Recently, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni interviewed Jodie Foster about directing her new movie, Money Monster. I hadn’t seen a movie without animation since 2006, but as a child of the 1980s and 1990s, I always admired Jodie Foster and was intrigued. In case you missed it, the movie features some other 1990s stars, George Clooney and Julia Roberts, who are taken hostage after a deranged investor storms the set of the financial TV show Clooney’s character hosts. In the film, there is plenty of action and a robust role and performance by Roberts as the show’s producer.
Potentially more interesting than the film’s SWAT team maneuvers, however, are Foster’s insights into what motivates her and how she can have a deep impact on her industry as a female director. Bruni’s interview spans many topics but as a female executive who has many female managers, Foster’s revelation that her motivation stems from fear of failure struck me. Despite – or maybe because of this fear – Foster has pivoted many times throughout her career, from child star, to Oscar-winning actor, to director.
In her approach to work, Foster confirms one of my notions about successful people: They consistently take on opportunities with a high amount of risk. Without risk, there is no genuine opportunity. For Foster, this meant playing a wild hermit who had little contact with the outside world and a language all her own in 1994’s Nell. It also meant taking a turn into directing in her forties and fifties. Even for those of us outside Hollywood’s spotlight, it is important to measure an opportunity against its level of risk. The lack of some fear or trepidation prior to taking on a new opportunity is an indicator that the opportunity might not be significant enough.
A recent mentoring discussion comes to mind. An early-career employee told me she would be organizing reports for her team and she was excited about this “opportunity.” After talking through some of the details, we determined that there was no penalty for failure and no new ground to be broken; these reports were a “nice-to-have.” She would develop some good skills through this project, but the task could not be considered a good opportunity for advancement. By contrast, another colleague looked excitedly at an opportunity to engage new clients for our firm. She would be leaving behind responsibilities that had become familiar to incorporate a high level of communication with important stakeholders. Given the high cost of failure, this new role would indeed be an opportunity. And, success would surely pay dividends in her career.
Foster reminds us that despite Elsa of Frozen fame, there remain risks and rewards to bringing women front-stage in Hollywood. Seizing those opportunities, while anxiety-producing, can lead to the gains we ultimately seek in our careers and industries. In the film world, it means being one of few female directors, but it may also mean accepting a new job, or even going back to school, while building a career. While many of us will not be writing Oscar acceptance speeches, we can learn from female leaders like Foster who set aside the fear of failure because success stems from taking on true opportunities.
Jessica Wang is the Senior Vice President of Placement at 2U, Inc. “Silence of the Lambs” still gives her nightmares.
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