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How this U.N. negotiation expert took the biggest risk of her career – and nailed it

Columbia Law professor Alexandra Carter details the high-stakes moment that defined her career and what women can learn by betting on themselves.
Alexandra Carter, professor at Columbia Law School and world-renowned negotiation trainer for the United Nations.
Alexandra Carter, professor at Columbia Law School and world-renowned negotiation trainer for the United Nations.Target Marketing Digital/Gonzaga Romero

In 2012, I was a junior professor at Columbia Law School when I got the call that changed my life. It was from the United Nations. They were less than two weeks out from a ground-breaking event, the first-ever negotiation skills summit for women diplomats, called Women Negotiating Peace. This was a high-profile event designed to teach women how to negotiate international peace agreements in high-stakes situations. And their more senior, more qualified keynote speaker had canceled.

They asked whether, on short notice, I could headline this event and run a comprehensive skills training program for women diplomats from around the world.

Had I taught diplomats before? No. Was I an expert in U.N. procedure? No.

Did I say yes to the job? Absolutely.

I spent the next 10 days feverishly preparing – calling people on the inside for information, studying U.N. mediation manuals and testing out potential exercises. And then I stood at the front of that room and pretended I’d been there my whole life. The diplomats loved it. They called me back. Today, my students and I are the primary negotiation trainers for the U.N.’s diplomatic corps in New York.

Bottom line: I took a calculated risk. I trusted my talents, skills and judgment – and I bet on myself to learn the rest.

So should you.

Taking risks in the workplace

Too often, women hesitate to take risks in the workplace. We don’t apply for jobs where we don’t meet 100% of the criteria. We negotiate less frequently in situations where it isn’t made clear that we can. We ask for less money when we get raises or are promoted. And this hesitation makes sense, because too often – more often than men – women can get pushback when we do take a risk.

Guess what? We need to take that risk anyway.

Workplaces have to change if we are to realize full workplace equity for women. But huge opportunities still exist for women who are willing to bet on themselves. And the more women take risks and bet on our own leadership potential, the faster we’ll get there.

Ready to make that bet on yourself? Here’s how.

Redefine your relationship with risk

It’s time to think again about risk. In particular, we need to distinguish actual risk from risk perception. Often when we’re contemplating a big career move – we’re about to ask for a lot more money, we’re going out on our own – we think we’re taking a risk, when in fact the risk may be staying where we are! I counseled one senior woman who knew she was underpaid but feared negotiating because she thought it would ruin her long-standing relationship with her CEO. Guess what? She negotiated – and her CEO was so impressed with the way she handled the situation that months later, he told her she was under consideration to be his successor. Not only did she earn more money – she earned more respect. The real risk to her career, as it turns out, would have been not speaking up!

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Knowledge is power. Get as much information as you can about all potential scenarios. And then ask yourself: what am I risking? I work with the UN, where sometimes human life is at stake. That’s one thing. But if you’re worried you might be risking failure, or risking someone not liking you – well, I’m going to tell you to go for it every single time. You may be perceiving risk when in fact you’re staring at a massive opportunity.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable

Taking a risk can feel uncomfortable at first. But one thing leaders have in common is they develop a level of comfort – or at least tolerance – with being uncomfortable. Feel like you’re asking for too much money? You’re probably in the right spot. Nervous to be in that high-profile new role? It means you’re growing and leaning.

My biggest negotiation advice when you’re taking risks and asking for more? Get comfortable with silence. I call this “landing the plane.” It means you make your ask and then ... stop talking. Don’t bid against yourself, and don’t rush to make them comfortable. Allow some silence in the room. Let their email sit for a few days. Remember: their urgency is not your emergency. Rest in your confidence and your power. Silence may be uncomfortable at first but it works!

Trust yourself

Here’s the last thing I’ve learned about taking risks: it starts with learning to trust yourself. A few years ago, I felt comfortable with everything I was doing at work. But then I decided to write a book. I devoted almost a year of my life to writing a proposal that I wasn’t sure would succeed; it was a big leap of faith. But trusting myself to make it happen turned out to be the best bet of my professional life.

As a negotiation trainer, I hear so many women say, “I can’t make a move – this position gives me a lot of credibility.” No – you give that position credibility. Always bet on yourself and not the job. If you’re in a workplace that doesn’t align with your values – leave. Know that your skills and network will support you wherever you go, whether it’s to another company or starting out as an entrepreneur. If you’ve been playing it safe, trust yourself and go for the promotion or the high visibility role. Be tenacious in your pursuit of what matters to you.

And if your trust in yourself ever falters, plug yourself into a community of women who can lift you up and remind you of your worth. When we know our value, betting on ourselves becomes the easiest and best risk we’ll ever take.