From INSEAD Knowledge (http://knowledge.insead.edu)
Two years ago, Greg Case, CEO of Aon, a leading risk-management organization, warned that the magnitude and complexity of risk in the world today were increasing.
As was shown by the financial crisis, he was right on the money. To manage risk better across financial institutions, Case says companies must break away from their silo mentality.
Case was interviewed recently by Javier Gimeno, Professor of Strategy at INSEAD.
Q: Given your experience with companies in the context of risk, uncertainty and crisis, what is your perspective about whether leaders should change their leadership style in a condition of uncertainty and risk.
A: I would come back to first principles. What are you trying to accomplish as a firm? Changing strategy, changing course in a time of crisis, may exactly be the time not to do that. We came back to our guiding principles and essentially reaffirmed those guiding principles -- principles around client leadership, principles around people and principles around operational excellence. And those three principles have guided Aon for the last four years and guided Aon well.
And what we've essentially said is, look those are the things that are going to drive our success. And our success is going to be measured in terms of our clients' success.
I can't imagine trying to change course in the context of a crisis. I can't imagine trying to re-communicate all the things you've got to do to communicate a vision, to communicate a DNA, an approach that you think is going to be compelling for your firm.
I would tell you lots of clients we work with take the same approach. And sometimes you have to adapt to specific situations that come up. But at its core, you rarely see a firm completely changing its strategy.
Q: So you see this an opportunity for consistency in the direction of your company and also the companies that you work with.
A: Absolutely. It's much more about being consistent and maybe amplifying or pulling back a bit versus changing. That for our firm is critically important to have been able to maintain and build momentum in a time of crisis.
In many respects when you look at it, everyone's going through the same sets of pressure, same sets of issues. Navigating those in a very calm, clear way, in a way that's compelling for your colleagues and for your clients in the end can potentially differentiate you from competition in a crisis much more than differentiating you in normal times.
Q: The current economic environment is worrying many people. And many organizations for the last 10-15 years have been trying to develop a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in their organizations. So that meant delegation, encouraging people to take risks. And then suddenly with this crisis, we have to build a culture of risk management. Do you think these two cultures are compatible? And if so, how can they be managed so that companies are good at taking risks, but are also good at managing those calculated risks?
A: I absolutely understand what you're describing and I think most of the world would see it as a conflict. We, at Aon, do not.
Risk leadership, risk understanding is really about opportunity. Leaders in companies who really understand risk, see opportunities where other people do not. They take action when other people, other firms do not. Risk becomes opportunity. Risk helps companies decide they want to invest in foreign countries that no one else wants to invest in. Understanding risk mitigation helps companies expand in ways they might not have otherwise expanded before. Risk understanding helps companies to do capital allocation and make decisions around how to invest they might not otherwise done before.
For us risk is very much about opportunity. So, in fact, doing and achieving what others can achieve with less risk, with less volatility is a very powerful thing. Being able to take action that others won't take because they're paralyzed and you're not, and you can move forward in a very thoughtful way, is very powerful.
Q: The banking sector probably was leading in terms of the adoption of sophisticated quantitative risk management techniques. So they saw different regulations of capital requirements, and they evaluated that risk. And yet we see that many of these very sophisticated tools were not effective. How do you make sense of that reality and were they not using the right approach to risk management? Or were they ignoring or missing one dimension that was important?
A: It's very difficult inside of an organization to really understand integrated risk across an organization. Risk often evolves in very specific silos within the organization and you make decisions in those silos and you don't fully understand what's happening across those silos.
And in the financial institutions world you've clearly seen that's the case -- not only in the financial institutions but also with the regulators and the rating agencies. All three, all of us have taken a view that's much more of a narrow view. And when you add up the narrow views you have incredible precision and often inaccuracy.
One great statistic if you think about the rating agencies, is imagine, there are 10-12 triple-A rated companies in the world-- or there were a year ago -- but there are 50-60,000 triple-A rated instruments. Somehow as you think about how all that comes together, every one of those decisions I can almost assure was made in a very good way, in a silo, in a vacuum.
But when you step back and look at it holistically it's really hard to reconcile the two. The same instruments out of institutions -- individual decisions get made with high degree of analytics and technique, but when you look across the organization you get an overall outcome and an answer that's not always the right answer.