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Kathy Walters made many sideways moves, sometimes running different functions for three or four years at a clip.

“All this so I could really understand the trade-offs you make in leadership,” says Walters, an executive vice president at Georgia-Pacific.

“If you want to lead, you’ve got to understand people and know the skills necessary for different jobs,” says the woman trained in physics and math who’s also worked in finance, research, manufacturing, labor relations and logistics, and who most recently oversaw the redesign of Brawny paper towels. “I’m hiring senior-level executives to run major functions of our business, so the more understanding I have about what it takes to excel in those roles, the better leader I am.”

As deliberate as she seems, Walters is all about change.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” she says. “I would say it’s about 80/20. Eighty percent of the time I’m OK, and the other 20% of the time I make mistakes—which usually have to do with hiring or not making a decision quickly enough. A common mistake is to do nothing.”

Anybody who moves up in an organization has to make big decisions and take risks, which means being open to errors.

Just do your homework and think through risk mitigation before you start something, she says: “If you find yourself not making bold decisions, then you’re not taking risks, and how will you grow?”

When Walters finds herself in a situation where improvement won’t happen, she rates that a failure. “I’ve defined my whole life by finding the next thing to make bigger, make better,” she says.

The best career advice she ever received? “My very first boss told me to change your circumstances so that you learn something new.”

—Adapted from “Career Chameleon,” Taylor Mallory, Pink Profiles, www.pinkmagazine.com.


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