Closing Thoughts: Embracing Risk

embracing risk, illustration, dickinson magazine, spring 2016, closing thoughts

Illustration by Keith Negley

by Kathy Ryan '84

Some people seem to be born with the burning desire to start their own business. I wasn’t one of them. For me, the decision to become an entrepreneur was the result of a mid-career professional reinvention of sorts. Faced with the sudden elimination of my human resources manager position in June 2008, I seized the opportunity to strike out on my own and launch a coaching and consulting practice. I met my first significant challenge four months later, when our economy  plummeted into a severe recession. As the saying goes, timing is everything.

Looking back on those early days, I see how unlikely my success must have seemed to some. Thankfully, I had several things going for me that helped me weather the storm—an unwavering faith in my ability to do what needed to be done, a network of loyal friends and colleagues who believed in me and a blissful ignorance of the harsh reality of how hard it was going to be to succeed.

Like many new business owners, I naively thought that most of my time would be spent doing what I loved. After all, that’s why I started my own business. But reality didn’t take long to set in. The truth was, I spent very little time doing what I loved, leadership development, and a lot of time tending to the other tasks required to grow my business. It turns out in addition to being a leadership coach, I was also the IT manager, webmaster, head of accounting, marketing and social media expert and the entire sales force. Significant skill gaps in many of these areas inflicted upon me a learning curve that was steep and often painful. But I persevered.

I think many entrepreneurs get caught in the same trap that I did, trying to play roles in their business for which they are not well suited. I see this often in my work with small business leaders who’ve successfully grown their organization from a one-person shop to a company that employs dozens of people. Now they need to worry about things like employee morale, goal setting and performance reviews. Not all entrepreneurs are wired to be leaders of large teams.

I see the same phenomenon play out in the corporate world. Promising individual contributors are rewarded with promotion to a leadership position only to then realize the skills that brought them success in the past aren’t the ones they need to be successful as team leader. Fortunately, in most large companies you find  human resources professionals like me who provide feedback and coaching to help the leader improve. New leaders also have other, more experienced leaders they can look to as role models and mentors.

The dynamics in small businesses are often different. Relationships can be close and family-like, where the line between personal and professional is blurred, if one exists at all. The entrepreneur has no one to look to as a mentor in the business, and honest feedback can be difficult to receive. No one wants to tell the emperor that he’s naked. It’s so unfortunate when a business’ growth outpaces the owner’s ability to lead it. I believe it’s truer in a small business than anywhere else: The business will never grow beyond the skill level of the leader. That’s why small business leaders need to build mentor networks outside of their companies and seek quality coaching and training programs to elevate their leadership skills.

Being an entrepreneur isn’t for everyone. I’ve learned to live with a higher level of risk and frequent lack of security. For me, the sense of pride I feel when I look back at all I’ve accomplished far outweighs any downsides. I’m proud to say I’m an entrepreneur.

Kathy Ryan ’84, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is co-founder of Pinnacle Leadership Institute, which offers innovative training programs for mid- to senior-level high-potential leaders. She’s also the author of the award-winning book You Have to Say the Words: An Integrity-Based Approach for Tackling Tough Conversations and Maximizing Performance.

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Published April 24, 2016