The average risk manager is unlikely to be a main board director (although some are) and unlikely to head a large team (although some do). Since this is a classic 'achieving results through others' role, success or otherwise is going to depend directly on the degree of influence the risk manager can exert on others in the organisation.
The risk manager will therefore often be in front of a group of people – department heads, executive committees or indeed the main board – with the need to gain support and approval for a particular course of action. Although previous experience will help, few risk managers will have received specific training for the task. What are some of the key issues and what practical techniques can you harness to maximise your chances of a good outcome?
The starting point is knowledge, because you cannot be credible if you lack key facts. We can sub-divide this into knowledge about the organisation and knowledge about risk. Risk managers need to take an overview of the full spectrum of risks faced by the organisation. Although risk managers are likely to have a background in one specific area or risk, perhaps insurance or property protection, they must also be credible in any risk area that may arise. This business knowledge will typically have been built up informally through dealings with colleagues across the organisation, and formally through some kind of systematic risk assessment, profiling or mapping.
Conveying the knowledge
The risk manager also needs the ability to convey knowledge to colleagues, and risk poses a number of special problems in this respect. These include the difficulties in measuring risk, – risk being by definition about the unknown events of the future – and the fact that, traditionally, risk managers have dealt in negatives. This has led to colleagues perceiving it as a subject that only has a downside.
This is changing as we see a more holistic approach to risk, including business as well as pure risk. The risk manager has to remind everyone that risk is not necessarily a bad thing, and that ultimately there would be no business world if there were no risk taking. The risk manager's job is to make sure that pure risks are minimised, and that all other decisions about risk are taken wisely and with the benefit of the best analysis.
Planning, preparation and practice
As the day of the crucial presentation approaches, the next key element for the risk manager is preparation. While some rely on shooting from the hip on the big day, this is a high risk strategy if your personal objectives include hanging onto your job! The better prepared you are, the better the outcome will be. This is not to say that the meeting should be totally scripted in advance. However, it is only by being well-prepared that you will be equipped to deal with not only what is certain to come up, but also with what might come up.
Take care over preparation. By taking trouble you are making a statement about the importance of the issue. Rightly or wrongly, people do judge the message by the package. If your material is presented in a professional and well-thought-through manner, it is far more persuasive than something put together in a hurry.
If using any sort of visual aids, make sure that everything will be ready in the room for you to present. If you hold up a board meeting for 20 minutes while someone tries to work out how to plug the lap top into the projector, tension will rise and you will almost certainly not get a favourable hearing. This is the kind of moment when we have to live risk management – if we are unprepared and have no contingency plan, how can we convince our organisations to invest in these things?
People vary in their solution to this problem. One is to prepare, test and practise, so that any possibility of things going wrong is excluded. The second is to have back up equipment. The third is to be ready to do the presentation without the visual aids, which can be a good discipline in itself. The ideal is probably a combination of all three approaches.
If you have never received any training in presentation skills, then consider having some. Most people find the prospect of presenting intimidating, especially when a lot hangs on the outcome, but the good news is that these skills can be learned. There are about ten simple rules which, if religiously applied, will make your presentation both competent and professional.
Thinking about the group
Preparation is not just a matter of assembling facts and creating Powerpoint slides. Think about the dynamics of the group you are addressing. What is their agenda? What are the issues that really matter to them? If you can address these with your proposals you stand a much better chance of achieving the famous 'win win' outcome.
Useful techniques include force-field analysis, which, at its simplest, means understanding not only the drivers for change but also the obstacles and forces of resistance, and friend/foe analysis. This means looking at the group you are seeking to influence and broadly categorising them as Friend, Floater or Foe – typically all three will be present in the average management group. Understanding the distinction is important, as it directly determines the best way of influencing them, which will be different for each of the three groups.
Friends are people who are likely to be supportive. Conversations should be held to confirm that support and reinforce it. People do not like to be taken for granted, and they do like to be thanked for their help. Expressing thanks for promised back up strengthens the support and tends to make wavering less likely. Taking support for granted can turn a Friend into a Foe, and an alienated Friend is probably your worst possible adversary!
Floaters occupy the key middle ground in any debate. Get enough of them on your side and you win, alienate enough of them and you lose. The key with Floaters is to identify areas of common ground and seek to build on them. If they believe that your proposals will resolve something that is a problem for them, you are likely to be able to count on their support. Remember that you don't have to convince everybody – just the critical mass of the group.
It is easy to write Foes off, but it is a big mistake; they should always be treated with respect. As with Floaters, if you can make a concession to their agenda, they may come round to your way of thinking, and a converted Foe may well prove to be a more influential ally than a longstanding supporter.
The big day
Once you are actually in the room and the meeting is in progress, here are a few of the golden rules.
Keep the objective in mind Remember why you are there, and hold out in front of yourself what it is that you are seeking to achieve. As all the management books say, if you don't aim, you won't hit. Respond to the points people raise, by all means, but do not lose your own sense of direction and purpose.
Respect timing and attention span Nothing drags the energy level of a meeting down more than cumulative overruns, and it may cause serious problems if it is a meeting where every agenda item has an allocated time slot. Avoid the situation where the group chief executive has to choose between hearing your presentation on risk management and catching his plane home!
If you have the luxury of a long slot, remember that most people cannot maintain their concentration for more than about 20 minutes per topic, so think about a change of activity to re-awaken people's interest. Check the group's body language to gauge the attention level: people sitting forward, keeping eye contact with you and asking sensible questions are involved; people slouching, looking away or covering their faces in their hands are not. You need to do something to regain their attention and interest.
There are two main techniques to ensure you finish on time. One is to rehearse until you have got it perfect, the other is to deliberately make the presentation considerably shorter than the slot and have some spare material up your sleeve. You then have a period of time to reserve for discussion, or for your additional material.
Eye contact It is essential when talking to a group to maintain eye contact with them. If you do not do this, you will lose touch with them within minutes. Even more seriously, according to one piece of research, the group will perceive you as untrustworthy and unreliable. Clearly, you cannot keep eye contact with every individual at the same time, but you can sweep your gaze round regularly. Eye contact is also your way of judging attention level. Be especially wary of losing eye contact if you are using an aid that requires you to turn at least partially away from the group – flip chart or dry wipe board, for example. And while we're on the subject of wipe boards, do not use your permanent marker on them!
Signposting This means making people aware of how what you are saying at the moment relates to the whole of presentation. For example, you might begin by saying "I'm here today to feed back to you the results of our risk assessment. We have identified three main areas, a, b, and c, and I'd like then to discuss how we as an organisation are going to respond." In the middle of your talk, you might then 'bridge' by saying "So a, b and c are our main risks. Let me now go on to look at what we can do about them", and at the end you would summarise and go over any actions agreed. Thus at any given time, an audience can see where the points you are making fit into the whole.
Humour Humour is a two-edged sword. At its best, it can build common understanding between you and the group, lighten the atmosphere and maximise your impact and influence. At worst, it can destroy a presentation and leave you looking unprofessional.
Enthusiasm Almost all people respond to an enthusiastic presenter. One piece of research suggested that something like 80% of the impact of a presentation was attributable to the enthusiasm of the presenter.
Getting buy-in We all know stories of advertising campaigns that won creative awards, but no one could remember what product they were for. As you get towards the end of your presentation, take a moment to recall your objectives. We all have been to meetings where we thought something had been agreed, but where it actually got watered down later. So, having presented the problem, explored the alternatives and tabled solutions, be clear about what is being agreed, and make sure everyone else is too (especially the person taking the minutes).
Follow up quickly after the meeting to build on what you have achieved. Remember that agreements made around a table count for nothing if not translated into action. Convert words into deeds as soon as you can.
Paul Smith is head of training, Marsh Risk Consulting, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org