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February 11, 2015

10 Building Blocks for Risk Leaders (Part 1)

Summary:

The first of five parts explains what education a risk leader should have, as well as what background in the company and industry.

Photo Courtesy of Vinoth Chandar

Important things in life are not easily reduced to 10 easy steps. Nevertheless, this series provides a list of 10 building blocks to achieving long-term success in risk management from someone who has spent more than 25 years striving to carve out the most satisfying career possible, while never losing sight of the attributes attached to the bigger picture.

1. Many Good Places to Start

Over the years, many people have asked me how they can break into risk management. They see the potential from a distance and have a sense that risk management just might be a better career. Oftentimes, these folks are working within the insurance industry: in claims, loss control, underwriting or brokerage. Interestingly, many in the insurance industry believe that transferring their skills to risk management for a company in a particular industry would be difficult at best. And there has been a parallel mindset within some industries that risk managers should have a background in their particular industry to be successful.

The belief that any risk leader, especially a risk manager, must come from within the industry has been most common in the manufacturing and healthcare sectors. Proponents of this belief argue that their industry is just too special to have a mid-to-senior-level manager come from another industry, that they should not have to train such a manager or even that their industry could not be learned by those coming from other industries. Needless to say, I disagree vehemently with this position. Happily, in the last five years, a few progressive leaders in certain industries, such as healthcare, are beginning to revise their strategies toward actually requiring the new eyes, ears and perspectives that come from a diversity of experiences.

There are many good places to start a career in the field of risk management. Risk leaders come from all stripes, with a large variety of different starting points. Ultimately, they succeed or fail for reasons that go far beyond where they got their start.

2. Educational Strategy

Conversations with my team members about their development have frequently revolved around understanding precisely what educational credentials were necessary to “get the boss’s job.” There are as many answers to this question as there are aspirants to risk leadership positions. I know of no two colleagues whose preparatory or continuing educational profiles are exactly the same—and that’s a good thing . Nevertheless, the question of what educational strategy should be followed to achieve leadership roles in risk management is a valid one.

The first challenge in answering this question is the fact that the risk management function may be part of different departments in different organizations. While reporting patterns have shifted over the years, the risk management function sits most often in the finance area, whether in public, private or nonprofit companies or even governmental and educational entities. The next most common reporting structure has typically been the legal department. From there, the risk management function can and does end up reporting just about anywhere—often because the firm’s management does not understand enough about it to know where it rightly belongs. In some cases, placement of the risk management function is (wrongly, in my opinion) tied to the organization’s risk profile. For example, a real estate company with a large property exposure may place risk management in the property acquisition department. Risk management practitioners may land in any number of odd places as a result.

Where the risk management function is placed in the organizational structure naturally influences the educational requirements imposed in the hiring process, as well as the expectations of hiring managers. For example, if risk management sits in the finance department, there may be subtle to obvious pressures for that applicant to have a similar educational background to the rest of the finance team. This would include a business undergraduate degree and finance-focused master of business administration (MBA), as well as continuing education that might include becoming a certified public accountant (CPA), chartered financial analyst (CFA), etc.

It is generally desirable for risk management employees to continue to report to the finance department over time, especially if they aspire to move out of risk management and into the treasurer, controller or chief financial officer positions. Risk management personnel who find themselves situated in the legal department may find their future opportunities limited and sometimes stifled completely. (Those lawyers can be quite a clubby group.)

Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely risk management employees will be able to predict who’ll they’ll be reporting to next year, let alone five years from now. So, this factor should not drive educational strategies. On the one hand, risk is so heavily influenced by and intertwined with financial aspects of enterprises that having a financial educational background will usually prove helpful to the employee’s—and the department’s—future effectiveness. And, while a general counsel who has risk management reporting to her may prefer a lawyer for all areas of responsibility, the smarter ones will know that a broader skill set—including financial savvy—will be helpful to the department as a whole.

On the other hand, an argument can be made for going the legal education route. A significant part of a risk manager’s responsibility is tied to civil legal matters. People often confuse experienced risk management practitioners with lawyers, as they’ve had to learn so much about the law to succeed. And certain risk management roles, especially in the claims management area, are so involved with legal tasks that legal education is highly valued.

So, what is the best long-term educational strategy? Consider what group of skills and knowledge make risk managers successful. In my experience, those skills include various levels of acumen in finance, law, audit, compliance and operations. This is not to say that education in other specialties would not be helpful, because some risk exposure emanates from every part of an organization. A broad business management education tends to be the most useful for long-term success. And don’t neglect continuing education as a lifelong pursuit. Acquiring specialist designations deepens the knowledge base needed to excel, and these are always worth pursuing .

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About the Author

Christopher E. Mandel is senior vice president of strategic solutions for Sedgwick and director of the Sedgwick Institute. He pioneered the development of integrated risk management at USAA.

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