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Why Risk Management Is a Leadership Issue

From product scandals to data breaches to natural disasters, companies are dealing with constant risk. But how they prepare for those risks can make the difference between riding the roughest wave — or drowning in it. The field of risk management, once an afterthought for many companies, is getting renewed attention with a new book by two Wharton professors who want to help business leaders think more deeply about worst-case scenarios. Michael Useem, management professor and director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management, and Howard Kunreuther, professor of operations, information and decisions as well as co-director of the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, recently spoke with the Knowledge@Wharton show on SiriusXM channel 111 about their book, Mastering Catastrophic Risk: How Companies Are Coping with Disruption.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: How did the two of you come to collaborate on this book?

Useem: If you think about the two terms that Howard has referenced, risk and leadership, they go together in this case. Often, we think of those as something separate. Risk — we’ve got to be analytical and disciplined, and it’s often technical. Leadership — it’s all about having a vision and setting a strategy. But we concluded, after talking with quite a few people and companies’ directors, executives and senior managers that the time has come for the conjoining of these two terms. Many companies now are self-conscious about appraising risk, measuring risk, managing risk and ensuring the company is ready to lead through a tough moment the risk has caused.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is this a recognition that has developed recently, compared with the executive mindset of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s?

Useem: Yes. I think what really got us going on the book in terms of the timing is exactly what you’ve referenced. Ten or 15 years ago, no companies had a chief risk officer. Risk was barely mentioned. The term “enterprise risk management” (ERM) was not even around. But if you look at any trend line out there, what do people worry about when they get together at watering holes for senior management? Risk now is on the agenda just about everywhere, for good reason: Because the risk that companies have faced in recent years has gone up. The catastrophic downside of big risk also has increased. More risk, more downside, more people are paying attention.

Kunreuther: One of the really interesting issues associated with the study and our interviews with senior management is that, before 9/11, there was very little emphasis by the firms on low-probability events — the black swan events. Starting with 9/11 and continuing through to today, these issues now have become more important, and black swans are now much more common than before. As a result, firms are paying attention. When we interviewed people, they were very clear with us that now that the events have occurred, they are putting it high on the agenda. As Mike has indicated, the boards and all of senior management are now paying attention to it, so it’s a big, big change.

Knowledge@Wharton: Certainly, 9/11 was an impactful event on the country, but it was followed a few years later by the Great Recession. How did that change the view of risk?

Useem: We raised the question in these in-depth interviews with people inside the company, whether on the board or in the management suite, and they consistently said that four events became a wake-up call or an alarm bell. First, 9/11 got us thinking about the unthinkable. A couple of hurricanes came through, including Sandy, which was a huge event. The recession or the near-depression back in 2008, 2009. Who thought that the Dow was going to lose 500 points in a day? Who thought Lehman was going to go under? But it all happened. And finally, the events in 2011 in Japan with the enormous tsunami after a 9.0 earthquake that left probably 25,000 people dead and set a fire in a nuclear plant.

Even if you were a company that was not touched, just look at the four points on a graph. The costs are high. Many companies are impacted. Everybody thought, let’s get on with enterprise risk management. Let’s make it an art.

See also: How to Improve ‘Model Risk Management’  

Knowledge@Wharton: How have business leaders changed their thinking about risk management because of those four events?

Kunreuther:  Leaders are now saying, “We have to put risk on the agenda. We have to think about our risk appetite,” which they hadn’t thought about before. “We have to think about our risk tolerance.”

Financial institutions played that role, and they were very clear about that right after the 2008-2009 debacle. They had to ask themselves very explicitly that question. But I think this is now much broader than that. Leaders have recognized that they also have to think longer-term. This is one of the issues. We have a framework that we’ve developed in the book that tries to combine some of the work that has come out of the literature that Daniel Kahneman has pioneered on thinking fast and slow — by indicating that intuitive thinking is the mindset that we often have. Thinking myopically. Thinking optimistically. Not wanting to change from the status quo. Leaders have now recognized that they have got to put on the table more deliberative thinking and think more long-term. That is a change, and they tie that together with risk.

One of our contributions, with respect to the book, is to try to put together a framework that really resonates with the leaders and the key people in the organization so that they can respond in a way that makes sense.

Useem: We asked a lot of people who are in the boardroom, if they go back 15 years, was risk, cyber risk or catastrophic risk in board deliberations? The answer typically was no. Ask the same people about today, and they say, “Of course.” We watched with horror what has happened with some of the cyber disasters at Target and elsewhere, and no board worth its pay is these days unconcerned about risk. Now, you’ve got to be careful. The board works with management, sets the vision, does not micromanage. But what boards are increasingly doing is saying to management, “Let’s see what your risk tolerance is. Let’s see what your risk appetite is. Let’s see what measures you already have in place. Nobody wants to think about the unthinkable, but let’s think about it.”

Knowledge@Wharton: The fake accounts scandal at Wells Fargo and the emissions controversy at Volkswagen are two recent examples of risk that you document in the book. Can you talk about that?

Useem: We don’t mean to pick on any company, and we don’t mean to extol the virtues of any company. But we can learn from all. Howard and I took a look at the events at Wells Fargo, which were extremely instructive. No. 1, the company put in very tough performance measures. They told employees, you’ve got to get results, otherwise you’re not going to be here in 12 months. But there was not a recognition that very tough performance indicators without guardrails against excess of performance was a toxic mix. We’ve seen what happened to Wells Fargo. They’ve paid billions in fines. The Federal Reserve has a stricture right now that Wells Fargo cannot accept one more dollar in assets until it can prove to the Fed that it has good risk measures in place.

We also document in the book the events with Volkswagen, which had the so-called defeat devices intended to report if a VW vehicle was brought in for an inspection, that the emissions were meeting U.S. standards. In fact, the software just simply was fooling the person looking at the dials. That, apparently, went all the way up to the top. We’ll see what’s finally resolved there.

Wells Fargo and Volkswagen took enormous hits in terms of reputation, brand, stock price and beyond. We also document a bit the BP problems in the Gulf…. They’re instructive.

Kunreuther: We didn’t interview anyone with respect to Volkswagen, but we did have public information, and it’s included in the book. The reason that we felt it was so important is that VW felt that this was a low-probability event that they would be detected, and they put it below their threshold level of concern. They emphasized the optimistic part of this, which was to say, “Let’s see what we can do as a way of really improving our bottom line.” What we do in the book is give a checklist to people, to companies and to individuals. We see it as a broad-based set of checklists on how they can do a better job of dealing with that.

What we really say is: Pay attention to these low-probability events. If you think not only in terms of next year but over the next 10 years, what you can see as a very low-probability event would actually be quite high over a period of time. If you begin to think long-term, which is what firms want to do, you pay attention to that.

Knowledge@Wharton: There’s such an economic impact on the company when these issues can’t be resolved quickly. Toyota, for example, has been dealing with its airbag problem for several years.

Kunreuther: You tie the issue of getting companies and directors to pay attention to the low probability, and then you say to them, “Construct a worst-case scenario.” Put on the table what could happen if it turns out you were discovered, or if there is an incident that occurs, or an accident, as Mike was saying on the BP side. What’s going to happen to the company? What will happen to its reputation, its survival, its bottom line? Our feeling is that, if you can begin to get people to think about the appetite and tolerance in the context of these low probabilities that could be quite high, then I think you have an opportunity for companies to pay attention. And they’re doing that, as Mike and I have found out in our interviews.

Knowledge@Wharton: What about when the disaster is a natural phenomenon, such as the volcanoes in Hawaii and Guatemala? Companies have to be prepared, but they can’t control what happens.

Useem: As we’ve watched the events unfold in Hawaii and Guatemala, it’s a great warning to us all that the impact of natural disasters worldwide is on the rise. There’s just no other way to describe it except a graph that’s going up, partly because people are living closer now to some of the places that historically are seismic. Hurricanes are possibly being intensified by global warming. There are more people along the Florida coast. All that being said, natural disasters are obviously in a much bigger class of disasters.

[Since] we wrote this book for people to be able to think through their own catastrophic risk management, we offered [examples] from the experience of other large companies, mainly in the U.S. We have a couple of German companies that we focused on: Deutsche Bank, Lufthansa and so on. We suggest that the vigilant manager, the watchful director, ought to be mindful of 10 separate points. One is, be alert to near-misses. What we mean by that is, “There but for the grace of God go I.” If I’m an energy producer, watch what happened to BP in the Gulf. Let’s learn from what they went through.

The A-case for me is Morgan Stanley, which had been in the South Tower of the World Trade Center when 9/11 hit. Because of the events eight years earlier — in 1993, a bomb had gone off in the basement of the World Trade Center — the risk officer at Morgan Stanley said, “Who knows what else might happen? That was a near-miss.”

Rick Rescorla, [vice president for corporate security,] insisted that Morgan Stanley every year practice a massive drill of evacuating the tower. When 9/11 occurred, the North Tower was hit first. Morgan Stanley is in the South Tower. Rescorla said, “Let’s get out of here,” and he managed to evacuate almost all 4,000 people. He was one individual who did not get out. He went back in to check. He is a hero for Morgan Stanley and many other people, but the bigger point taken from that is: Learn from the world around us, because these developments are intensifying. The threats are bigger. The downside is more costly.

See also: 3 Challenges in Risk Management  

Kunreuther: Near-misses are important in any aspect. But the other point that I think is important for today is another part of the checklist: Appreciate global connectedness and interdependencies. That point really became clear with Fukushima and with the Thailand floods. We asked each company what was the most adverse event that they faced? They had the complete freedom to say anything they wanted. The death of a CEO could have been one. Kidnapping was another. But as Mike indicated earlier, Fukushima was a critical one, and so were the Thailand floods. These were companies in the S&P 500, but they were concerned about how they were getting their parts, so supply chains were very important. They recognized after Fukushima that they were relying on a single supply chain that they couldn’t rely on for a time.

Knowledge@Wharton: How can a company prepare for the unexpected death of a CEO?

Useem: From looking at the companies that are pretty far into it, all we’re calling for is getting those risks figured out, then having in place a set of steps to anticipate. It’s like insurance. The best insurance is the one that never pays off because the disaster has not happened. The best risk management system is the one that’s not invoked.

In the book, we get into the events surrounding a fatal Lufthansa crash. Within minutes, they were in action. Within minutes, they had called the chancellor of Germany. Within minutes, they had people heading to the scene, not because that’s what they do but because they had thought about the unimaginable, and they had in place a system to react quickly. You have to deal with an enormous amount of uncertainty when disaster strikes. Premise No. 1: Be ready to act. Premise No. 2: Be ready to work with enormous uncertainty, but don’t let that pull you back from the task ahead.

Rapid Diagnostics for Life Policies

For years, insurance companies have taken steps to improve the life insurance underwriting experience in the hope of removing obstacles and decreasing not-taken ratios. To that end, some have forgone the traditional exam altogether in favor of simplified issue. But the truth is, consumers still aren’t flocking to life insurers, and the results of these efforts have been incremental.

Force Diagnostics has taken a different approach. We’ve developed a consumer-centric process featuring rapid testing that delivers results in 25 minutes. Tests are performed outside of the home in retail clinics and pharmacies, and results are immediately transmitted directly to the carrier’s underwriting engine for immediate processing. Because of the speed to results, innovative insurers and reinsurers could offer an accurate quote for life insurance to their consumers within 24 hours. And with the benefit of testing with fluids (HbA1C for diabetes, cotinine for nicotine, lipids for cardiovascular risk and the presence of the HIV virus, as well as body mass index and blood pressure), insurers may offer the majority of their products quickly and with assurance.

See also: Next Generation of Underwriting Is Here  

The potential results of using this new process can be seen in this underwriting performance calculator.

Once the calculator is downloaded, you may select a typical life insurance policy from a dropdown menu and enter assumptions that reflect an existing underwriting process. The calculator then shows a comparison on underwriting costs, internal rate of return (or IRR) increases, issued policy increases and the potential effects on persistency. At the end, total costs per app are calculated, as are total profits.

There is tremendous value in improving the customer experience throughout the underwriting process.

The Case for Connected Wearables

It was an event maybe even more anticipated than Neil Armstrong’s Moon shot in 1969. I had never tuned into one before, yet there I was, sitting in my pajamas at 1 a.m., frantically trying to get back onto the streaming podcast that my iPad had just dropped, as millions of other nerds the world over were trying to do the same thing.

Apple’s product announcement event on Sept. 9, 2014, had drawn unprecedented interest. I certainly was expecting Apple to “do it again” – you know, change the world in a subtle yet pervasive way, as I am sure many others struggling to get onto the live webcast also believed would happen. After all, the company that Steve built had done it with iTunes, with the iPhone and with the iPad. And now we all wanted to see if Apple’s first wearable device – the Apple Watch, was going to change our lives in the same way.
apple

Well, we definitely saw something that early morning in September, but the realization of the promise still lies ahead, with the first retail delivery of Apple Watches not until late April 2015. What is certain is that Apple has successfully moved the idea of a connected wrist health and fitness tracker from the niche arena of health-conscious individuals to the mainstream “Joe Public.”

Interestingly, even if Apple falls short this time, it has set in motion a great race with Microsoft, Google, Samsung, Fitbit and many others to fulfill and surpass the vision that we all saw in September. In 2014, world-wide revenue from the sale of wearables was roughly $4.5 billion, but, in 2015, expectations are sky-high. Some experts predict sales will increase as much as three times, fueled in the most part by the Apple Watch.

So why are wearables a good thing for insurance?

watch

The rise of wearable fitness trackers as part of corporate wellness programs has been an emerging trend over the last 10 years. In the past, enlightened companies were giving out Fitbits to help employees track their own fitness. More recently, companies have been trading program participation and fitness data captured from such programs for discounts on their corporate health insurance. For example, Appirio, a San Francisco-based cloud computing consultancy, was able to get a 5% discount ($300,000) off its insurance bill in 2014, while BP America distributed around 16,000 Fitbits to employees as part of an integrated wellness program and claim to have put a brake on corporate healthcare cost increases by slowing them to below the U.S. national growth rate in 2013.

A key ingredient to the success of these programs is the engagement of the members, so that healthy behaviors are encouraged and rewarded. In the BP example, the Fitbit data was easy to “gamify” because of the connected nature of the device. Members competed on a number of challenges, including the “1 million step” challenge, simply by wirelessly “syncing” their devices. Cory Slagle, the spouse of a BP employee, was able to trim $1,200 off his insurance bill through participation in this program — dropping nearly 32 kilograms and 10 pants sizes and reducing his high blood pressure and cholesterol back to normal range in just 12 months.

Vitality of South Africa has recognized the importance of a holistic health and wellness program for well over a decade and has built up an impressive array of statistics, including:

–Participation in health and fitness programs reduces health claims by 16%
–Logging fitness activities reduces risk by 22% for the unhealthiest category of participants
–Participating members are as much as 64% less likely to lapse on their insurance as non-participants are
–Participating members have as much as a 53% lower mortality rate than non-participants

The only trouble is that participation in such programs remains minuscule, with opt-in rates in some cases of just 5% for those eligible to join. Despite the programs’ value propositions being augmented with an affinity network of providers supplying goods and services at a discount for participating members, opt-in rates and persistency remain problematic.

A recent survey by PWC found that, if the connected wearable device was free to the member, then about two-thirds said they would wear a smart watch or fitness band provided by their employer or insurer. Cigna completed a connected wearable pilot in 2013 involving 600 subjects, which indicated 80% of the participants were “more motivated to manage their health at the end of the study than at the beginning.” In the U.S., United Health, Cigna and Humana have already created programs to integrate connected wearables into their policies, to create reward systems based on data sharing. In one innovative program, a “wager” penalty system was found to be three times more effective in motivating healthy behavior than the typical rewards these programs offer. The “wager” involved the member’s signing up to achieve and then maintain reasonable fitness targets over the course of the year to avoid having the cost of the health screening be deducted from their salary.

A key hurdle to overcome with the data generated from connected wearables is privacy and security. Individuals want to know what insights are being generated from the data being collected and want to selectively share with the program based on the perceived value they get back. They also need to know that the data continues to be secure and private once shared. Apple is working this angle through its HealthKit, which is positioned as the data control room for consolidating and securely sharing health- and fitness-related data to selected parties. There are already in-the-field health trials in progress with Stanford and Duke universities that are being powered by HealthKit. Google, Samsung and several others have also launched similar competing frameworks, so the data privacy issue is understood and being addressed by the technology companies offering products in this space.

I want to mention an innovative, data-driven, life insurance program that currently doesn’t use any wearables but easily could. AllLife of South Africa provides affordable life and disability insurance to policyholders who suffer from manageable chronic diseases, such as HIV and diabetes, and who sign up to a strict medical program. Patients get monthly health checks and receive personalized advice on managing their conditions. Data driving the program is pulled directly from medical providers, based on client permission. If a client fails to follow or stops the treatment, then the benefits will be lowered or the policy will be canceled after a warning. The company assesses its risk continuously during the policy period, contrasting with the approach of other companies, which typically only assess risk once, in the beginning. This approach allows AllLife to profitably serve an overlooked market segment and improve the health and outlook for its customers. It plans to cover more than 300,000 HIV patients by 2016.

The video of AllLife’s CEO, Ross Beerman, on YouTube is quite inspirational, and I recommend you see it. He says, “Our clients get healthier just by being our clients.” He also mentions the challenges of building an administration system to support AllLife’s customer-engagement model.

In summary, several intersecting trends have conspired to make this the perfect time to consider the launch of insurance programs and products powered by the new insights from the data being made available through wearable fitness and health trackers:

The whole fitness and healthy lifestyle perspective has entered into the mainstream culture
Devices like the Apple Watch have become fashionable, objects of desire
The data from these devices is easy to capture and share – no forms to fill in
–The data is of clinical quality, in at least some cases, and therefore useful for actuarial models
–Insurers have already started to jump on the idea of “telematics” for humans for risk pricing
–Feedback from this data is able to positively modify behavior to reduce health risks and improve the quality of life for those participating

I am still undecided if I’m going to be up at 1am again, this time outside the Apple Store, waiting for the Apple Watch to go on sale. However, the line outside the Apple Store that night could be very fertile ground for agents selling polices driven by the data these new devices will provide, if only companies act now and get their programs in place.

Thanks for reading, and see you in the gym 🙂

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 edition of Asia Insurance Review.