7 Ways to Take Smart Career Risks: Lessons from Sharon Price John, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop

Rita McGrath
4 min readJul 18, 2022

Fear is one of the great barriers to career advancement. Sharon Price John’s fabulous career is full of lessons on how to get past those fears and get out of your own way.

Being afraid to ask for that next job. Being afraid to take credit. Being afraid to speak up. These are all ways in which fear gets in the way of making progress in your career. But as Sharon Price John’s career suggests, the fears of what could go wrong are often wildly over-exaggerated, and the upside of what could go right are under-estimated.

Set challenging goals, write them down, and it might be awesome

In her forthcoming book and podcast “Stories and Heart,” Sharon recounts an early episode in her life of ambitiously determining to climb a huge beech tree. She made it to the branch she wanted to climb, and then realized that despite weeks of planning to get up the tree, she had somehow neglected to figure out how to get back down! As she reflected on the experience, she consciously noted that setting challenging goals could be labelled scary (it might be bad) or exciting (it might be awesome). Picking “awesome” made the setting of challenging goals something to be enjoyed, not feared. Writing the goals down also makes them much more actionable.

Sometimes you have to experience what you don’t want to learn what you do want

Sharon’s first try at attending a large university didn’t go so well — she ended up returning home to take a break, worked at a blue jean pick-and-pack facility and could easily have given up. But when her co-workers asked her to slow down because she was making them look bad, she realized that settling for the mediocre wasn’t what she wanted in life. She went back to school, changed her major to advertising and created a personal rubric for making decisions based on her last name, Price. Perseverance. Respect. Intelligence. Creativity. Excellence. These came to be critical to her future choices.

What’s the worst thing that could happen?

Sharon was a guest speaker in our inaugural Women in Leadership class at Columbia Executive Education when a…

Rita McGrath

Columbia Business School Professor. Thinkers50 top 10 & #1 in strategy. Bestselling author of The End of Competitive Advantage & Seeing Around Corners.