nerve-racking months she spent losing sleep, seeking advice, weighing options, debating with and second-guessing herself, while struggling to decipher where she fit in at a company in the throes of a massive overhaul. Although she had glided through a few bumpy periods at Amex during the last three years, McNeal was unprepared for the fundamental reengineering strategy that began to transform Travel Related Services in early '94. Just as one round of deep cost-cutting was ending, Amex Chairman Harvey Golub and TRS President Kenneth Chenault announced phase two: a redesign of the company's focus, energies, products and marketing strategies. Out on maternity leave, McNeal learned that she would be coming back to an entirely different job. In fact, she had to go through an interview process to determine exactly what her new post would be. Although she landed on her feet, McNeal says the process was extremely unsettling.

"I began to question would there really be a place for me, as the organization got flatter and tighter," recalls McNeal, who admits to also wondering if there were other opportunities she should pursue. After all, headhunters, aware of the situation at Amex, were heavily on the prowl. But instead of looking outside the company, McNeal took a much deeper look inside herself and faced some hard facts.

"I have a lot of equity here," she explains. "If I leave, I have to start over. I did that when I came to American Express and the idea of doing it again was not appealing... Amex is trying to turn the ship around. I had to decide if there would be good opportunities for me within the company. I had to assess whether the risk [of staying] was greater than the reward. At this stage in my career, the risk was worth it, especially because I am happy here."

Sitting in her new office on the 37th floor of one of Manhattan's most elegant towers, the gleaming marble-clad, waterside World Financial Center, it's clear that McNeal's risk paid off. But the future is never certain. No sooner had McNeal been promoted than Chairman Golub announced plans to slice another 6,000 employees from the payroll. However, McNeal has no regrets. That's what smart risk is all about: Doing your homework, searching your soul, calculating your odds and, finally, taking a chance.


In the annals of traditional career planning, there can be no greater--or dumber--risk, than quitting a job without having one to go to. Yet, that's precisely what Hugh Barrington did at the height of the worst recession in recent history.

Barrington, who holds an undergraduate degree in engineering from Howard University and an MBA in marketing from UCLA, knew what he wanted when he went into General Electric's rotational training program in 1991. He wanted to manage an area that would allow him to combine his interests and expertise. But by late 1993, he had become discouraged with the possibilities at GE.

"I talked to several people in the company, including the cultural diversity manager, " recalls Barrington. "I found out that without someone in a key position sponsoring me, what I wanted was either not going to happen at GE or it was going to take at least five years. That was too long."

Unhappy with that prospect and with living in New York, the Detroit native decided to quit and move back home. First, Barrington made sure he had enough money to live on for a year, and he started putting out feelers with friends and the National Association of Black MBA's. But in mid-October 1993, with no job to go to and no imminent offers, Barrington gave two weeks' notice. At his boss' request, he stayed three.

"I would not have been happy if I stayed in that job, and eventually that would have affected my work," reasons Barrington. "I had to put myself on the line. If I'm not going to bet on myself, who is? No risk, no return."

Once home, the 30-year-old engineer stayed busy, doing some consulting work for friends and his father, who owns an electrical business. "I was unemployed, but steadily busy," he notes. He was also having fun. He travelled to Hawaii, to Howard's homecoming in Washington, D.C., and went skiing in Seattle. "My cousin had a few business contacts there, so I took some resumes with me and he passed them around," Barrington says. The week after New Year's, he received a call: US West Direct needed an interim planning manager to fill in for someone who was on leave for a year.

Although he didn't know the territory or product line well, and US West Direct is not known to hire many people off the street, Barrington's self-confidence came through in his interviews. He accepted the offer to oversee the marketing of US West direct phone directories for the Seattle metropolitan area. The position is attractive enough, but Barrington has set his long-term sights on marketing the company's new, more techy products, such as interactive video. Already he seems to be moving in that direction.

At press time, Barrington was considering several options for advancement, all of which would take him to the company's Denver headquarters. Says Barrington: "It's not over by a long shot. You have to prove yourself every day."

Although Barrington says he doesn't regret leaving GE, he advises others contemplating an exit to remember that planning is crucial. "You'd better have all your ducks in a row or you're going to get blown away." He adds, "If someone else was counting on me--a wife or children--I would've had to go about it differently." But, he insists, he still would have left.

"Everybody's comfortable seeing that paycheck week after week," he says "You have to get out of the comfort zone. What individuals must do is no different from what companies need to do. If you're complacent about being the number 10 person in the market, the competition's going to eat you alive. Fortunes are won or lost in times like these."


The world has changed and the rules governing career moves have changed with it. But some things remain the same. Here are 10 risks that were never worth taking, and never will be:

1. Alienating your colleagues and burning bridges. If you're going to quit, quit. But never kick, scream or complain on your way out. It's never worth it.

2. Not doing your homework. Whether deciding to stay, leave or move to a new company or position, be sure to thoroughly read the annual report or any other information about the industry, company or job. Talk to potential colleagues and people who have recently left the company.

3. Falling out of the loop. Make it your business to stay informed about everything from your company's stability to office politics. If you don't pay attention, you may find yourself in the street.

4. Not having a solid, up-to-date resume. The best time to get it together is when you don't need it, now when you are looking for a job.

5. Ignoring internal job postings. Apply for every viable opening. Even if you don't get it, it heightens visibility.

6. Tossing the classified section unread. Everyone should read it at least once a week, experts advise.

7. Shrinking into the background. Grab the spotlight as often as you can. To be invisible is to be expendable.

8. Believing you know all you need to. You can never know enough people, skills or resources.

9. Sidestepping challenges. Don't just accept them, seek them out. Go to your boss and ask for a list of things you could improve on--then follow it.

10. Fudging the truth. This is no market for devious behavior. If you're found out, you'll be bounced out. Your best bet: Be a straight shooter.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:1995 Career Guide; includes a related article
Author:Clarke, Caroline V.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Feb 1, 1995
Previous Article:America's favorite pastime has a new face: Jimmie Lee Solomon heads baseball's minor league.
Next Article:Building a career with a future.

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