Sally Blount, Dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management
Photograph by Callie LIpkin

"If I had done what people advised and expected of me, I would never have broken the glass ceiling."

By Sally Blount
July 2, 2015

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: Why is it important for women to take risks in business? is written by Sally Blount, Dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

The truth is: Life is full of uncertainty, especially in 2015 as we face unprecedented rates of technological, social, and economic change. Each decision we make — as individuals and organizations — either reinforces the status quo or seeks to forge a new path forward. And in today’s world, sticking with the status quo can be even riskier than striving for change. With that in mind, here are three things to think about as you ponder your next risky decision:

Conventional wisdom lives in the past
It is not an exaggeration to say that nothing great ever came from just following conventional wisdom, especially for women. Doing the expected, or benchmarking on what others are doing, can be important for assessing the performance of people and processes, but taken too far, the homogenization that comes from benchmarking can lead straight to mediocrity. Transformation and progress only happen when people break free of the old ways of thinking and doing things.

Self-actualization only occurs when we challenge ourselves to think differently
We grow into ourselves and our potential — as individuals and as organizations — when we learn to think independently about who we are, what we believe, and what is possible. Looking back, there were a few critical points in my life where, if I had done what people advised and expected of me, I would never have broken the glass ceiling and returned to Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management as the first female dean of a top-ranked business school. One example dates back to the 1990s when, as a single mother and one of very few psychologists trying to earn tenure at the University of Chicago (everything was economics back then), if I had done what most people were telling me to do, I would have played it safe and stuck within a narrow academic path. I would never have chosen to leave Chicago for New York University in order to pursue my passion for organizational behavior. And, I would’ve missed being mentored by one of the boldest innovators in higher education, John Sexton, president of NYU. That one unconventional decision was life-changing.

Organizational innovation requires leaders who are willing to take risks
Organizations get stronger when they have leaders who ask questions like, “Does it have to be this way?” or “Is there a better way?” — about products, processes, people, and customer relationships. One of the things I love about being dean is that when I see a bureaucratic process that just doesn’t make sense, I have the power to quickly change it — and by doing so, to improve the quality and/or impact of our team’s work. I also have the ability, indeed the responsibility, to ask whether business education should be enacted a different way. It’s amazing what happens when you clear the path and invest in a team with a great idea. As they succeed, the whole organization is lifted — motivated by their example to think in new ways.

So the next time you are faced with a potentially risky decision, remember that personal growth and true leadership come from brave and bold actions, not from maintaining the status quo.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: Why is it important for women to take risks in business?

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Why it’s okay to break the rules at work by Susan Coelius Keplinger, entrepreneur.

Why recent graduates shouldn’t plan their careersbyTeresa Briggs, vice chair and west region managing partner at Deloitte.

Is gender bias a reason to quit your job? by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.

The one way to guarantee failure at work by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.

Why starting my own business at 25 was a huge mistake by Carolyn Rodz, CEO of Market Mentor.

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