How Taking a Risk Can Catapult Your Career
By Helen Kim, VP of Business Operations at eBay
Nine years ago, I found myself meeting with an executive coach because I felt that my work had plateaued and I knew I could be doing more. When I had first started at VeriSign as the Director of Program Management, there was a lot going on — a lot for my team to dig into, a lot for us to develop processes around to grow the business. But, after a couple of years, my team was becoming entirely self-sufficient and frankly, I was getting a little bored.
“What is it that you want to do from here?” my coach had asked me; I remember thinking at the time that I couldn’t give her an exact title or role that was in front of me. So, she adjusted her question, “What do you want out of your career?” This one, I could answer. I started rattling off a series of ingredients for a role that didn’t yet exist; it consisted of skills I knew I was good at and output I knew would grow the business in the right direction. She had me write my ideas down on paper. Once I started, I realized there was a trove of things I wanted to do, but I had been holding myself back because the role didn’t exist in the organization.
She then asked me, “So, what’s precluding you from making this proposal?”
It was a great question — I didn’t know. Nobody was telling me that I couldn’t.
I drafted a job description of my “ideal role” describing the things I wanted to do and proposed it to the General Manager of the business unit. I knew he was on the verge of a re-org, so I had a window of opportunity to propose this change. I told him that I wasn’t trying to get out of the work I was already doing, but that I wanted to expand my scope. I felt the new role would keep my job interesting and help propel the business forward, a win-win situation. He took the proposal and said he would think about it over Thanksgiving. When he came back from the holiday, he called me into his office and said, “Okay, let’s do it.” He announced it during the all hands meeting the next morning.
It was a complete revelation for me. What I did wasn’t hard — yes, it took encouragement, but, in my mind, I knew exactly what it was that I wanted to do. All I had to do was take a risk and ask.
This risk taught me three incredibly important things about career growth: the first is, be really clear about what you want out of your career — and set aside time to figure that out. I needed to take a step back from my job and realize that I could be doing more. I proactively sought out an executive coach and through her advice, took time to write down what it is that I wanted.
The second is, be proactive in getting what you want — but understand the risks. Feel encouraged to ask, but make sure what you’re asking for is thoughtful and tactful. I had to make sure that the role I was proposing was not only a progression for my personal career, but also the company’s business at large. It’s also important to inject yourself at the right point in time — you can’t make the jump in every job. I didn’t propose a move until I knew the team I was leading had mastered its role and could handle more responsibility. It was also key that I knew my manager was going through the process of a reorg, so he was prepared to make changes in the organization.
The third and arguably most important lesson I learned was that if you’re successful in the risks you take, make sure you’re empowering those in your organization so that they have the same opportunities. That’s why I tell this story — it’s an example for others that you can’t get in life what you don’t ask for — even more so if there’s no blueprint for what you’re asking. It is truly liberating to be able to articulate what it is that you want to do, and have someone listen to you.
I had the fortunate opportunity to create a new role (again, where it didn’t exist) during my time at eBay, which allowed me to pursue my passion, leverage my skills and create a job I can say I love! At any point in your career, if you feel like you’re leveling out, take control, figure out what it is that you want to do next, find someone that believes in you — and then, simply ask.
Helen Kim is the VP of Business Operations for Product & Technology at eBay. She is responsible for product strategy & planning, analytics & insights, program management, agile transformation, tech learning and tech innovation. This year, Helen is also serving as the diversity and inclusion champion for the Product & Technology org. Prior to eBay, Helen was the VP of Business Operations for Technology at Yahoo. She also worked at McAfee and VeriSign managing a team of Engineering and Business program managers responsible for the product lifecycle. Earlier in her career, Helen was a management consultant at Deloitte & Touche in the e-Business Technology & Security practice. Helen holds a B.S. degree in Business Administration and an MBA from the University of California, Riverside.