Friday, June 18, 2010

'Grab the Strange Opportunities'

Want a tip for getting ahead in your career? Follow this advice from GE's Susan Peters: "Grab the strange opportunities."

Peters (pictured) is vice president of executive development and chief learning officer for General Electric Co. She was a compelling speaker at the 14th Annual Wharton Leadership Conference (see post below).

She joined GE in 1979 and served in human resource roles in several GE businesses in the U.S. As she explained to the conference attendees, there came a point in her career with the company that she wanted some global operating experience, so she took an overseas assignment — one that was actually a step down. Hence, the strange opportunity.

But that potentially risky gambit actually propelled her upward trajectory with GE. She returned to the U.S. and onto a new leadership track. Today is responsible for talent identification, leadership development, training, performance management, and succession planning for all GE executives worldwide.

That leadership lesson certainly resonates with me. In 1981 I got a call out of the blue asking me to come talk with the new owners of a business journal called Directors & Boards. At the time I was the senior editor of a weekly business magazine and was very happy in my job, with no thoughts of moving on. I checked out this new opportunity, and didn't much care for what I saw. Directors & Boards was then a rather staid academic journal, devoted to an arcane topic. Corporate governance? What the heck was that? It wasn't even a term in the popular lexicon then. And who cared about boards of directors, anyway? I had been in business journalism for five years by that time and had yet to write a single word about a corporate board. No thanks. I walked away.

I am not sure what it was, but the owners saw something in me. Over the course of several months they kept me on the hook, kept arranging the occasional lunch and office visit to talk up the prospects for this publication — to be a prestige journal of leadership addressing the concerns of the preeminent business ruling class in the country.

So, one day, I did it. They wore me down. I grabbed this strange opportunity. And here I am almost 30 years later. I sure wasn't sure of it at the time, but it seems to have been the right move at the right time for what I was destined to do with my life and career.

There is a governance dimension in Susan Peters' lesson here too. Sometimes board invitations come wrapped as strange opportunities. "You're asking me to serve on that board? Are you crazy?" Maybe so. How inviting can it seem to be asked to help pull a company or a nonprofit institution out of a financial tailspin, maybe even a bankruptcy situation? Or to right the ship after a scandal of some kind? Or maybe it's a succession crisis that looks daunting?

Rather than categorically swat away any such invitation, give deep consideration to whether it is, instead, a strange opportunity that should be grabbed.