Business and Markets

How to Take Advantage of a Chance Encounter

January 17, 2018  • Nancy McGaw


A white ibis on a beach on Hilton Head Island, its image reflected in the shallow water. This photograph commands our attention; we look twice.

I’m sure there are plenty of ibises bending their beaks toward the water many times a day as the light catches their reflections. Anybody on the beach that afternoon — or many other afternoons — could have seen the same image and shot this picture. Few of those photos, however, would compare with the one taken by this award-winning photographer, Anne Delano Weathersby, who also happens to be a close friend from my college days.

With years of practice, Anne has developed a trained eye and a photographer’s timing. She knows how to get the shot just at the right moment with the right light, from the right angle. She is ready to take advantage of an opportunity that others might miss.

Seeing that ibis at that moment was a chance encounter. Getting this exceptional photo was a result of preparation and readiness.

In the world of corporate social intrapreneurs that I inhabit as director of the Aspen Institute First Movers Program, I am often reminded of the importance of finding opportunities that arise from chance encounters and being ready to take advantage of them to move to the next level of impact.

Who are corporate social intrapreneurs? They are exceptional business people who are taking the lead in creating new products, services, business models, and management practices that deliver value to the business itself and make the world a better place. In short, corporate social intrapreneurs work for positive change within big companies. By learning from some of them, you can prepare yourself for chance encounters and make the most of the opportunities (and ibises) life throws your way.

Consider the story of Laura Clise, a First Mover Fellow since 2013, which involves a chocolate croissant. While getting her MBA at Thunderbird, Laura attended the UN Global Compact Summit in Geneva. The event brought together corporate CEOs, civil society leaders, academic experts, and government officials to accelerate cross-sector collaboration regarding sustainable development. Laura was fortunate to be among a handful of students working to support the event.

Chance encounters may actually be the on-ramp to a pathway for creating value for your company and the world.

One of the plenary speakers that year was Anne Lauvergeon, then CEO of AREVA, a French multinational nuclear and renewable energy corporation. During a networking break after Anne Lauvergeon’s talk, Laura gave in to her weakness for pain au chocolat. As she headed toward the pastry line, she spotted Ms. Lauvergeon who was at that moment between conversations. Laura was ready for this chance encounter. For one thing, she had learned to speak French. Furthermore, she had spent years developing expertise in international development and corporate responsibility reporting and strategy. Summoning her courage, Laura struck up a conversation in French with the CEO which led to an exchange of cards. The upshot? Months later Laura was invited to join AREVA to establish and lead the sustainable development and continuous improvement department for their North American operations.

Anyone attending the Summit that day might have been on their way to the pastry line and had the chance to say hello to AREVA’s CEO.  Few, however, would have been prepared to take full advantage of that chance encounter.  Laura was ready and she was rewarded for that preparation.

Shekinah Eliassen, a First Mover Fellow since 2017, provides another example. Shekinah is an expert brand strategist. For 15 years, working with iconic brands such as Vaseline and Dove at Unilever and Greenworks at Clorox, she has honed her skill, yet is always looking for ways to build and expand it. But a few years ago, she was struggling to find roles that enabled her to bring a greater sense of purpose into her work. Around that time, she attended an offsite for the marketing organization and had the opportunity to hear a persuasive speaker, the former Chief Marketing Officer at Procter & Gamble. His remarks called audience members to reflect on how they could bring more purpose into their work. He reminded them that brand strength was a matter of capturing minds and hearts. Shekinah took up the challenge. It was the spark she needed to step up.

She joined a small task force at Clorox explicitly focused on ensuring that purpose was better integrated into the culture, workstreams, and products that the company creates — all with the goal of living out Clorox’s mission: to make everyday life better every day. To the work of the task force she brought her own deep experience – on brand positioning, sustainable design, consumer research. When the call came in the form of a speech at an offsite, she heard it and eagerly responded.  She is continuing on this trajectory as a purposeful innovator in her current role for the ecommerce marketing relationship with Amazon. She is using her passion and expertise to find creative solutions for reducing packaging waste associated with online retail.

Laura’s chance encounter with AREVA’s CEO and Shekinah’s chance encounter with a marketing master opened possibilities to do work that mattered to them: creating value for their companies and making the world a better place. But they were able to act on these possibilities only because they were well prepared and they boldly stepped up.

As 2018 unfolds, there is advice embedded in these stories for each of us. Hone your craft. Summon your courage. And realize that a chance encounter can be a doorway to opportunity if you are prepared to open it. For corporate social intrapreneurs, the stories serve as a reminder that chance encounters may actually be the on-ramp to a pathway for creating value for your company and the world.

You’ll never know if you aren’t ready to take the shot.

Nancy McGaw is the founder and director of the First Movers Fellowship Program, an innovation lab launched in 2009 by the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program. This selective Fellowship is designed for exceptional business innovators (corporate social intrapreneurs) who are creating products, services, business models and management practices that deliver financial value for their companies and make the world a better place. Learn more about Nancy on LinkedIn.

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