So what are the ingredients of success for those who leap into a field in which they lack direct experience? For one thing, it can help to be a woman. Harvard’s Groysberg has studied the “portability” of skills, using a sample set of financial professionals. He found that even in moves between familiar settings, there tends to be a dip in performance as executives figure out things like “where the bodies are buried,” in his words. But there is an interesting caveat: “The dip is only applicable to men,” he says. “Star women do really well when they move.”
One reason for women’s exceptional resilience may be that they know how to build connections outside their firms, as when Kotchka reached out to the larger design world. “What I find is not that men and women build franchises differently because of innate differences,” says Groysberg. “Instead, women become more portable because they’ve faced institutional barriers.” In the financial industry, for example, women historically “found themselves unemployed faster than men” and missed benefits like the sharing of information in informal settings. Since resources and allies were harder to find, the women who succeeded had looked for them beyond the next cubicle. Says Groysberg: “Most women at the top are survivors.” Or as McGovern interprets it, “Never turn down the job no one else wants. You’ll learn a lot, and if you’re not challenged, you’re not growing.”
Amy Davidson is a senior editor at the New Yorker.
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