In 1999, Julie Benezet was working as director of global real estate for a growing dot com company called Amazon, trying to determine what infrastructure was needed to help the company survive and thrive day to day. Today, as founder and managing principal of Business Growth Consulting, she uses this experience to coach executives through risk-taking endeavors in order to find more success.
In her book The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None, Benezet uses a fictional business story to teach executives how to be better leaders and teammates, and have the courage to take on the unknown.
“I had spent many years as an executive, and noticed that when people take chances, they get farther ahead,” Benezet said. “Too often what happens is people go a more conservative route, because they don’t want to deal with the uncomfortable feeling of trying something new when you don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”
Being comfortable with that discomfort and the unknown is a key skill for successful leaders to master, Benezet said. “Your job as a leader is to push toward the future and make things better,” Benezet said. “When people do not deal with the unknown, they don’t progress—they don’t move their organizations forward, or their careers forward.”
Business leaders will have to deal with risky, unknown situations more and more moving into the future, Benezet said. “In the hyperconnected world we live in, we have lots of information, but not much knowledge, and we panic about how to deal with that ambiguity,” she said. “It behooves us to confront what it is we don’t know, and our discomfort with it, and then learn how to navigate that.”
Here are four fundamental steps for navigating the unknown, no matter what career stage you are in.
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1. Know your stakeholders, and how you can make life better for them.
Leaders must make big bets in order to create change at their company, Benezet said, and seek new ways to make life better for employees and customers. This might mean investing in new technology products that will empower customers to make informed decisions, or reorganizing your project teams to have more autonomy.
“Whatever it is you are looking to do, you have to look to the relevant stakeholders and learn about what it is they need that you can create,” Benezet said. “You have to pick and choose what you’re going to address. Once you do that, you have to go through the humbling process of understanding there’s a lot you don’t know about.”
In the tech world, products often go to market that the customer did not have a need for, Benezet said. Or the business development team does not understand, in layperson language, why the product is important. “You’ve got to really figure out where the stumbling blocks are for customers, and what it is they’re trying to solve for,” Benezet said.
2. Learn to accept the fear inherent in risk-taking
Big bets are by definition untested, Benezet said. That means they could fail—or they could produce something wonderful. “To go through with it, you will hit walls of resistance, from other people and from yourself,” she said. “People don’t want to be put in a discomfort zone—they want a job they can nail.”
It’s important for leaders to be champions of risk-taking, and not be risk-averse, Benezet said. This might mean developing new organizational processes that are capable of adapting to or leveraging new situations, if things play out differently than expected.
3. Define your purpose
Don’t take bigger bets without a reason, Benezet said. “This gives you a goal—something to push you through the discomfort you feel along the way,” she said. Identifying and embracing the ideals that give you and your team deep personal meaning can help them face the challenges in the process of navigating the unknown, she added.
That being said, try new ideas knowing and accepting that you cannot know the outcome, Benezet said. Part of this means allowing yourself to be guided by a strong sense of purpose, with humor and humility if things go poorly, she added.
4. Accept failure on the way to success
“It’s important to accept failure as OK, and to celebrate it,” Benezet said. “If people try something and it doesn’t work, you should celebrate the fact that they tried. You can learn from what you failed at, and try again.”
There should always be a Plan B, Benezet said, so that when something fails you can keep moving and try another approach. But you have to communicate that it’s all right, and that you are doing your best work and are proactive about your progress and communicating it with others.
“You can say ‘It’s fair game to feel nervous about this—if we don’t, we’re not paying attention,'” Benezet said. “Build that culture of failure being OK.” Look at bumps along the road as learning opportunities, rather than reasons to slow down, abandon the effort, or terminate team members, she added.
“The world is going to continue to get more ambiguous and challenging,” Benezet said. “The more we pay attention to what it is we need to learn, and have the courage to get through the scariness, the better we’ll do. The pathway to success is paved with risks, but it’s a pathway worth taking.”