Many people can judge which risks have paid off in hindsight. Whether it was starting college away from home, or moving to a new city for my career, there have been several times in my life when I’ve chosen to move in an exciting new direction. But when a new opportunity presents itself, I often find myself dipping my toe in the water rather than jumping off the diving board.
Now the VP of Future Business Strategy for Novo Nordisk, Mirella Daja made an unexpected career pivot from hospital-based research into pharma. And while she didn’t know exactly what the transition would entail when she began, she weighed her options and decided that it would be worth the risk. Now, not only is she enjoying her new position, Mirella has also developed a system to assist whenever an opportunity presents itself or an unexpected change comes her way.
With the pandemic having changed the course to so many careers, I had a discussion with Mirella—who has worked in diverse roles in 3 different countries—about how she develops the right mindset for taking calculated risks in her career and beyond. Her advice is applicable now more than ever. Here’s what she had to say to those of us who think we aren’t ready for major pivots:
Mirella Daja: Would you take a job if you weren’t sure what the job was? I did.
Taking risks creates discomfort and uncertainty, but few breakthroughs can be achieved without taking some smart and deliberate risks.
But how do you know if the risk is worth taking? And how do you prepare for a risk gone wrong?
An Unexpected Opportunity
I was a senior scientist engaged in oncology research at a teaching hospital when I learned a pharmaceutical company was looking for a medical advisor. I had no idea what that really was, or what it would entail, and I’d never considered working in pharma. But I was intrigued by their need for someone with a science background—they wanted applicants with a Ph.D. or M.D.
I’ve always had a strong desire to cure people. As a child I dreamed of becoming a doctor; probably inspired from my father dying at a young age of a heart attack. However as I got older, I saw a more powerful way to engage in healthcare and became interested in tackling the root of the problem rather than treating the symptoms of illness for a living. Subsequently, I pursued a Ph.D. in biochemistry and went into medical science and research instead, eventually taking on a senior scientist role.
After almost a decade working at the bench in basic research, I heard about the pharma job. After years of making incremental contributions to science, I was drawn to a job where I would have a direct, immediate impact on patients’ lives.
It was a big decision to make such a significant career change. Fortunately, I have a system for making those big decisions.
4 Steps to deciding whether a risk is worth taking
1. Look at the Pros and Cons
Anytime I’m considering making a big life change I list the pros and cons in writing, analyzing each one to see which path makes the most sense.
The pharma role had some strong pros. My employment would no longer be contingent on constant grant applications. And I would move from a narrow focus on prostate cancer to a broad focus encompassing diabetes, women's health, growth hormone, and hemophilia; expanding my skill set. The job would also allow me to use my science and lecturing skills and offered me a lot of development and growth.
At the same time, it meant leaving all my existing research and giving up work I found interesting and rewarding.
For me, the pros were stronger.
2. Have a Plan B
Not every big career move or life change works out, so I always have a backup plan. When I moved to a pharma role, my plan was to go back to research if after a year I decided my new role wasn’t what I was expecting.
Having a plan B gives you the security to take the first step. And once you've taken that first step, you're on the road and may realize that it's not as scary as it seemed. Most roads are two-way—you can either come back or step off into a new direction.
Sometimes your plan B can be very specific, but it doesn’t have to be. When I moved to my current role, I didn’t have a job to go back to if the role didn’t work out, but my plan B was to use the skills and experiences I would gain in the new job to increase my future opportunities.
3. Be clear on what you want
It’s easier to decide on a big change if you have clearly articulated what you’re looking for. You’re more inclined to say yes to an opportunity that you’ve specifically hoped for.
So make a list of what you want in your next role or life decision. Don’t leave it as a vague idea—write it down. Writing creates focus and makes it real.
Once you've made that list, you’ll be able to recognize opportunities when they come up. You’ll see an ad in a paper or hear a conversation and say hang on a minute, that was on my list.
4. Don't talk yourself out of a good thing
It’s easy to start talking yourself out of a big change. When the pharma role came up, I had all these experiments I’d almost finished and thought, this would be a perfect opportunity in two months' time. But then I thought, if it would be perfect in two months, it’s perfect now.
I was creating obstacles in my head that weren’t really there. So I took the job.
How to Help Others Understand and Embrace Change
When managing a team, you’ll sometimes need to guide them through big, unnerving changes. Fortunately, my decision-making system can be used to help make a team comfortable with change.
Tell them the pros and cons of the change. Show them your backup plan. Clearly outline the objectives, and let them know when the obstacles are smaller than they’ve imagined.
Whether you’re making a big life decision or leading a team in a new direction, have the confidence to know that you are never stuck on the path you choose. You can change your mind. You can step back. You can take a different path.
Knowing that makes it much easier to say yes to a change that feels frightening but is actually exciting. And big breakthroughs can come from saying yes.
WRITTEN BYAn Phan