Perhaps more than the lack of money, a great opportunity may turn you off because it seems scary. By “scary” I mean that it requires you to take a position or even enter a field where you lack the necessary knowledge. In reality, you probably possess at least some of the knowledge you need to do a job, but you’re missing something that makes the position seem intimidating. When I was hired by Al Eicoff, my main responsibility was generating new business, something I had never done before. Those first six months were terrifying, especially when Al would ask daily, “Get any new business yet?” At first I didn’t know where to begin. I might as well have been cold calling Procter & Gamble to ask for their account. What I came to understand, though, is that most business skills aren’t rocket science and that any motivated C student can overcome his lack of knowledge and become competent.

Still, I didn’t know this at the time I accepted the Eicoff position. What helped me overcome my fear was that the opportunity felt right. Logically, I knew that many smaller companies didn’t have big ad budgets but had good products; that they were looking for an inexpensive, results-producing method of marketing those products; and Eicoff’s television advertising approach met their needs. I also was aware that Al needed help. As brilliant as he was, he required someone who could complement him, and my relationship-building skills and other competencies dovetailed perfectly with his. It was unlikely that I would ever find someone who not only wanted but needed a “junior partner” as much as Al wanted and needed me. Finally, I trusted my instinct. As I emphasized in an earlier article, you have to trust what your gut tells you, and my gut told me that once I was able to crack the code of new business, the job would be nirvana.

So don’t be intimidated by unexpected opportunities just because you’re going to be asked to do something you’ve never done before. In the business world there is a formal name for these types of opportunities—stretch assignments. Organizations purposefully assign people tasks they know they’re not qualified to handle, but they do so in the hope that people will stretch themselves and grow into the job.

river building

If the opportunity is right for you, trust that you can make the stretch and take full advantage of the opportunity. CEO Louise O’Sullivan made the transition from being a teacher to working for Groen, a foodservice company and a division of the Dover Corporation, now a $6 billion company. At first she was writing technical manuals, so not only was she in a completely different environment, but she was writing about totally unfamiliar technical issues. As scary as this must have been for Louise, she, too, was strongly motivated by the opportunity and her sense that this was the right situation for her. She quickly diminished her fear of the unknown by not only mastering the technical knowledge she needed but the application knowledge as well. She made it her business to talk to people in the field and the shop floor so that she would understand how her company’s products—steam kettles, braising pans, and other foodservice institutional equipment—worked. What made their braising pans better than the competitor’s? While the engineers knew what their steam kettles were made of and why they were more durable than other steam kettles, Louise found out how fast they cooked and how versatile they were.

More unexpected opportunities followed. The vice president of sales wanted Louise to travel with the manufacturer reps, assuming that her growing knowledge of how the company’s products worked might help her connect with the customer. Having absolutely no customer experience must have made this assignment seem extremely difficult to her. It probably also didn’t help that her direct boss, the national sales manager, didn’t approve of this plan, telling Louise that since the reps were all men and so were the customers, she might not fit in. Though Louise pointed out that some of the school foodservice directors and other food and beverage managers were women, her boss still resisted sending Louise out with the reps. Finally, he conceded but insisted that she concentrate on Louisiana, where “if she messed up, she wouldn’t do much harm.”

In fact, she was highly successful with the reps. She was eventually promoted to national sales manager and then vice president of sales. In that latter position, she discovered that some of the company’s products were outdated, and she began complaining about their flaws and suggesting new models and product improvements. Her boss, impressed by her criticisms and innovative suggestions, told her he was making her vice president of sales and engineering. She would be replacing the former V.P. of engineering, who had been there thirty years. On top of that, Louise would be in charge of highly talented, veteran engineers but lacked an engineering background. The engineers no doubt resented both her lack of expertise and her replacing their boss of thirty years. Louise recalled that their attitude was, “Don’t tell us what to design, Ms. Marketing person.”

While this unexpected opportunity might have been intimidating to some, Louise attacked it with gusto. Instead of design knowledge, she brought a sense of excitement, field experience, and urgency to her job, and this eventually won over the people in her department. She brought in outside consultants to help with the design work, and that fresh thinking resulted in new, successful products. Rather than be intimidated by what she didn’t know and refusing to take on the engineering position, Louise recognized it as a great opportunity to prove herself. Because she was able to do so, she was soon named president of the company.

city night

Perhaps CDW founder Mike Krasny best exemplifies what can happen if you’re not afraid when opportunities present themselves. In 1984 Mike clearly saw a gap in the tech market. He realized that given the rising demand for personal computers and the relative lack of low-end products, a huge market might exist for reselling computers. The only problem was that he had no experience as a marketer or in operations. He knew a great deal about technology primarily through self-education, but his previous job experience largely involved selling Toyotas for his father, who ran a car dealership. Nonetheless, his passion for the business and conviction that he had glimpsed a major trend motivated him to found the business in his parents’ kitchen, selling his first computer for $200 through a Chicago Tribune classified ad. From there he progressed to selling used computers out of his car trunk. In a relatively short period of time CDW became a $1 billion plus company with thousands of employees and Michael was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. magazine. He embraced the opportunity and learned on the job, unwilling to be stopped by all the things he didn’t know.

Art Frigo takes this whole concept of unexpected opportunities one step further. When he was at 3M he positioned himself for jobs that he wasn’t qualified for in the technical sense of the term. Though he wasn’t a sales supervisor, he was involved in informal projects where he was in charge of other salespeople, and he used this informal experience to bolster his credentials. His belief is that people are more qualified for “next level up” jobs than they give themselves credit for. Though they may not have had formal job responsibilities and clear-cut experience to qualify them for a higher-level position, they probably have been involved in tasks and assignments that have given them knowledge and skills that will be useful at that new level. For this reason Art advocates using both informal and formal experience as leverage to capitalize on unexpected opportunities.