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Insurance Careers

Becoming a Great Risk Manager

Jill Brooks | February 8, 2019

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Achieving greatness is a very personal idea, so it can be difficult to define. But regardless of how it is defined, the key to achieving greatness requires a vision, a plan, and positive actions that lead to success. This article provides tactics that can lead to success.

One of my claims managers was given the opportunity to become a risk manager. Although I hated to see her go, I was proud of her and excited for her to move up in her career. She mentioned that she wanted to be successful as a risk manager, the way I have been. That got me thinking—what advice could I give her on how to be a successful risk manager? Here's what I came up with.

  1. Treat your service providers with respect. Before becoming a risk manager, I briefly spent some time on "the other side" at an insurance brokerage working with risk management information systems (RMIS). This was in the early days of computers in insurance and risk management, and my clients were risk managers of the biggest companies in town because those were the ones that could afford RMIS. Of these clients, some were the thankful, friendly types; others were the type to yell at the broker to make themselves feel important.

    This experience made me understand the old saying "you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar." Since then, I've tried to treat my brokers, underwriters, claims adjusters, and other service providers with respect, hoping they'll do a good job for me because they want to, not because they're afraid I'm going to yell at them or fire them. Mutual respect goes a long way to getting the job done and getting it done well.

  2. Get credentials. Nothing says you know what you're doing better than a bunch of letters following your name. The credentials following my name are longer than my name, and I don't even include my master of business administration (MBA) in the list (because it's education, not a professional designation). When I got out of school…. Wait, let me stop here because that was my first credential—I'm one of those people who got an undergraduate degree in risk management and insurance (RMI). So, after getting a degree in RMI and a job in RMIS (and learning that our industry is full of acronyms that only we understand), I was bored and missed studying.

    I decided to start working on my Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter (CPCU) designation. While this designation is well-respected throughout the risk management and insurance industry, the risk management side doesn't value it as much as the insurance side does. I ended up moving to the risk management side in the middle of my CPCU studies, and my new boss suggested I get the Associate in Risk Management (ARM) instead. So I did. And then I finished my CPCU. Two designations down!

    With those two in my pocket, I made a few moves up the career ladder. Then, one day, I looked around and realized that risk management was getting to be more finance-focused and that having an MBA would be useful. I researched my graduate school options and selected a local school with a big name and a good reputation that would serve me well in my city. Two years later, with an MBA in finance and strategy, I got my "big MBA job" with a real estate investment company specializing in the niche market of nontraded real estate investment trusts, which they marketed through their own wholesale securities broker-dealer. Wow!

    When the company started getting into construction, I decided I needed to educate myself in construction risk and insurance, so I got the Construction Risk Insurance Specialist designation through IRMI. Later, I dealt more and more with directors and officers insurance and errors and omissions insurance, which are areas that most risk managers don't spend much time with, so I decided to get IRMI's Management Liability Insurance Specialist designation as evidence that it is a specialty of mine. Later, I got interested in enterprise risk management (ERM). Since my boss liked all of my designations, he asked if I could get a designation in ERM. I could, and I did, adding the "E" to the end of my ARM.

    I don't plan to get any more risk management and insurance designations, but my new employer has its own "university," and they've got some interesting things in their course catalog!

    Here's my point: Never stop learning!

  3. Get to know your coworkers/risk owners. As a risk manager, you need to know what's going on within your organization so that you can determine the best risk management technique to use (risk finance, risk control, risk avoidance, etc.). That means learning about the current, short-term, and long-term operations and plans of the company, which can be done by talking to your coworkers at all levels.

    The other information gathering you do as a risk manager is filling out insurance applications. This often requires you to reach out to the risk owners for information, such as human resources for payroll and headcount info, finance for revenue figures and audited financials, information technology (IT) for cyber-security information, and so on.

    Know who in your company is the best resource for information and get to know that person. You don't have to buy him or her lunch (although, this helps!), but you should at least go to his or her office and introduce yourself. Make your information requests in person, and make them as easy as possible for the person to respond to. Maybe that means walking through an insurance application's questions with him or her or providing him or her with the answers from last year's application and asking him or her to update them.

    You want your coworkers at all levels to think of you as a resource (not just the person who harasses them for information all the time). Although you're "the client" of your broker, insurers, third-party administrators (TPAs), etc., your coworkers are your clients. You should be the go-to risk management resource they feel comfortable coming to. That way, they'll come to you with risks, and you can be proactive rather than finding out after the fact and having to scramble to manage the risk.

  4. Learn how to speak to finance and accounting. This doesn't mean you have to get an MBA (although, it does help), but it does mean understanding how those worlds interact with risk management. You should be comfortable speaking with accountants about things like the accruals for liabilities associated with claims under the deductibles. You should be comfortable speaking with finance/treasury about things like collateral, incurred but not reported claim values, and budgeting for the "ultimate" value of claims.

    So how do you gain this knowledge? If you don't want to go the MBA route, many colleges and universities have certificate programs in accounting and finance that aren't as time-consuming as an MBA. There are plenty of online classes. You can learn from other risk managers.

    Another resource is on-the-job training—speak with those coworkers who you went out and met and who you've been asking for information from. Allow them to teach you about accounting and finance, as it will make both of your jobs easier.

  5. Learn how to create and give presentations. One of the best classes I took in graduate school taught us how to give effective presentations. We learned how to use PowerPoint, how to keep the information in the slides brief yet informative, and how to use the slides as a jumping off point to discuss the issues in greater depth. That doesn't mean memorizing a speech; it means knowing what you want to say, having bullet points on the slides as reminders of what you want to talk about, and then verbally filling in the details behind each of the bullet points.

    We also videotaped ourselves giving presentations. It's hard to watch yourself present, especially when you realize you have habits you'd prefer not to have, like saying "um" too often, swaying back and forth when you speak, or making hand gestures that are too extravagant and distract from what you're saying. Yes, it's hard to see yourself doing these things, but it does help you realize you need to work to correct them.

    Practice your new skills in front of the mirror, the camera, or your friends and family. Starting with a group of people you know can help you become more comfortable. After that, there are plenty of opportunities to give presentations, whether that's in your local Toastmasters group or in organizations you belong to, even if it's just your book club.

  6. Be confident and comfortable speaking to executives, boards of directors, and ownership. Unless you're just a super confident person, the only way you're going to gain confidence with this is by doing it. Yes, these people can be intimidating, but you can start with something easy, like saying "hi" to them in the hallway or elevator. That means you first need to know what they look like—company directories, websites, and annual reports are good resources for this.

    When you do have to speak with them beyond just "hi," remember that you are the risk management subject matter expert. You likely know more about risk management and insurance than they do (that's why they hired you). But, if they ask you a question you don't know the answer to, don't give them an off-the-cuff answer to get you past the moment. Tell them that you don't know, but you'll get back to them with an answer (and be sure you do get back to them with an answer). They'll respect you more for it.

  7. Represent your brand well. And by "brand," I mean risk management. When I tell people I'm a risk manager, they either 1) don't know what that is or 2) mention Ben Stiller's character in Along Came Polly. Have your elevator speech ready. Here's mine.

    "There are lots of different types of risk managers these days, such as those dealing with banking and credit risk as well as IT/data-security risks. But I deal with overall corporate risk management and insurance, like workers compensation, property insurance, and directors and officers liability insurance. I protect the company's people, physical assets, and financials. I try to keep claims from happening, but if they do, I represent the company's best interest in resolving them."

    Sure, I do a lot more than that, but that's my quick and easy explanation in layman's terms.

    I also represent my brand at local universities and in local organizations. There are multiple universities near me that offer classes and degrees in RMI. I love speaking with the students and getting them interested in our industry and all of the opportunities it holds. I've been a member of my local RIMS chapter since I got into risk management. I attend monthly luncheons and have participated on committees and the board of directors. These activities keep me well-networked and well-informed of trends in the industry.

  8. Stay current; be relevant. There are lots of resources in our industry to help you stay current: industry groups, magazines, daily emails with industry updates, and local and national RIMS meetings and conferences as well as seminars and happy hours put on by attorneys, TPAs, brokers, and insurers. You can meet peers at these events, and then they become resources, too. Find out what your peers are doing—maybe it's something you should implement in your organization. As your company evolves, figure out what you can do to manage its new risks. Remember, you are a resource, and your coworkers are your clients. Do what you can so that your clients continue to see you as a valuable resource.
  9. Network, network, network. The best way to stay in the know is by networking, and risk management is a great industry to do it in because we're a tight-knit group. There are plenty of organizations to help you get connected—RIMS has national and local meetings, conferences and events; so does CPCU. Plus, there are plenty of industry-specific organizations such as the Public Risk Management Association (for public entity risk managers) and the American Society for Health Care Risk Management (for healthcare risk managers). There's also a new group making its way onto the scene—YRP, which stands for Young Risk Professionals. Always exchange business cards with new people you meet and send them a "nice to meet you" email afterward as a way to stay connected. Don't forget to connect with them on LinkedIn, too.

    Your peers can help you when you're trying to figure out a problem at your company, and they can also help you find a new company when you need a job. I've gotten more than one job over the years because of my network connections. I still had to interview for the jobs and be the best candidate, but my connections got me in the door.

    Likely, if you're trying to create something or figure something out, one of your peers has done it before and would be happy to help you. Need to put together a PowerPoint presentation on ERM for your board of directors? Wasn't there a speaker at your local RIMS chapter's meeting a couple of months ago talking about that subject? Send the speaker an email for pointers or a copy of his or her presentation!

    Don't be afraid to reach out to your peers or even someone you don't know to ask for help. RIMS has a member directory that its members can access, and LinkedIn is an amazing, open networking tool. This is an industry where people help each other. Yes, we're competitive, but helping each other helps the profession as a whole.

    And don't forget to check the resources through global RIMS and places like IRMI.

  10. Stay ahead of the curve. Know what's going on in the industry, your company, and your company's industry. Companies evolve; you need to, too. Don't just be prepared to deal with emerging risks when someone in your company brings them to you, go to that person and ask how he or she is approaching the issue and what you can do to help.

    I got my MBA because I saw risk management becoming a more financial role. I introduced enterprise risk management to my company and got a designation in it because that's where I saw the industry moving at that time. I don't know what or where the next curve is, but I'm on the lookout, and I'll be ready for it!

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