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Industry leaders urge NEW members to take risks

Wednesday, October 23, 2013   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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Risk-taking is essential for personal and business success, according to industry leaders who shared their personal stories at the NEW Leadership Summit, Oct. 22, 2013 in Los Angeles.

Bert Alfonso, president, international, The Hershey Company; Diane Dietz, chief marketing officer and executive vice president, Safeway Inc.; Craig Johnson, president and CEO, Altria Group Distribution Company; and Sue Klug, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, Unified Grocers Inc., discuss how they leveraged risk-taking to benefit their companies and careers. Jill Smart, chief human resources officer, Accenture, moderated the discussion.

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Klug shared about taking a job where she had to build support systems, something out of her comfort zone. At the time, she felt safe in taking the risk because she had the benefit of an advisor and friend, someone at her back.

Dietz recalled making a career change, moving from sales to marketing. "In those days, you had to interview with your company and start all over again,” she said. "It was a little risky to do that.”

Johnson detailed a time he misled his supervisors about his personal life. The future "family man” they were expecting had already broken up with the woman still impressing as his girlfriend. "The risk I took was telling my district manager and division sales manager about misleading them. [I] was ready for the worst. Once they stopped laughing, everything was fine.”

Their response: "How could you ever work at a place where you can’t be yourself?”

Indeed, risk-taking works best when it bears authenticity, Klug said. While at Albertson’s, Klug worked with an LGBT business resource group, itself a risk for the company at the time. The group was asked to revamp and reinvigorate a Palm Springs store to accommodate the area’s large gay clientele. After the group’s tremendous success, Klug was moved by their gratitude.

"When it was over and I went to the business group meeting,” said Klug, "they said ‘We had spent years not being ourselves at work. Now you’ve allowed us to be who we are.’”

Thoughtful risk-taking

Now in roles of greater responsibility, the senior executives are still risk-takers.

"You think more about macro-risks, with bigger implications to the organization,"
Alfonso said. "At the end of the day, you still take those risks. In my personal experience I’m able to take more risks, but with a lot more help.”

"I associate leadership with risk-taking,” said Johnson. "Leadership is about advancing things, and there’s risk to that.”

Klug cites a risk continuum. "I now lead more toward taking on risks, because it means going faster in today’s world. To me, I have a bias for action and sometimes I’m a little more prone to risk, but it’s pretty thought out.”

For Dietz, facing reality is key. "I remember being put on some tough business and the first thing is to look at is what’s not working. If it’s not working, doing the same thing isn’t going to turn it around.”

In such cases, Dietz advises to "ask your management for a timeout for you to get things together, including the right people. Be willing to change course as you execute the plan.”

Smart added she is risk-averse, but finds that trait has made her a better risk-taker when she finds it necessary. "I’m over-prepared for what can go wrong,” said Smart, who takes the time to examine options and come up with a "Plan B.”

Klug emphasizes the importance of modeling risk-taking behavior, noting that colleagues and associates are a lot like children. "You say a lot of words and they kind of listen, but they watch everything you do.” To leverage this relationship, Klug tells associates, "Let’s have fun. Let’s do some ‘what ifs’. If we’re really pushing the envelope, we’re creating innovation.”

Klug also likes to make bets. "Have fun competition, break records, while you’re modeling behavior, pushing people in a safe way and have fun along the way.”

"Not taking a risk is not a safe place to be,” said Alfonso. "You have to force yourself to find different ways to innovate.”

Johnson remembered pushing more regional marketing and coming up with promotions that were a complete failure. The company was supportive of his failing, however, because they wanted him to learn lessons. "It was a huge waste of time but a huge lesson for me,” he said. "When you fail, some of the best lessons you’ll ever have will come out of that.”

Asked if there was a difference between what men and women consider "smart risks," Dietz said in her experience "men are more optimistic about their skill set and women are more critical about their skill set. While it’s hard to paint a stereotype, there is a generality that comes from socialization.”

Added Alfonso: "Men tend to cash in on the wins they’ve had along the way, much more so than women.”

Craig Johnson of Altria Group Distribution Company, Sue Klug of
Unified Grocers Inc., Diane Dietz of Safeway Inc. and Bert Alfonso
of The Hershey Company shared their experiences as "risk takers."

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