New Year’s Resolutions for the University Risk Professional

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New Year’s Resolutions for the University Risk Professional

Harry Rosenthal, General Manager, Risk Management Services, Unimutual 

At this time of year, it is traditional to optimistically look forward to the upcoming year and plan our use of the fresh 365 days. While we know the events of the upcoming year remain a mystery and, quoting Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, “Any plan won’t survive its first encounter with reality. The reality will always be different.”.

Difficulty in planning should not deter us from self-reflection and professional development. By professional development I not only refer to the continuous learning our discipline requires but also to the introduction of creative work methods which enhance our personal contributions to the university. This planning should also include steps in personal development. Individually, our roles might appear to be siloed, confined to university insurance, audit, governance, strategic risk, emergency planning, etc.

However, our effectiveness in our own silo increasingly depends on our ability to work and integrate with other campus silos. For example, we could be very knowledgeable insurance professionals, able to answer any insurance policy question with ease, but if we don’t have a firm grasp and appreciation of university revenue sources, we will be less than fully effective in our jobs.

All organisations plan and most aspects of university operation are addressed in some type of planning process. Aside from the obvious financial planning through budget formulation, universities are constantly planning to respond to the commercial and competitive realities which are now part of their operating environment. To illustrate, we accept that very few Faculties or Schools are operating in exactly the same way they did five years ago. As a result they have introduced new courses, new course delivery systems, and new forms of assessment as well as new stakeholders.

As our institutions change, so must the risk professional. Lifelong learning is more than a business catchphrase and could mean the difference between professional success and failure. We clearly see our institutions redefining their operations, their missions and their perception of their roles in the community. Perhaps it would be wise for the risk professional to perform a similar, annual inventory, and to make some New Year’s resolutions which will increase their contribution to the institution over the next 365 days. These are my top three for university risk professional resolutions for 2019.

Lifelong learning is more than a business catchphrase and could mean the difference between professional success and failure.

Resolution #1: Increase my institutional “Street Cred”

Street cred is slang for respect in your community, and we work in a higher education community. We can easily lose sight of this because often our day to day activities can appear distant from the academic pursuits of the institution. Because of university origins, education runs through the very DNA of our employers, even if that does not appear to be the case in files Unimutual is reviewing or the audits we are conducting today.

Why is awareness of this DNA important?

Most will recall Peter Drucker’s comment that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, which is to say a failure to understand our employer’s culture could nullify any strategy we plan to introduce. If we are working in an educational culture and trying to introduce a risk management strategy, the more educational street creds we have, the better the outcome, unless you enjoy being someone’s breakfast.

Recognising that education runs deep through the lifeblood of our employer should affect our planning, both personally and professionally. When processing a trip and fall claim, investigating a fraud or ensuring compliance, we can either forget we are working in education or we can use it to our advantage. This is a challenge as most of us have encountered academics who clearly do not see risk activities as a part of their university DNA. A serious lack of internal street cred.

Many of our professional societies require demonstration of continuing education credits. This gives us street cred in our professional circles, but not beyond. The 2019 planning question I suggest we ask is, “How can we get similar professional recognition in our university community?”. A large component of the answer is, of course, continuing our education. There are many in the sector doing this now, and most appear to have been amply rewarded from the experience. On the other hand, there are many who have not, meaningfully upgraded their CVs in many years, which runs counter to the DNA of their employers.

Recognising that education runs deep through the lifeblood of our employer should affect our planning, both personally and professionally.

How can we claim to be part of the university culture if we cannot demonstrate we are engaged in lifelong learning? While all of us are time poor, we should make 2019 the year our CV gets a few extra lines. These lines need not be restricted to traditional education like additional higher education degrees or diplomas. We can almost as effectively add to our CVs things such as writing an article, presenting at a conference, mentoring a student or even joining a community committee. All of these will demonstrate your commitment to ensuring “all boats rise” and will boost your street creds.

Keeping time poverty in mind, the two most efficient ways to boost academic street cred in our sector would be:

  • Take a MOOC: Massive Open Online Courses are time efficient ways to remain engaged in higher education and to engage the DNA of your employer. Most MOOCs are free of charge, can be accessed around the clock, and are delivered by globally ranked universities. Being a student again should also assist in your understanding of the mindset of the thousands of people who walk outside your window on campus as well.

The topic can be something professionally related or simply in pursuit of a personal interest in an unrelated subject. The point is to become a regular participant in higher education again, which not only increases street cred but will also remind us of the mission of our employer.

  • Deliver a lecture: Make a resolution to teach one class, one day a term, in a discipline where you are regarded as a practitioner. Many academics have guest lecturers join their classes to deliver a lecture to a group of eager students. Doing this at least twice a year, will greatly improve your street creds. I know of several risk people who also teach full classes in higher education programs, and all report they gain more professional development from the experience than anything else they do during the year. Crossing the academic/general staff barrier is not easy, but can be extremely rewarding and will result in a dramatic increase in reputation as well as your understanding of the institution.

Resolution #2: Become involved in something “cutting edge”

If you follow our Emerging Risk Reports, you will be aware of the increase in new issues confronting our sector. While the risk professional may be focused on traditional matters which may touch some of these topics, because many are very technical nature. The risk professional could easily be tempted to breeze over them.

One of the pleasures of the risk discipline is our forward-looking perspective on events affecting our institutions, for example the use of aerial drones, autonomous vehicles, etc. Because many current emerging risk topics appear extremely technical, requiring the attention of specialists, I often have the impression that some risk professionals are acting more like train shunters than risk managers. A train shunter sorts various rolling stock of differing contents to complete trains, in Classification Yards. Shunters identify the various contents and destinations of rail cars, and moves them to the appropriate tracks, to be assembled in to trains. Specifically, risk shunters identify an issue like, say, cyber risk and immediately shunts it to a risk owner, such as the Chief Information Officer.

Often, the risk professional does little to add value to this risk’s mitigation but simply “moves the risk along”, assigning a person to be responsible for the risk’s management. Such shunting does not increase the professional standing of the individual risk manager in the university. To continue the train metaphor, each senior manager has their own train of risks, and adding a few more cars to their trains is not an endearing role.

Why do we shunt these emerging risks?

We do this became our processes require a risk to have an owner who will manage the exposure. We need to be sure that once identified, someone with appropriate expertise will analyse and assess this risk, as well as establish mitigations, follow-up, etc. Also, we shunt these risks along because on the surface they look too technical for us. For example, we may be charged with updating risk registers to include topics such as autonomous vehicle risks or cyber-risks.

Simply because we wrote them down, does make give us much actual expertise.

To continue the example, while cyber-crime may at first appear to be highly technical risk, beyond the expertise of the risk professional, in reality, a leading contributing factor to successful cyber-crime is the actions of the organisation’s employees themselves, rather than the technical skill of the cyber-criminal. Cyber-crime is far from an exclusively technical, IT problem, but clearly resides within the scope of expertise of typical university risk professionals.

With most emerging risks, such as drones, autonomous vehicles, etc there are spaces where university risk professionals can engage and make significant contributions.

New issues are around us always, have a look at changing attitudes in insurance covering statutory fines and penalties, for example.

A good resolution for 2019 would be to select a new, emerging and technical risk, and learn about it and the various aspects of the exposure to which you can directly contribute. With a little reading and education, the risk professional can become a valued partner in these risks, rather than simply attaching them to the trains of risks for others to address.

A good resolution for 2019 would be to select a new, emerging and technical risk, and learn about it and the various aspects of the exposure to which you can directly contribute.

Resolution #3: Have some fun

A New Year’s resolution list would be incomplete if we did not include an element of fun.

Certainly, a resolution to inject a bit more fun in to a work year would be a welcome addition. The question becomes, how do we recognise and measure fun? How will I know if I had more fun in 2019 than I had in 2018? If we agree that fun is a reasonable part of the work environment, how do we “plan” our fun in 2019?

I have had two personal KPFIs (key performance fun indicators), one macro and one micro, which have served me well over the years. They both began as New Year’s resolutions which have remained with me for a long time. I believe they created a direct relationship between my personal view of fun and the work environments in which I have found myself.

KPFI 1- Christmas Party Index

This is my macro measure, working as an indicator of what I consider a fun part of the job as a risk professional. To me there is a great deal of fun in being of assistance to the university business units, and I have found a way to measure this.

While it would be just as easy to record client visits, consultations, meetings attended, etc., as indicators of professional engagements, such metrics only note activities, not necessarily of quality and effectiveness of those activities. I could have provided consulting services, which were of poor quality or unappreciated, and still get credit as performing an activity.

Using the Christmas Party Index, we are measuring not the number of engagements, but how they were received. If your “customer” business unit invites you to their Christmas Party, they must have liked and appreciated your services over the year.

My index simply counts the number of Christmas Party invitations I received each December. As the number increases, it is an indicator my performance is improving.

In the university environment, there are many opportunities for this type of feedback as individual Schools, Faculties and Business Unit each conduct their own Christmas Parties. Regardless of whether you relish or dread Christmas Parties, when they become indicators of professional success, they take on an entirely new meaning.

KPFI 1- Monthly motivational coffees

A second fun index, micro in scope, was the requirement that I have a coffee, at least once a month, with someone who I find interesting and engaging. These coffees are not directly business related but are simply to spend time with interesting people.

In the university context, I will often read the institution’s research magazine which features stories about researchers conducting interesting work. The annual report can provide similar stories. I contact the researcher whose work I find interesting and invite them out for coffee, simply to hear them talk about their research. I am almost always rewarded by hearing interesting, engaging and cutting-edge stories. While I may and often did learn something, the objective was pure enjoyment and being with people who are passionate about their subjects, willing to discuss their interests and also like coffee. I find these engagements to be pure fun, motivational and look forward to them.

Workplace fun is an ethereal concept but is a vital component to sustainable professional effectiveness. It is a very personal thing, but it should not be restricted only to leisure activities but should be incorporated in to the fabric of our work, regardless of what we do. The university sector provides a target rich environment for intellectual stimulation and fun, but like most good things in life, they need to be sought out and identified. While often you pick up useful information along the way, those are gems you find along the journey, not the reason for the excursion. The result can build professional growth AND pleasure.

In summary, New Year’s resolutions can be life changing, and, of course need not be exclusively declared 1 January. Many of the suggestions listed above are probably familiar to the reader, as education, social contacts and fun are popular goals. Some may be dissuaded from incorporating professional planning actions in to New Year’s resolution formats, as there are traditionally low success rates for New Year’s declarations. Regardless resolution making is a tool for issue identification and action planning.

My advice is for you to take a MOOC, buy a researcher a coffee and teach in 2019. These items may not impress your friends at the NYE party as they do not appear on lists of popular New Year resolutions, but they can beneficial in meeting your own goals as well as assisting your organisation.

I wish you an educational, high-tech, coffee-filled, but most of all fun 2019.

In our Spotlight discussions, we sit down for a chat with the individuals that make up the Unimutual community, to share the experiences of the parts that make up the whole. Read our conversation with John Da Fonte, Procurement Manager at the University of Wollongong as he discusses the biggest risks facing the organisation and what it means for UOW to be part of the mutual.