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Risking To Win - How To Improve Performance By Taking Risks
By Jim McCormick   Printer Friendly Version

Salespeople and managers who consistently perform at a higher level have certain things in common. They are committed to their success, have a passion for their profession, have clear goals and are uniformly more comfortable taking risks than most. Their ability to take intelligent risks is an important ingredient in their success and a huge determinant in anybody's level of achievement.

Sub-optimal performers settle into their comfort zone, fall into endlessly recurring patterns and stop challenging themselves in significant ways. By contrast, top performers are talented and persistent risk-takers. They are better at taking risks like cold calling, going for the close, taking on new products and trying new ideas in recruiting and growing their field offices. It's possible to improve a person's risk-taking ability and hence their performance.

I'm fairly knowledgeable about risk-taking. As a Professional Exhibition Skydiver, I've taken some extraordinary risks and prevailed. I'm among the few who has successfully made the most challenging stadium jump in the United States into wind-buffeted Candlestick Park. By being willing to take some significant risks, I have been able to earn a skydiving World Record and be among the few to ever stand at the North Pole.

But skydiving is not the only setting where I've found risk-taking to be valuable. It has also been vitally important in my business career. I had to take risks successfully when I was the Chief Operating Officer of an international design firm and when I was responsible for a portfolio of more than $140 million worth of commercial real estate. If I had not been willing to take some significant risks, I would still be someone else's employee instead of working for myself and pursuing the career of my dreams.

The Lure of the Comfort Zone

The comfort zone is seductive. We all desire comfort. It's human nature. However, too much comfort does not serve us well. An inability to step out of your comfort zone will profoundly limit your performance.


Adaptability is vital and becoming more so. Change is pervasive and accelerating. Single-employer careers are history and single-profession careers barely remain and will soon be gone. If you are going to thrive in a world of rapid and accelerating change, you must be adept at adapting. Adapting might be as subtle as changing your mindset or something as big as going back to college or attending online MBA programs. The more comfortable you are with taking risks and dealing with the resulting fear, the better you will be at adapting.

Change can be frightening. It's the single greatest source of fear we all face. Change confronts us with one of the most frightening of situations: the unknown. Although it is perfectly normal to be fearful of change, such a fear response can immobilize us.

The Critical Step - Responding Effectively to Fear

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear. Mark Twain

Fear is fantastically powerful. It is the primary obstacle to being a talented risk-taker. It is also a huge limiter of sales success. The fears of rejection, failure and success are always present in the sales environment. Learning how to prevail in the face of fear is the single most important step one can take toward becoming a successful risk-taker and maximizing sales success.

Our comfort zone is partially shaped by life-preserving fears and partially by groundless ones. To become more capable risk-takers, we must move away from the instinctive response to fear and toward the counterintuitive response. The constructive, though counterintuitive, response to fear is to acknowledge and accept it.

This approach has been validated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Early in the space program, NASA observed that a certain number of its astronauts were completing their missions successfully without suffering motion and stress sickness. Another group was consistently having these problems. Based on empirical research, NASA determined there was one factor that differentiated the two groups. The astronauts who were completing their mission without these physical manifestations of fear had acknowledged in advance to themselves or others that they were going to be afraid. They had a constructive response to fear.

The Rewards of Risk-Taking

Why take risks anyway? Why even consider leaving your comfort zone? Isn't risk-taking something we are supposed to grow out of? Isn't it just a remnant of impertinent youthful behavior we should have left behind as we matured and grew wiser? The partial answer to all these questions has already been provided. Risk-taking yields vitality and a higher level of achievement. But there is more!

For every reasonable risk there is at least one possible reward. This is a direct reward. A reward that can be identified at the time the risk is being considered. Examples of direct rewards include the qualified prospects that will result from cold calling, the additional business that will come from learning how to sell more products and the additional policies that will be sold by a willingness to go for the close.

But better yet, a consistent and thoughtful pattern of intelligent risk-taking will yield something even more exciting: compound rewards! Compound rewards are the surprise rewards - the rewards we cannot anticipate at the time we are considering the risk. These rewards will never have come our way if we are not been willing to step out of our comfort zone at some point. Compound rewards can include knowing your professional persistence resulted in a widow being financially secure and able to fund the college education of your deceased client's children. You had no way of anticipating back when you were selling the policy that this would be the outcome. This is a compound reward - the kind you will experience if you are willing to move out of your comfort zone on a consistent basis and take some risks.

It occurred for me. A few years ago when I was 10,000 feet over the North Pole and moments away from the 120 degree below zero temperature of freefall, I had no way of knowing what compound rewards that risk would bring. I had no way of knowing that jump would be the first step in a most extraordinary career transition, or that I would abandon a fairly conventional corporate career path and make my avocation of skydiving a major part of my vocation.

We don't know the rewards we will enjoy by our willingness to take thoughtful risks, but we do know the rewards will not occur unless we are willing to take those risks. And wouldn't it be a shame to forgo some wonderful, if unknown, rewards just because we can't seem to find our way out of our comfort zone!


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