When Opportunity Knocks…Will You Answer?

We often hear about big breaks in pop culture. Ed Sheeran, for example, had released four self-recorded albums when his fifth suddenly shot to #2 on iTunes; a major label then offered him a contract and he’s now one of the biggest stars in pop music. But big breaks exist outside the realm of superstardom too. In the business world, I’ve certainly benefited from people who saw something in me and gave me an opportunity, and while I don’t claim to be the Ed Sheeran of HR, the outcome for me was the same: my life changed in profound ways.

Sheeran is an example of a big break, but it’s an example that falls into the stereotype of overnight fame and success. While they can be entertaining to hear, those stories tend to oversimplify things – they make it seem like someone’s success had a kind of cosmic inevitability to it. Those celebrity stories are only the most visible examples of someone who got a chance and ran with it – and often, more than one chance. Sheeran’s iTunes hit was the culmination of a number of smaller ‘breaks’ —praise from Elton John, for example, and performances with Jamie Foxx – little opportunities afforded him by the people around him. 

At SAP, we make it a priority to identify talent early on and offer people a pathway forward. As I see young people receiving and taking these chances, I can’t help but be reminded about my own path, and the opportunities that mentors and managers provided me along the way. I was inspired to discuss this in depth, so I sat down with two of my colleagues at SAP for a coffee chat, Erica Overfield and Brielle Erickson. The three of us touched on some fascinating points during our discussion, and I’m excited to share with you some of the highlights from our time together.

Vlasta Dusil: Thanks to you both for taking the time – this topic sparked a lot of interesting thoughts when we first discussed setting this up. It seems like all three of us share a similar sentiment, that someone at some point along the line took a chance on us, changing the course of our individual careers.

Erica Overfield: When I think of taking chances, it often relates back to the idea of how we cultivate and support others in growing their careers. During my time in Washington, D.C., where I held a variety of HR roles, I quickly noticed that my approach to work seemed quite different from my colleagues, and unfortunately it was not cultivated or appreciated. When I realized that I needed to make a change in my environment, I was very intentional in my search for my next step, and upon starting here at SAP Concur, I saw right away that things were different – while my working style was still different from those around me, I felt support and appreciation from my manager. I believe she saw the potential in hiring someone with a different / diverse perspective.

VD: I had a bit of a sponsor within the company when I got my “break.” I had been looking to make a career transition around the time I relocated across Canada, so wanted to use the chance to get into an HR career. I ended up joining a company as an ‘Early Talent’ of sorts, and my boss from that position, Su Taylor, is still my mentor today. She really took a chance on me and it changed the trajectory of my career. I had someone vouching for me, which made all the difference. Did either of you have that in your situation?

EO: When I applied to SAP Concur,I didn’t have anyone to sponsor me internally and it felt like a long shot, since these days it is not typical to get a job without an internal connection. However, after the initial screening with the recruiter, and an interview with one of my future colleagues, I knew I was on the right path. When that colleague and I later reflected on our interview, she told me, “I knew you would be joining the team because I felt you were special from the moment I talked to you.”  It’s entirely possible that I created a bit of a sponsorship just through that first interaction.

VD: So you had some other voices supporting you in addition to the decision-maker, which certainly helped you along in that process. Brielle, I know you had also mentioned that you felt I had taken a chance on you. It was easy for me, you had people voicing their support – combined with what you brought to the table, all of that coming together certainly created an environment where it didn’t feel at all like a risk.

Brielle Erickson: And even beyond that, I feel like my first executive had to take a big chance on me. I had never worked in this type of role, so I’m sure I didn’t fit the general profile of what was looked for in a candidate. It was one of those serendipitous moments where everything came together perfectly – honestly, networking – a former colleague came to me asking if I was interested in making a career change. Her husband’s manager was the one seeking an EA, so having both my colleague and her husband adding their voices to the conversation I’m sure had a positive impact. Once on board, I felt like I did things quite differently from more seasoned assistants, so I had to learn how to pave my own way. Here I am about three years later though, and it’s hard to believe how much that seemingly small risk changed the course of my career.

VD: Building connections really can make a difference. You mentioned as well that you felt like you did things differently, but that can be a huge positive – it means you bring skills into the role beyond what a “typical assistant” would do. Erica, the same goes for you – you had mentioned that you approach things differently from many of your colleagues. That’s something I think a lot of leaders forget when looking at different candidates – that diversity in background can really lend itself nicely to known or unknown skill gaps that might exist on a team.

EO: I agree that building connections – especially with diversity in background – is key. Doing this has helped me grow and learn, and has pushed me to understand varying perspectives. It may not always be comfortable, but something I learned in my yoga teacher training is that finding comfort in discomfort is a necessary life skill. But how do we learn this skill? I think our environment and our psychological safety are factors. Take, for example, my manager from my previous role. Is it possible that she didn’t have this skill, and therefore felt she couldn’t take a risk on cultivating my diverse perspective/approach?I find it hard to take risks when I don’t have a supportive network of people. It is interesting though, because I know people who come from incredibly unsupportive backgrounds who take huge risks in their personal and professional lives. This makes me wonder if resiliency or risk-taking is a personality trait, or that perhaps the threshold is different for everyone.

VD: I agree – it can be a question of ‘what are the conditions that enable people to take risk?’ There’s often a bit of a safety net, to Erica’s point, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like a risk to us, but others view it that way. Maybe because of this, it feels safe to take a risk on someone who may not be “ready” or fit the typical profile of a position. It’s also relative – how do we define risk?

BE: I feel like a lot of this revolves around a safety net that surrounds someone in a ‘candidate’ position – what are some thoughts around leaders taking chances / risks? What enables them to do this? The stakes may feel higher – if a mistake is made, or the wrong person is placed on a team, it can reflect poorly on the leader or team overall. I see these risks taken all the time at SAP, where someone might be given an opportunity to take on a completely new role, and they’re great at it. I feel like it has something to do with having a learning / growth mindset.

VD: Agree, I wonder if it has something to do with the outlook of a leader – do they seek opportunities to take chances as opposed to playing it safe? I know I have actively sought diversity and individuals who would complement our team, instead of trying to assemble a group of people that all fit the same profile.

BE: I wonder as well if it’s cyclical – the people who are now in leadership roles feel that they received that same chance, and now they’re passing it on, creating a ‘pay-it-forward’ culture that permeates all levels of the business.

EO: Or, you haven’t experienced that, and perhaps that’s something you want to create when moving into a new role or company. I know that in my previous role, I had a lack of mentorship, which was unfortunate because I was so new to the workforce. I think the early years of one’s career is when that is most needed, which is why I now feel so passionate about providing mentorship – specifically to young women. I currently have 3 mentees with diverse backgrounds, and I think I learn from them just as much as they learn from me.

Despite the differences in our individual paths, our conversation highlighted the shared experience of having someone take a chance on us, placing us in the roles we hold today. Being in a leadership position now, one of the most gratifying things about my work is when I can pass on those opportunities to the next generation of SAP. And while these stories may never reach the same level of notoriety as Ed Sheeran’s rise to stardom, perhaps each decision to take a chance takes us one step closer to our own big break.