Robin Koval, CEO and president of Legacy
Photograph by Adam B. Auel

Embracing risk has shaped my entire career.

By Robin Koval
July 8, 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 Robin Koval, CEO and president of Legacy.

As Albert Einstein once said, “A ship is always safe at the shore, but that is not what it was built for.” Pushing myself away from the shore and into uncharted waters, has made all the difference in my own career. Taking risks, especially in business, is the job of a leader whether you have one X chromosome or two. Of course I’ve always feared failure, but fear has an upside: it helps us proceed with insight instead of abandoning the mast when the going gets tough. Fear helps us learn, and develop grit. A growing body of evidence from academia shows that grit and its parallel traits of guts, resilience, and tenacity are key to achieving our goals. And the great news is that you don’t have to be born with grit; each and every one of us can obtain it over time.

My journey has been shaped by three key risks taken at various points in my career. Each risk required me to take a dive into the unknown, was completely unexpected, and offered absolutely no safety net. While this may sound reckless to some, it’s what allowed me to become my own first responder — identifying worst-case scenarios ahead of time, and always having a plan B.

The first risk came just after I graduated college. I graduated with a degree in design. But when I couldn’t get a design job to save my life, I had to become an administrative assistant and make travel arrangements instead of objets d’art. However, while I was learning about work – and the advertising business – I discovered my true passions: strategy, client management, and business development.

I took my second risk years later when a respected client presented me with the opportunity to create an ad agency in New York City with a woman I barely knew. I trusted my gut, gave up my hard-won (and secure) position at a well-known ad agency, and went for it. I never intended to be an entrepreneur. This was 100% not in my background or DNA. Starting the Kaplan Thaler Group was the hardest work of my life, but with a healthy dose of grit, we built our little brownstone start-up into a billion dollar billing agency.

And finally, I never intended to leave advertising or the ‘for profit’ sector. I certainly never intended to leave NYC, especially when I was CEO of a major ad agency. But a little over two years ago, I was approached with an opportunity to lead the truth (anti-tobacco campaign), and be part of an organization that is literally saving lives. So once again I pushed off shore and have never looked back.

These risks weren’t calculated, but they were considered. And all were catalysts for my professional and personal growth. We live in cautious data-centric times that don’t necessarily encourage risk-taking. While it would be easier to plug our decisions into an Excel chart and come out with a carefully calculated answer — clearly dictating which path we should take — there is no substitute for summoning your gut. No spreadsheet can replace your emotional intelligence on big, life and career-changing decisions. In an evolving world, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is standing on the shore and taking no risks at all.

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

How to be a fearless risk-taker at work by Donna Wiederkehr, CMO of Dentsu Aegis Network.

What the financial crisis taught this Bank of America executive about risk by Meredith Verdone, global wealth & investment management marketing executive at Bank of America.

How this woman became the first female dean of a top b-school by Sally Blount, Dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

What I think about when I think about failing by Colleen Smith, vice president of SaaS and Cloud at Progress.

Here’s how bragging can boost your career by Beth Monaghan, principal and co-founder of InkHouse.

This CEO cashed in her IRA to start her own company by Gay Gaddis, CEO and founder of T3.

An unlikely degree choice got me my dream job by Lori Bailey, global head of special lines at Zurich Insurance.

Why getting too comfy at work is the ultimate career killer by Krista Bourne, president of Houston Gulf Coast Region at Verizon Wireless.

Would you risk your job to move abroad? by Mary Beth Laughton, senior vice president of e-commerce and digital marketing at Sephora.

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

Why recent graduates shouldn’t plan their careers byTeresa 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.

Build-A-Bear CEO: Why women need to take risks in business by Sharon Price John, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop.

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