Calculating Risk

Expand your possibilities by forgetting your fear of failure

by Roberta Pek

“What would you attempt to do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” This question—written on a paperweight—has stared back at me from its prominent place on my desk for a dozen years, a gift from one of my favorite managers.

Many years ago, I started my professional life as a home economics teacher. The skillset (planning activities to meet goals, influencing behavior, managing people and public speaking) helped me pivot to a new path in mortgage banking (home economics on steroids).

When a life circumstance occurs and you must take a leap of faith into the unknown, sometimes it helps to frame it as, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” Even if what you’re undertaking doesn’t work out exactly as planned, it’s not a failure—it’s an opportunity to reshape your path.

Moving from public school to private enterprise was my shape-shifting event. A day in the life of a mortgage operations manager included manual processes, compliance requirements, communicating with internal and external parties, and a lot of rework in the underground factory. I knew there had to be a better way.

That better way presented itself when my employer at the time offered a new initiative called Six Sigma. I investigated the opportunity, which meant leaving my position and team to step into uncharted waters. As part of the initial group of “belts in training,” I swam in a sea of swirling statistics, process mapping, hypothesis testing, control charts and pilots.

It was an experiment and I was a lab rat. Could this stuff really work? Could I really apply these tools and become a change agent? It all seemed so daunting. But then I remembered my paperweight.

With a leap of faith and my trusty notes from training, I started down the path of my first Six Sigma project. Other projects followed, each with its own unique challenges and opportunities. I had to sell the idea for a project to management and, more importantly, assemble and facilitate a team to keep the momentum going.

Many times, data had to be collected manually and people were reluctant to try new approaches because they were experts in the old methods. At times, projects went nowhere because the winds of change—caused by market shifts, leadership turnover or competing priorities—blew through the organization. Many outsiders could (and did) say that it was a debacle.

Using the best career advice I ever received, I reframed it as a lesson in persistence, flexibility and overcoming objections. These skills helped lead me outside my comfort zone, especially when coupled with the Six Sigma toolbox and the techniques I learned as a teacher. Many have traveled this same road, some with more potholes and bumps than others. Attitude is everything.

No one knows how or when the next personal or professional opportunity will surface. So instead of listening to the voice in the back of your head saying, “Don’t do it. Don’t try it. Don’t go for it,”—whatever “it” is—twist it around and explore the possibilities. Take a calculated risk.

What would you attempt to do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

Roberta Pek is a financial services leader. She earned a bachelor's degree in education from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. Pek received her certified mortgage banker designation from the Mortgage Bankers Association. She is an ASQ-certified Black Belt and a member of ASQ.

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