Next week at IBM’s Innovate Conference I'll moderate a panel of highly accomplished women executives who will talk about their personal leadership mindset when taking business risks.  The panelists are:

– Cheryl Allison, Director, Raytheon Network Centric Systems

– Ellen Daley, Managing Director, Forrester Research

– Gina Poole, Vice President, IBM Rational Software

– Meg Selfe, Vice President, IBM Rational Software

– Karla Wallace, Senior Manager, General Motors

Note that Forrester’s Ellen Daley will be one of the panelists, joining this impressive group of women execs in IT. If you can’t catch us live at the conference (Tuesday, June 5th at 3:00 PM Eastern), then I hope you’ll join through streaming video ( and Twitter at #ibminnovatewp.

Many people wonder: why offer a panel specifically for women—why not men too?  Good question. Men are just as interested in risk taking and leadership as women, so they are invited to participate in the panel and discussion on the Web and Twitter.

But realistically, women and men have different views about taking risks; women often dislike going outside their comfort zone more than men do. For many women execs, it’s an innate skill—but still is one they had to nurture and cultivate throughout their careers.  Others more junior often need coaching and mentoring. Women sometimes take their time figuring the lay of the land, and don’t appear confident. Mentors sometimes have to push women to their next job because they get good at something and want to stay with it.  But here’s what all the execs say: You’ve got to take risks and have failures too in your career, and stick with it.

With that in mind, here are some nuggets of actionable knowledge that the panelists will share:

Leadership and management skills

  • Emulate the leaders you admire most in your organization. Born leaders embrace risk because they first embrace challenges (and risk comes with it). It’s a natural leadership skill that you can also learn.

  • Hire and surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Then, put them in an environment where they will succeed. That makes other sharp people  want to join you.

  • Don’t let the lack of headcount hold you back. You don’t need to create a big kingdom—you can create a virtual army instead.

  • Be open to different kinds of experiences. For example, consider intrapreneurship (versus entrepreneurship) or taking an assignment that no one else wants.

  • Don’t be afraid of blending your technical and business acumen.  Having a technology cornerstone is crucial; don’t be afraid to take assignments that surface, as long as you have this cornerstone. Don’t fear being viewed as technical– the business world is fast becoming technology pervasive.

  • Don't be afraid to speak up because someone may judge you. If you are completely honest and transparent, you can come out well in the end. Leaders need the courage to say, “It’s not working,” which might mean putting yourself out of a job.  Do it anyway.

Mindset toward risk

  • Don't take an assignment unless you are passionate about it. You must be passionate about the technology, the people, the clients, the concept or something– because that makes you more willing to take risks. Nothing is worth doing if you’re not excited about it. If you’re excited, you are more willing to walk the plank a little more.
  • Make sure you are on solid ground, especially when launching into something new and risky.  Sell your idea to others and link it to business outcomes.  Often, success is about how you find other experts.
  • Understand  how the economic downturn impacts risk taking. Now you must focus more on the finance side of the equation and look for ways to drive revenue.  There’s a lot more oversight. Many new business ideas are hard to connect to revenue so you have to work at it.
  • Ban analysis by paralysis because you want to cover all 10 things that could go wrong.This kind of thinking restricts creativity and innovation. If you have a natural inhibition to risks, work to overcome it. Think positive, see a plan, and change your perspective to focus on the benefits.
  • If risk averse, learn by starting with little risks.Women with a low risk profile (e.g. they have small children, are the primary breadwinner) must still start to take on risk selectively. 
  • Make sure whatever risk you take isn’t illegal, immoral or stupid.  Eventually it catches up with most people and hurts their reputation.

Personal branding

  • Recognize that you have a personal brand, even if you are unaware of it.  Everything you do contributes to your personal brand, so it's important to consciously know what it is and then shape it.
  • Don’t try to brand yourself the same way a man would (because stereotypes are strongly held). Instead, facilitate meetings by teasing out ideas and asking questions that subtly draws out ideas and points– allowing a team of peers to accept your suggestions. Women need to walk up to the same line as men but not get painted with a stereotypical paintbrush.
  • Get coaching early in your career to guide the way to present yourself. Focus on how to formulate your decision making and tie your decisions to leadership competencies that you want to build. Even if your company doesn’t provide formal mentors or coaches, find one internally or externally. Hire one if necessary, but also look inside the organization for people that you would like to emulate.  Often they are flattered when you ask for them to be a mentor.
  • Find someone to use as a sounding board. Discuss how you would surface or broach difficult conflict situations, and still gain action oriented insights that help you deal with ambiguity and collaboration.
  • Recognize that social media for business or personal use can enhance or destroy your personal brand. Be careful how you use it, but also view it as a tool for building your personal brand.