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How to Remove Fear in Risk Management

Someone is looking over your shoulder, and you know who it is. If you’re the CEO, it’s your board and shareholders. On the factory floor or in the cubicles, it’s the foreman or the supervisor. But just as often these days, the sources of anxiety and caution confronting risk managers may not be corporate employees at all. Rapidly shifting technology that is often difficult to understand and measure, unfamiliar demographics, expanding globalization, and ever more stringent regulatory compliance requirements are now part of an anxiety- producing stew that organizations’ risk managers must understand and deal with. All these forces threaten a corporation’s revenue, margins, profitability, and overall competitiveness more quickly and unpredictably than ever.

Consequently, if you are an internal auditor – the person responsible for assessing and helping improve the risk management process – your chair these days may feel more like a hot seat. Which of the decisions daily barraging a modern corporation should be the higher priorities? And how, in a business world of frequent disruption, will you, your superiors, and those who report to you weigh and mitigate the waves of serious risks facing the company nonstop? What are the most important metrics to use for any given risk issue? Can the company rely solely on its in-house staff to analyze and resolve unforeseen and often unforeseeable problems?

Just as important, how will the enterprise as a whole handle these issues and make necessary decisions? How does company culture get in the way of using risk management effectively, to reach the decisions that will help the company grow and become more competitive, and how can sustainable risk management (SRM) assist?

Company managers often are not encouraged to exercise independent judgment, even when they are the acknowledged experts. Without transparency and effective multilevel communications in their company, managers are likely to be wary of crossing unseen boundaries, suspect that hidden agendas are controlling important decisions, or feel isolated and unsure of the enterprise objectives that should help guide their decisions. Moreover, anxiety about making important decisions is common in organizations that don’t give their decision-makers the tools and data required to make intelligent risk analyses. Without confidence that they understand the risks associated with a decision, and in a culture where the consequences of a bad outcome are punitive, managers understandably are likely to be cautious.

Behind employees’ hesitation to make and express independent judgments or to make decisions can be a corporate culture of mistrust, caution, and covering one’s backside. In other words, a culture of fear – fear of losing face, losing a contract, losing revenue, losing political advantage, losing a job.

A culture of isolation and timidity defeats collaboration, creativity, transparency, and the ability of a corporation to objectively analyze the broad range of risks it faces each day. It can render the internal audit function far less effective and useful than it should be and can be. In this environment, the internal audit function may mistakenly be seen solely as a means of uncovering errors, assigning blame, and enforcing penalties. Managers may be understandably reluctant to provide anything other than the most general and diluted information about their operations and decisions.

One need not wade through the scientific research about the impact fear has on decision- making to understand how destructive it can be. The brain has separate centers for processing fearful and rewarding experiences. As Dr. Gregory Berns, director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University, has explained, “The most concrete thing neuroscience tells us is that when the fear system of the brain is active, exploratory activity and risk-taking are turned off.” Good decisions in this state are unlikely. “Fear prompts retreat. It is the antipode to progress,” said Berns. “Just when we need new ideas most, everyone is seized up in fear, trying to prevent losing what we have left.”

In this way, fear can nullify or dilute a company’s risk management processes. An effective SRM program, however, encourages and supports an environment that minimizes fear, reduces uncertainty, and increases transparency and confidence in decision-making throughout the enterprise.

Barriers to Solutions

It may seem that established tenets of good corporate governance already include rooting out the fear, indifference, lack of collaboration, and siloed decision-making that stand in the way of optimizing risk management. After all, most companies talk an excellent game when it comes to collaboration and open and honest risk analysis. Too few, however, have developed the internal mettle to tolerate it.

Starting with assessing corporate culture and change management practices, internal auditors can play an important role in transforming the boilerplate talk into sustainable programs. They can provide unbiased, to-the-point assessments, independent of internal politics. The problems they find and the solutions they recommend can be critical for a company seeking to develop the capacity for SRM. But whether from too much caution and resignation or just fear of change, many internal auditors say the structure of their jobs discourages them from alerting their companies to critical gaps in risk assessment and mitigation.

A recent global study by The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) Research Foundation spotlights some of the problem areas. Not even two-thirds of the surveyed chief audit executives (CAEs) said they consult with division or business heads when they develop audit plans. Only slightly more than half said they consult with audit committees. There may be many reasons for this audit-in-isolation phenomenon, but it commonly occurs in companies that do not value the risk management process and therefore do not prioritize it. The phenomenon occurs in companies where key players are not encouraged to speak up.

Just one-third of audit plans are updated three or more times a year, the study found. This means that CAEs may be overlooking important changes in the business environment. No wonder only 57 percent said that their internal audit departments were “fully aligned or almost fully aligned” with the enterprise strategic plan. This kind of exclusion signals that leadership does not embrace the people responsible for monitoring management of the company’s risk and that the audit function is not seen as a critical part of the management process.

Our experience with clients reflects these findings and shows that risk management professionals themselves may be at least partially responsible for the isolation and erosion of their programs. They could assume, for instance, that the value and relevance of SRM are obvious and not consistently sell a program that’s underway, neglecting to point out its continuing value, highlight its successes, and develop metrics that are easily understandable.

The program itself may not be as inclusive as it should be. Sometimes risk management processes are not designed to seek out and incorporate the views of front-line employees. Any effective SRM process, however, must reach into the depths of company operations. At the same time, employees at all levels often are not trained well in how to assess and evaluate risk. Employees may be able to calculate some risk in dollar terms without appreciating that they also should be looking at, for example, threats to customer satisfaction, employee safety, and regulatory and contract compliance.

Too often, as well, an unappreciated or ineffective risk management program does not account for the unique characteristics and business objectives of the corporation. Organizations sometimes employ a cookie-cutter approach to developing a risk management framework that’s not calibrated to address essential and distinctive company attributes.

Sometimes risk reporting to the board and top executive levels may be so extensive and detailed that no one reads the reports. Or risk reporting may be so superficial that its assessments and proposed solutions carry little weight. When risk management is not seen as a source of continuous improvement for the organization, risk management funding may be erratic or inadequate, its staffing just an afterthought, and its placement in the corporate hierarchy too isolated to be effective.

Working Toward a More Viable Program

An SRM program protects and advances the organization’s primary business objectives. To do their job effectively, risk management leaders must be included as members of the executive management team. Their inclusion helps to ensure that consideration of risks is incorporated into every significant strategic decision.

It is also possible that a company and its leadership simply are not prepared for the important cultural shift required to champion SRM. All too typically, executives are experts at shifting blame, pointing fingers, and covering their reputations when something goes wrong or hard decisions must be made.

SRM requires a no-blame environment, a collaborative process in which personnel work together to assess and solve problems without fear that their careers will suffer or they will lose the confidence of their peers. A frank and constructive assessment of an operational failure, for instance, is possible only when, instead of trying to find fault, the evaluation concentrates on solutions to keep the failure from happening again. This collaborative approach is not common enough in modern corporations.

Why SRM Is Worth It

The benefits of developing an open, fearless, and transparent SRM program ripple through every level of the enterprise. The program helps ensure that the company can perform with confidence and agility in the face of unpredictable events and shifting economic conditions. It supports the development of accurate, timely, and relevant metrics that reduce uncertainty in decision-making. It provides an effective process for dealing with emerging technologies, surprising moves by competitors, market uncertainties, natural disasters, and even internal scandals. When the program is working, the board, C-suite executives, and managers at all levels understand the kinds of risks the company must deal with and then use that awareness when making their decisions.

An active and embedded SRM program, visibly supported by leaders, regularly refreshes the managers’ awareness and stimulates their insights concerning the shifting market and business conditions that pose the greatest risks to the company’s operations. Employees work collaboratively with their supervisors and are asked to help solve missteps rather than being blamed or punished for them.

SRM offers continuing opportunities to save costs and improve productivity. It can reduce operational and material losses and waste and spotlight process improvements. SRM more closely aligns people, assets, processes, and technology with the organization’s business strategies. It also reassures the board and other stakeholders that compliance issues are being addressed and that company assets and reputation are being protected. The results – which we see time and again – include increased growth, improved profitability, and higher staff morale.

How to Manage Claims Across Silos

The long-minimized and largely untapped synergy between casualty claims and benefit programs may offer opportunities for both industries.

Some argue that these worlds are just too different and distinct to bring together, whether through simple alignment or partial to full integration. Managers are often more comfortable in their own functional areas, and sometimes crossing over can stretch expertise and focus. Fundamentally, however, claims are claims.

There’s been a shift in thinking and a growing interest in a more collaborative, aligned and even fully integrated services approach – one that takes many forms but that at its core incorporates a more combined strategy from date of incident through claim closure. The targeted goals for this approach are:

  • Ensuring an appropriate employee experience throughout the life of the claim
  • Targeting and delivering optimal outcomes
  • Minimizing the cost of risk associated with the reasons employees are under medical care or unable to contribute productively to their employer’s mission

Shared Goals

On its face, the value of collaboration seems obvious. From both an employee benefits and risk management perspective, providing care for the individual is of the utmost importance. One of the main objectives is ensuring the right outcomes, which includes leveraging the basic skills of investigation, verification, documentation and equitable resolution that are common between these two realms.

The nuances and distinctions that exist between them are not insignificant, but the key goals are the same – caring for people under medically related distress (regardless of source), minimizing disruptions to workforce productivity and closing claims efficiently and effectively with fairness to all parties and their respective goals and objectives.

Although these objectives have varying levels of importance in each field, they are fundamental to process effectiveness in both. This is not to say that there aren’t peculiar and unique aspects of each that require certain expertise and skills to achieve specific goals.

However, while blending skill requirements among a common group of claims professionals can be challenging, it is not rocket science. Defining and filling positions to enable successful claims handling in both worlds is eminently doable. The biggest hurdle may in fact be the necessary collaboration between these typically distinct functional areas and their leaders.

Many employers are already effectively managing employee injury and disease exposures. There are discernible trends emerging toward fewer silos and more performance-oriented measurements that are focused on short- and long-term strategies. Those companies taking a more collaborative approach can benefit from key elements such as:

  • Compassionate care that puts employee interests first
  • Integrated reporting and measurement across departments
  • Robust analytics that result in prescriptive actions with impact
  • Innovative tools targeted to specific process opportunity areas
  • A more holistic focus on the care of affected employees
  • The over-arching goal of a healthy, productive workforce

So whether or not you have direct responsibility for both functional areas, I urge you to lead the charge that would leverage this opportunity for the benefit of your organization.

Tips for Bringing Kids Into Your Business

Is your son or daughter your successor? What are some things you and they can do to make this a successful succession? Mistakes to avoid when trying to make your son or daughter your successor? Mistakes they should avoid?

As a succession coach who advises multi-­generational family businesses on how to bring in the next generation, and as a business professional whose daughter has been working with her for nearly 10 years, I can offer a few tips that I have found to be helpful:

  1. While your children are attending high school or completing college, provide work experiences during the summer that allow your children to try out different departments and tasks, working with different managers (best never for you personally).
  2. Develop a family business employment and expectations policy defining requirements for education, professional experience and behavioral and performance expectations. If you are thinking ahead, introduce this to them when they are in high school or college to help give them a sense of how they need to prepare, what they should be studying and what it will take if they are considering a career in the family enterprise. This will create a road map so that your children have an opportunity to succeed.
  3. Before designing a job description or entering into any kind of discussion regarding potential employment in the family enterprise, make sure you spend some time in thoughtful discussion together investigating each other’s vision for the future. You may think you know what your children want to be “when they grow up,” but you may be surprised when you actually inquire.
  4. It can be helpful to engage an experienced coach to conduct the interview, using a personality styles tool (like PDP, DISC or Meyers Briggs) to help frame the conversation related to their natural strengths. Many times, I have found kids feeling like they are being squeezed into their parents’ shoes, and it’s not a good fit. If Dad started the business, is a natural at sales, relationship-building and strategic thinking, and Son is a thoughtful, reserved communicator who is very process- and detail-oriented, I can promise you, it will be a difficult path for the Son to ever live up to his father’s and the company’s expectations. Additionally, he will be miserable.
  5. Once you have identified the ideal career path that excites and suits your son/daughter, bring in your senior management team and discuss what you would like to do with them. Enroll the team in creating the right on-boarding process, job placement and develop agreements for how you expect your children to be managed and mentored. Also, how you will support your managers so they can hold your daughter or son accountable without fear of repercussion.
  6. Lastly, establish a family council to share information with all your children, not just the one or two who are currently showing interest. Let all your children know that there are many ways to participate with the family enterprise. Some may want to be community cheerleaders, helping in events and philanthropic activities, while others may dream of managing a division or eventually becoming your successor. You can achieve succession in a multitude of ways. You don’t have to always create a King of the Mountain, where your children have to vie to take your position upon your retirement.

Working with my daughter, watching her grow, keeping it real has been a great joy. I always, ALWAYS keep the most cherished element of our relationship in mind: She is my daughter. I wish her life to be happy, healthy and fulfilled. If that can happen while she’s working with me, it’s icing on the cake.

Dinner With Warren Buffett (Part 3)

This is the third article in this series. You can read the other two parts here: Part 1 and Part 2.

In reading Warren Buffett’s letters to shareholders, we found many gems that inform our opinions and beliefs about how to be successful in the insurance industry. We wanted to share these five pieces that we found key:

1. Be great in your niche rather than a generalist

“[A great insurance manager] follows the policy of sticking with business that he understands and wants, without giving consideration to the impact on volume,” Buffett wrote.

Developing an area of expertise and choosing target markets the company understands in-depth is essential to the success of a carrier or of an agency. This is particularly relevant today as new risks are emerging quickly. Attempting to cover a risk you don’t fully understand is a fool’s game.

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2. Underwriting discipline is key for long-term success

“We hear a great many insurance managers talk about being willing to reduce volume in order to underwrite profitably, but we find that very few actually do so,” Buffett wrote.

While it is common to talk about writing business only with strict underwriting criteria, it is hard to avoid the siren song of growth, especially for publicly traded carriers that have to worry about investors who only care about next quarter. Though it is challenging, a good underwriter must practice discipline in choosing the risks that it insures. Profitable companies will understand that this may mean growing more slowly or less than the year before but will ensure profitability.

3. Never downsize your underwriters during slowdowns

“We don’t engage in layoffs when we experience a cyclical slowdown at one of our generally profitable insurance operations. This no-layoff practice is in our self-interest. Employees who fear that large layoffs will accompany sizable reductions in premium volume will understandably produce scads of business through thick and thin (mostly thin),” Buffett wrote.

In his own companies, Buffett professes to never downsize underwriters because of slowdowns in the market Rather, he prefers to keep the extra capacity to be ready to pounce once the market comes around and the business can be written at proper pricing with expected underwriting profitability. If a company wants to commit to profitability, employees must understand that their first priority is profitability. The best way to do this is to make it clear that employees will be rewarded when this profitability is achieved. Assuring employees that they are not in danger of being laid off because of slow growth is an effective signal. In addition, it will be important to manage hiring practices during periods of growth, so that the company is not overstaffed. The company must strive for efficiency during all cycles.

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4. Understand the challenges of commoditization and regulation

“Insurance companies offer standardized policies which can be copied by anyone. Their only products are promises. It is not difficult to be licensed, and the rates are an open book. There are no important advantages from trademarks, patents, location, corporate longevity, raw material sources, etc., and very little consumer differentiation to produce insulation from competition. It is commonplace, in corporate annual reports, to stress the difference the people make. Sometimes this is true and sometimes it isn’t. But there is no question that the nature of the insurance business magnifies the effect which individual managers have on company performance,” Buffett wrote.

The fact that the industry is so stringently regulated is a challenge for insurers. It is important, therefore, to hire people who are committed to professional development and growth. If the people in your company are going to be the difference, they must believe in the industry and strive every day to do the best work they can. Supporting your employees’ development efforts will inspire a strong culture of growth and achievement.

5. Reserve conservatively

“We are making every effort to get our reserving right. If we fail at that, we can’t know our true costs. And any insurer that has no idea what its costs are is heading for big trouble. […] The natural tendency of most casualty-insurance managers is to underreserve, and they must have a particular mindset – which, it may surprise you, has nothing to do with actuarial expertise – if they are to overcome this devastating bias. Additionally, a reinsurer faces far more difficulties in reserving properly than does a primary insurer,” Buffett wrote.

Companies must recognize and support the need to have an accurate picture of their costs. To this end, a company should encourage its claims departments to strive for accuracy and report potential losses fairly. If a company does not know what it faces, it cannot set goals that will lead to success. Insurance is an unusual business in that we do not know our cost of goods sold until long after the pricing has been set and the policy has been sold; thus, proper reserving is of do-or-die importance.

Much of Buffett’s advice in these five statements centers on the importance of well-educated and knowledgeable employees, which is one of the key things we push for at InsNerds.

How to Avoid Commoditization

How can a company liberate itself from the death spiral of product commoditization?

Competing on price is generally a losing proposition—and an exhausting way to run a business. But when a market matures and customers start focusing on price, what’s a business to do?

The answer, as counterintuitive as it may seem, is to deliver a better customer experience.

It’s a proposition some executives reject outright. After all, a better customer experience costs more to deliver, right? How on earth could that be a beneficial strategy for a company that’s facing commoditization pressures?

Go From Commodity to Necessity

There are two ways that a great customer experience can improve price competitiveness, and the first involves simply removing yourself from the price comparison arena.

Consider those companies that have flourished selling products or services that were previously thought to be commodities: Starbucks and coffee, Nike and sneakers, Apple and laptops. They all broke free from the commodity quicksand by creating an experience their target market was willing to pay more for.

They achieved that, in part, by grounding their customer experience in a purpose-driven brand that resonated with their target market.

Nike, for example, didn’t purport to just sell sneakers; it aimed to bring “inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” Starbucks didn’t focus on selling coffee; it sought to create a comfortable “third place” (between work and home) where people could relax and decompress. Apple’s fixation was never on the technology but rather on the design of a simple, effortless user experience.

But these companies also walk the talk by engineering customer experiences that credibly reinforce their brand promise (for example, the carefully curated sights, sounds and aromas in a Starbucks coffee shop or the seamless integration across Apple devices).

The result is that these companies create something of considerable value to their customers. Something that ceases to be a commodity and instead becomes a necessity. Something that people are simply willing to pay more for.

That makes their offerings more price competitive—but not because they’re matching lower-priced competitors. Rather, despite the higher price point, people view these firms as delivering good value, in light of the rational and emotional satisfaction they derive from the companies’ products.

The lesson: Hook customers with both the mind and the heart, and price commoditization quickly can become a thing of the past.

Gain Greater Pricing Latitude

Creating a highly appealing brand experience certainly can help remove a company from the morass of price-based competition. But the reality is that price does matter. While people may pay more for a great customer experience, there are limits to how much more.

And so, even for those companies that succeed in differentiating their customer experience, it remains important to create a competitive cost structure that affords some flexibility in pricing without crimping margins.

At first blush, these might seem like contradictory goals: a better customer experience and a more competitive cost structure. But the surprising truth is that these two business objectives are actually quite compatible.

A great customer experience can actually cost less to deliver, thanks to a fundamental principle that many businesses fail to appreciate: Broken or even just unfulfilling customer experiences inevitably create more work and expense for an organization.

That’s because subpar customer interactions often trigger additional customer contacts that are simply unnecessary. Some examples:

  • An individual receives an explanation of benefits (EOB) from his health insurer for a recent medical procedure. The EOB is difficult to read, let alone interpret. What does the insured do? He calls the insurance company for clarification.
  • A cable TV subscriber purchases an add-on service, but the sales representative fails to fully explain the associated charges. When the subscriber’s next cable bill arrives, she’s unpleasantly surprised and believes an error has been made. She calls the cable company to complain.
  • A mutual fund investor requests a change to his account. The service representative helping him fails to set expectations for a return call. Two days later, having not heard from anyone, what does the investor do? He calls the mutual fund company to follow up on the request.
  • A student researching a computer laptop purchase on the manufacturer’s website can’t understand the difference between two closely related models. To be sure that he orders the right one for his needs, what does he do? He calls the manufacturer.
  • An insurance policyholder receives a contractual amendment to her policy that fails to clearly explain, in plain English, the rationale for the change and its impact on her coverage. What does the insured do? She calls her insurance agent for assistance.

In all of these examples, less-than-ideal customer experiences generate additional calls to centralized service centers or field sales representatives. But the tragedy is that a better experience upstream would eliminate the need for many of these customer contacts.

Every incoming call, email, tweet or letter drives real expense—in service, training and other support resources. Plus, because many of these contacts come from frustrated customers, they often involve escalated case handling and complex problem resolution, which, by embroiling senior staff, managers and executives in the mess, drive the associated expense up considerably.

Studies suggest that at most companies, as many as a third of all customer contacts are unnecessary—generated only because the customer had a failed or unfulfilling prior interaction (with a sales rep, a call center, an account statement, etc.).

In organizations with large customer bases, this easily can translate into hundreds of thousands of expense-inducing (but totally avoidable) transactions.

By inflating a company’s operating expenses, these unnecessary customer contacts make it more difficult to price aggressively without compromising margins.

If, however, you deliver a customer experience that preempts such contacts, you help control (if not reduce) operating expenses, thereby providing greater latitude to achieve competitive pricing.

Putting the Strategy to Work

If your product category is devolving into a commodity (a prospect that doesn’t require much imagination on the part of insurance executives), break from the pack and increase your pricing leverage with these two tactics:

  • Pinpoint what’s really valuable to your customers.

Starbucks tapped into consumers’ desire for a “third place” between home and work—a place for conversation and a sense of community. By shaping the customer experience accordingly (and recognizing that the business was much more than just a purveyor of coffee), Starbucks set itself apart in a crowded, commoditized market.

Insurers should similarly think carefully about what really matters to their clientele and then engineer a product and service experience that capitalizes on those insights. Commercial policyholders, for example, care a lot more about growing their business than insuring it. Help them on both counts, and they’ll be a lot less likely to treat you as a commodity supplier.

  • Figure out why customers contact you.

Apple has long had a skill for understanding how new technologies can frustrate rather than delight customers. The company used that insight to create elegantly designed devices that are intuitive and effortless to use. (Or, to invoke the oft-repeated mantra of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, “It just works.”)

Make your customer experience just as effortless by drilling into the top 10 reasons customers contact you in the first place. Whether your company handles a thousand customer interactions a year or millions, don’t assume they’re all “sensible” interactions. You’ll likely find some subset that are triggered by customer confusion, ambiguity or annoyance—and could be preempted with upstream experience improvements, such as simpler coverage options, plain language policy documents or proactive claim status notifications.

By eliminating just a portion of these unnecessary, avoidable interactions, you’ll not only make customers happier, you’ll make your whole operation more efficient. That, in turn, means a more competitive cost structure that can support more competitive pricing.

Whether it’s coffee, sneakers, laptops or insurance, every product category eventually matures, and the ugly march toward commoditization begins. In these situations, the smartest companies recognize that the key is not to compete on price but on value.

They focus on continuously refining their brand experience—revealing and addressing unmet customer needs, identifying and preempting unnecessary customer contacts.

As a result, they enjoy reduced price sensitivity among their customers, coupled with a more competitive cost structure. And that’s the perfect recipe for success in a crowded, commoditized market.

This article first appeared on carriermanagement.com.