Understanding Risk

Many people confuse being an entrepreneur with being someone with an idea that no one has thought of.

In one episode of AMC’s award-winning drama Mad Men, Don Draper learns that the company he works with is being sold right under his nose. He runs back to the office to alert his partners and to urge them to consider stepping in to re-purchase it. He informs one of the founding partners, Bert Cooper, that he needs to wake up as he has important news to deliver. Cooper, in his mid-70s, reacts calmly by essentially saying, we all have contracts and that they can do as they please. Draper grows frustrated, basically saying, “So that’s it? You’re losing your business, and you don’t care?” He adds that old men love building golden tombs and sealing the rest of us in with them. Cooper then tells him:

“Young men love risks ’cause they cannot imagine the consequences.” 

But not all risks are the same. Take Steve Jobs. Many thought he was a risk-taker, but he was actually very risk averse. He wanted to do other things that people thought would not succeed. He wasn’t trying to get technology before anyone. Jobs watched other companies introduce a portable music player and, in his mind, do it poorly and not profitably. He then decided that a portable music player, for instance, would transform the music industry when everybody else was saying, “Well, other companies are making mp3 players and they stink.” It wasn’t like Jobs invented it. It is just that he pushed the notion by making them great so he could transform the experience. That’s not being risky, that’s being smart. 

Many people confuse being an entrepreneur with being someone with an idea that no one has thought of. At times, this does happen. In that case, the risks are high. Most successful entrepreneurs take existing ideas and make them better — which limits the risk. We as leaders cannot look at all risks through the same lens as Bert Cooper.  He was near the end of his professional life; therefore, the thought of buying back his company seemed risky. To Draper, though, there was no risk — not because of age — instead because of his experience and understanding of the profession. He knew how to do the job. How can that be risky? 

We as leaders need to examine all potential risks through a different lens. Let’s determine the real consequences and let’s never let age be a factor. 


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