Erika Andersen, my sister-in-law, is the founding partner of Proteus, a consulting and training firm that focuses on leader readiness. She serves as coach and advisor to the senior executives of such companies as GE, Time Warner Cable, TJX, NBCUniversal and Union Square Hospitality Group. Andersen is the author of Leading So People Will Follow (Jossey-Bass, October 2012), Being Strategic: Plan for Success; Outthink Your Competitors; Stay Ahead of Change (St. Martin’s Press, May 2009), and Growing Great Employees: Turning Ordinary People into Extraordinary Performers (Portfolio, 2006), and the author and host of Being Strategic with Erika Andersen on Public Television. You can keep up with Erika on her blog and at Forbes.
Q: What’s the most significant risk you’ve taken professionally?
Erika: Without a doubt, starting my own business 22 years ago. At the time my kids were 6 and not quite 2, and I was the primary breadwinner in our family. I had what seemed to my friends and colleagues like a very good position, managing the instructional design group for a management training company in upstate New York – job security, a reasonable salary, and interesting work. In fact, one night on the phone when I told a long-distance friend I was planning on leaving my job (and moving half-way across the country) to start a consulting company with a partner, there was a long silence on the other end of the line, and then she burst out, “My god, Erika, are you sure? – What if it doesn’t work?”
The odd thing is, I was completely sure that it would work. Looking back, I don’t know if that was hubris, or far-sightedness, or some combination of the two – but I could see so clearly how my new company, Proteus, would be able to support clients in a unique way, offering a kind of clarifying support that other consulting companies didn’t provide.
Fortunately for me and my family, it turned out to be true, and it’s been a great ride for the past couple of decades (and I hope into the next couple of decades, as well).
The main thing I’ve learned from this whole experience of being an entrepreneur is the importance, if you’re going to take a big risk, of having a clear vision grounded in reality, and then being passionate and courageous in moving toward it. A lot of people simply avoid taking professional risks, because it seems too…well, risky! And some people take big risks, but they do it in a high-risk way: metaphorically jumping off a cliff without a parachute.
I believe there’s a middle path: you need to start with a clear and accurate sense of what you have going for you and against you, and to then create a really clear idea of what success would look like. Then you can mentally build a path to get there (staying as objective as possible about whether you really have what it takes to do what you’re envisioning).
Once you’ve done that, you have to be kind of relentless: to be consistent and resilient in moving toward your dream. Every day you need to make decisions, take responsibility for your mistakes, and keep going. That’s what I mean by passionate and courageous.
And I have to add that this biggest risk has had the biggest payoff – I have absolutely loved having and growing this business; it’s provided challenges and rewards on so many levels. I’ve come to believe that stepping outside of comfortable is one of key paths to having a life you love.