Building our businesses with courage (or not)

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risk imageYesterday, I enjoyed a fascinating conversation with a successful business person who has managed to take on some of the largest companies in the architectural, engineering and construction universe, using words to describe their business practices that I won’t dare to repeat here. He names names, however, and quite publicly in other places. Undoubtedly, this strategy is helpful for his business/brand, but at what risk?

For him, the risk is manageable, because of his personal circumstances, knowledge and understanding of processes. I would be foolish to go so far out on a limb and so won’t publish the details here. But undoubtedly, when you have the right circumstances, seemingly against-the-wind courage creates powerful marketing opportunities. If you can confidently assert you are battling evil with good, do you come out ahead of the game?

The question, of course, relates to the when and where of fear management, avoiding recklessness, and — if you are going to stretch the apparent boundaries — when to move. The paradoxical answer, from my understanding, relates to combining some basic understanding with risk assessment and exceptional knowledge gathering. You don’t want to be a shrinking violet and only take risks after analyzing everything to death, but there are times when you know you have that extra bit of knowledge and capacity, and so can take actions that may appear (and may actually be) risky to others, but not to you.

Undoubtedly, as I’ve related previously, my youthful African adventures fit this risk management profile. Sure, it sounds pretty daring to say that lived through the end of an African civil war for 18 months as a motorcycle-riding journalist, but there were some facts that shaped this experience: I had experience as a journalist in Canada, I stayed in “safe” areas during the war (and was exempt from any risk of military action), and I had travelled to Africa a couple of years earlier as an overland tourist initially on an organized expedition, and then (only when I was more familiar with the continent) independently. Besides, I was single, without dependents, or obligations to others.

The rewards from this experience: A sense of confidence that I could indeed overcome obstacles and challenges, that led ultimately, economic independence and a wonderful family life. It would be a foolish thing to replicate that experience now, though I had the opportunity to briefly revisit old haunts as a tourist a couple of years ago, and expect to take a much longer trip to Africa with my wife next summer.

However, these stories won’t help you in deciding when to take risks. In that regard, I certainly remember the day I decided to return to Africa to experience the war first-hand. It was at a local bar in Medicine Hat, Alberta, where I was working on a small daily newspaper, when I got the idea. I returned to my home and thought — “Ahh, this is just a drunken thought” and went to bed. The next morning, however, I woke up and knew, indeed, that it was time to travel and stay in Africa until I saw the story to its conclusion.

So maybe the risk-taking assessment arises, in fact, from your gut feel, combined with your accumulated knowledge and respect for your circumstances. You can go for it when it is right.

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