It was about twenty years ago that I first sat down with a colleague who had the title of Risk Manager. Our new Risk Manager wanted us to make sure every musical act, any magician, well, anyone we invited to campus through our various programs, had insurance. It was a new idea, and an added expense, and Student Affairs staff were not happy about it. We found a way to make it possible to manage the risks and to limit the costs. In other words, we worked things out and of course, such discussions are routine now.
It was about ten years ago when the new Risk Manager on campus presented my colleague, the vice president for Business Affairs, and I with a Risk Management process. As they all are now, the university process was connected to the processes of FEMA and the city and county. It was all very logical and orderly with a complete decision-making matrix. And it left out the human element completely. I asked the risk manager where a team bus going off the road would fit on his matrix? He worked his way through his process and placed it in the lowest quadrant. After all, it only involved a few people and no infrastructure. Luckily for me, my colleague had the same reaction as I did. We sent them back to the drawing board with some advice and guidance for improvement.
People and Process
It’s obvious that risk management is a complex process. However, in my experience, it’s often reduced to flow charts, matrices, and processes. It looks relatively simple that way – linear even. Until you add people, that is. I often say the riskiest thing we do as a campus is bring students to campus. And faculty and staff run a close second. People are messy. They don’t fit into a matrix and rarely follow a linear process. They have crazy ideas. We want them to be innovative. They try new things and make mistakes. They do embarrassing things and create public relations nightmares.
My experience in Student Affairs work has been to try to keep the opportunities open for people to do all this messy work. Yes, we need to manage risk. Yes, we need to pay attention to safety. The challenge, of course, is to keep our concern with risk and safety at reasonable levels. To remember we are to manage risk, but eliminating risk is not possible. Nor is it desireable.
As I was asked once as a new leader – what is your tolerance for risk? How do you think about risk-taking and risk management? For yourself and for your organizations. Finding ways to work things out, to balance the risk and the rewards, that’s risk management. That’s the work of leadership.