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The Career Risk You Don't Know You're Taking

The Career Risk You Don't Know You're Taking

By Sallie Krawcheck, Chair, Ellevate Network, Co-Founder and CEO of Ellevest

Career risk. When we think of this, we typically think of professionals leaving their jobs for a start-up. Or raising their hand for a promotion that they might not be ready for. Or even someone “taking on” their boss in a power struggle. These examples represent career risks that individuals choose to take.

But here’s an idea that might make you uncomfortable. Or even extremely uncomfortable. In this economy, with business in certain sectors changing so quickly, you may be taking career risk…by standing still. You may be taking risk by trying not to take risks.

Ask anyone who worked in the financial services industry over the last decade. Or in the print-only newspaper world. Or, of course, the tech world. The changes in these businesses may have been driven by different forces, but the change has been….and is….and will be….so fast that professionals in those industries have needed to manage risk: the risk that your skills may become obsolete…the risk that the job that you love changes…the risk that you boss changes…the risk that your company changes strategy…the risk that the new boss won’t like you so much.

An example that I lived: prior to my running Merrill Lynch (the “Thundering Herd”), it had enormous continuity, and then significant leadership change. Up to the year 2000, the business had one boss for 15 years (and that guy spent a total of 38 at the company). Then the outside world changed. There was the Nasdaq meltdown of 2000 and the subprime crisis of 2007/2008, that in turn drove the sale of the company. 

As a result, since 2000, Merrill has had eight business leaders (unless I’m missing someone, which is reasonably likely). That's one about every two years. And each of those leaders tended to establish their own management teams (as new leaders do), and each of those leaders had changes in business strategy (as new leaders do), so the change has rippled through the organization. Almost constantly.

What to do as a professional?

Since it is much less likely that you’ll start at a company training program and then retire from it 45 years later with the gold watch, be open to change and to changing yourself. I’ve transitioned several times: I started my career as an investment banker…became a research analyst …worked as a manager and leader at big companies…and am now an entrepreneur. Some of this was skating to where the puck was going. Some of it was pushing myself to figure out what I loved and shifting my career closer to those things.

Be a voracious learner. I can’t tell you how many professionals I know who have just stop trying new things. Some of them tell me they are “too senior” for it (“If I go on LinkedIn, I’ll just get bombarded with interview requests” and “It’s only people looking for jobs there”), but it feels more like they have gotten comfortable.

But here's what can happen: a couple of years ago, a head-of-marketing friend of mine was laid off. I urged her to get on social media. She dawdled on it. And as I tried to introduce her to job opportunities, a couple of potential employers declined, because that itself was evidence enough that her skills were dated.

Build a strong network. Kudos to you if you have a strong network within your company. But you’d better also have a large, diverse and strong network outside of your company. There’s always something more urgent to do than building this; but not having one if you leave your current company is no less than make-or-break.

Prepare financially. Being prepared financially is a great form of insurance. A “barbell approach” to risk can make sense here, particularly for women. Build an emergency cash fund that is 3 – 6 months of salary. But don’t build up too much cash (as many women do), because that penalizes us financially. According to analysis by Ellevest, if you put $25,000 in a savings account, then you can grow that to approximately $35,400 in 35 years; put that same money in a diversified investment portfolio and it can grow to more than $54,000.

If you take a career break, keep your skills current. This also hurts us women disproportionately. We take more career breaks – and longer ones – than men. And they negatively impact our earnings. In addition to planning for them financially (more from Ellevest on that here), it’s also important to plan for them professionally so that you’re not left behind. Increasingly, I’m seeing women use some of their time away to learn to code or to keep their marketing skills up-to-date by volunteering time at non-profit.

What have I missed?

Sallie Krawcheck is the Co-Founder and CEO of Ellevest, a digital investment platform that is re-imagining investing for women, to be launched in 2016. She is the Chair of Ellevate Network, the global professional women’s network.

(Photo: tropical.pete, Flickr)

For information about Ellevest and its financial advisory services, please visit the firm’s website ( or the SEC’s Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website (

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.


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