Risk and Reward Globe Illustration
Illustration by Kyle T. Webster

Risk and Reward

Faced with career twists and turns, these alumnae learned to take smart, calculated risks that set them apart from their peers.

After a career progression that took her around the globe, Julie A. McLaughlin, ’13 (XP-82), took a leap of faith when she returned stateside to start a job search that ultimately led her to cofounding Vertex Energía, Julie McLaughlin Julie A. McLaughlin based in Weymouth, Massachusetts. At the 2015 Booth Women Connect Conference, McLaughlin spoke on a panel about encouraging women to take career risks, along with Alyssa Pei, ’02, who had just made her own international move to Toronto as a partner at consulting firm A. T. Kearney, based in Chicago. Here, McLaughlin and Pei continue their conversation and share what they have learned about risk from their own journeys.

McLaughlin: A big risk I took was deciding to leave E.ON in 2013 when I finished my executive MBA. My role was centralized back to headquarters in Düsseldorf, Germany, and changed from what I’m the most passionate about, which is negotiating renewable deals on the ground. I had a very difficult time finding an opportunity in the United States. Nobody would take me seriously as a candidate from Europe, so I moved back without a job and then started searching.

Pei: Did people take you more seriously once you had a US address?

Risk and Reward Alyssa Pei Alyssa Pei McLaughlin: They did. People asked me how I knew I could do deals in New Jersey, for example, which seemed comical in comparison to many of the difficult countries I had operated in. Well, it stands to reason that if I can figure out how to do it in Indonesia, I can figure it out in New Jersey. However, being able to network locally and easily interview in person made the difference.

Pei: I think it’s an interesting reflection of what they saw to be risk, though.

McLaughlin: Sure. Oddly, I was willing to pay to move myself back to the United States. Maybe they didn’t believe that that was really the case, or maybe they saw me as a higher risk than a local hire.

Pei: I would say I took a risk when, as a consultant at a fairly senior level, I agreed to take on a very large, global project in an industry that was still new to me. It was either going to be a signal that I was able to run complex projects at a leadership level, or it was going to be a big blot that said, “She’s not particularly adaptable.” [Laughs.] I honestly didn’t know which way it was going to go.

McLaughlin: When did you realize it was going to be the former rather than the latter?

Pei: Not until I was in it. My mentor told me, “You can’t think about it purely from a content and expertise standpoint. What else is it that you bring to the table that’s going to be valuable?” That was a really helpful reframing. Knowing other people had confidence in my ability to execute was also a tremendous motivator. It pushed me to consider, “Why am I thinking I can’t do this?” They encouraged me in stepping outside my comfort zone and said, “You have to do this because it’s how you grow.”

I would tell other professionals that if they have the opportunity to grow significantly early in their careers, they should take it.

Julie A. McLaughlin

McLaughlin: At Booth, I attended a lecture taught by [clinical professor of entrepreneurship] Craig Wortmann and he had a really good piece of advice: keep a diary of “win moments”—when you get congratulations from someone else or you close something important. It brings you back to your strengths, and you can revisit those times when you have moments of apprehension.

Pei: Another good frame that I sometimes use is to say, “Why wouldn’t you?” or “Would you regret it if you didn’t?” One of the plusses and minuses of consulting is that it’s never the same day twice in a row. In many ways, you have to own a level of comfort with ambiguity. It’s tremendously helpful to be willing to say, “I don’t know exactly how this is going to turn out, but I’m still going to go forward.”

McLaughlin: That’s a good point. Even if you’re not a risk taker by nature, that doesn’t mean that you can’t develop the skill set. For example, I have a lot of friends who get very nervous networking. So it could be setting yourself a goal to speak to three new people at a networking event. Once you get comfortable with that process, you realize the worst thing that can happen usually is not that bad.

Another good frame that I sometimes use is to say, ‘Why wouldn’t you?’ or ‘Would you regret it if you didn’t?

Alyssa Pei

Pei: I agree. I think learning to take risks is a muscle that can be exercised. It’s a progression to expand your comfort zone: from speaking up more in group settings, to wanting to be the one to drive a conversation, to standing up in front of an audience. Feeling like you are supported and recognized is obviously a key part to continuing on the journey. Once in a while, things don’t work out, but most of the time it’s worth it. Even as I go about how I do my work today, it’s part of how I think about what I can be doing better.

McLaughlin: Having taken a lot of career risks myself, and having started from scratch in a lot of countries, I would agree with you. I would tell other professionals that if they have the opportunity to grow significantly early in their careers, they should take it. It serves two purposes: First, it puts you in a position to take on more responsibility and open more doors later on. Second, it gives you an opportunity to learn what you really love to do. If you don’t push your limits when you’re young, you could get into your mid-30s without knowing what type of work you really love and are therefore good at.

Pei: I think that’s very true. There’s nothing quite as demotivating as encountering folks who are doing what they’re doing not because they love it but because it’s what they know how to do. If you really want to excel and engage fully in what you do, you have to actually enjoy it.

McLaughlin: And we do spend the majority of our waking hours in the workplace.

Pei: That is definitely true. If you have an opportunity to take on something that will allow you to grow faster but also differentiate yourself, that’s extremely powerful early in your career. It allows you to be known for more than the typical progression, and gives a bit of distinction to who you are and the stories you can tell.

—Edited by LeeAnn Shelton

Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone

  • Keep a diary of “win moments.”
  • Ask, “What else can I bring to the table that’s valuable?”
  • Set concrete, achievable goals to build skills like networking or public speaking.
  • Reframe the risk. Instead, ask, “Why wouldn’t I?”
  • Consider opportunities that offer a chance to grow faster, and differentiate yourself from peers.