How this UN negotiating expert took the biggest risk of her career – and succeeded
In 2012, I was a junior professor at Columbia Law School when I received the life-changing call. It was from the United Nations. They were less than two weeks away from a groundbreaking event, the first-ever summit on negotiation skills for women diplomats, entitled Women Negotiating Peace. It was a high-profile event designed to teach women how to negotiate international peace agreements in high-stakes situations. And their older, more qualified keynote speaker had canceled.
They asked me if, on short notice, I could headline this event and organize a comprehensive professional training program for female diplomats around the world.
Had I ever taught diplomats? No. Was I an expert on UN procedures? No.
Did I say yes at work? Absolutely.
I spent the next 10 days feverishly preparing myself – calling people inside for information, studying UN mediation manuals, and testing potential exercises. And then I stood in front of this room and pretended I had been there all my life. The diplomats loved it. They called me back. Today, my students and I are the principal negotiation trainers of the UN diplomatic corps in New York.
Conclusion: I took a calculated risk. I trusted my talents, skills and judgment – and I’m betting on myself to learn the rest.
So you should.
Take risks at work
Too often, women are reluctant to take risks at work. We do not apply for jobs for which we do not meet 100% of the criteria. We trade less frequently in situations where it is not clearly stated that we can. We ask for less money when we get raises or are promoted. And this hesitation makes sense, because too often – more often than men – women can be pushed back when we take a risk.
Guess what? We have to take that risk anyway.
Workplaces must change if we are to achieve full workplace equity for women. But huge opportunities still exist for women who are willing to bet on themselves. And the more women take risks and capitalize on their own leadership potential, the faster we’ll get there.
Ready to make this bet on yourself? Here’s how.
Redefine your relationship to risk
It’s time to rethink the risk. In particular, we must distinguish the real risk from the perception of risk. Often times when we envision a big career change – we’re about to ask for a lot more money, we’re going out on our own – we think we’re taking a risk, when in fact the risk can stay where we are! I counseled an elderly woman who knew she was underpaid but was afraid to negotiate because she believed it would ruin her longtime relationship with her CEO. Guess what? She negotiated – and her CEO was so impressed with the way she handled the situation that months later he told her she was being considered to be his successor. Not only was she making more money, but she was gaining more respect. It turns out that the real risk to his career would have been not to speak!
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Knowledge is power. Get as much information as you can about all of the potential scenarios. And then ask yourself: what am I risking? I work with the UN, where sometimes human lives are at stake. That’s one thing. But if you’re worried about risking failure, or risking someone disliking you, well, I’ll tell you to go every time. You may perceive a risk when in fact you are looking at a huge opportunity.
Be comfortable being uncomfortable
Taking a risk can be uncomfortable at first. But one thing leaders have in common is that they develop a level of comfort – or at least tolerance – in being uncomfortable. Do you feel like you’re asking for too much money? You’ve probably come to the right place. Nervous about being in this high-profile new role? It means you grow taller and bend over.
My biggest trading tip when you take risks and ask for more? Be comfortable with the silence. I call it “the plane landing”. This means you make your request and then … stop talking. Don’t bid against yourself or rush to make them comfortable. Leave some silence in the room. Let their email sit for a few days. Remember: their urgency is not your urgency. Rest in your confidence and power. Silence can be uncomfortable at first but it works!
Here’s the last thing I learned about taking risks: It starts with learning to trust yourself. A few years ago, I felt comfortable with everything I did at work. But then I decided to write a book. I spent almost a year of my life writing a proposal that I wasn’t sure would work; it was a great act of faith. But trusting myself to make it happen turned out to be the best bet of my professional life.
As a negotiation trainer, I hear so many women say, “I can’t move – this position gives me a lot of credibility. No, you give credibility to this position. Always bet on yourself and not on the job. If you are in a workplace that does not match your values, leave. Know that your skills and your network will accompany you wherever you go, whether in another company or starting as an entrepreneur. If you played it safe, trust yourself and go for the promotion or high profile role. Be persistent in your quest for what matters to you.
And if your self-confidence ever falters, connect with a community of women who can uplift you and remind you of your worth. When we know our value, betting on ourselves becomes the easiest and best risk we can take.