4 Ways to Build Influence as a Risk Manager

Elliott Long , Emily L. Bloedel


August 3, 2020

Decision-makers today have access to more objective data than ever before. However, intangible factors—such as trust—often affect the degree to which risk insights are actually considered in strategic decisions. The importance of trust in professional relationships and business decisions cannot be understated. Trustworthiness breeds influence and influence is one of the most powerful tools risk professionals can leverage to support the organization as it seeks to achieve its objectives. The four tips below can help risk managers gain trust and build influence in their organizations:

 1. Sell your value first so that you get the chance to deliver. Think of yourself as a consultant. You first have to sell your client on the idea that your analysis and input helps them achieve their business objectives. This may be difficult because of misunderstandings regarding the role of the risk management team, the perception that risk management slows down the business, or perceived credibility issues. But once your client has given you the opportunity to prove your value, delivering on the promised outcomes is vital to being engaged again in the future. Helping the business achieve its objectives demonstrates that risk managers provide insights that business leaders do not already have.

Two pragmatic ways to do this are connecting risks to internal metrics and business objectives and supplementing risk analysis with external trends and information. Citing credible external research that demonstrates the quantifiable benefits of risk management can be helpful in selling your value. Anchoring your ideas to such studies can close gaps in trust with colleagues with whom you have not worked closely before. Similarly, synthesizing industry trends and information is another way to add value even if you have little experience. Connecting external information to risks associated with business decisions at your organization and translating that in a clear, simple and concise manner will help keep stakeholders engaged.

To deliver effectively, come to the table with some of your own research and analysis to prove your goal is “know,” not “no.” Have a healthy mix of internal and external data to support your risk insights. Spend extra time tying in internal data like organizational objectives and key performance indicators to explain how the risks in question fit into the big picture of the organization’s strategy. Similarly, leveraging external information, such as data points on industry trends or macroeconomic indicators, is another powerful way to prove you can provide new insights for your audience.

Regularly consuming thought leadership content on risk management best practices, industry trends and effective leadership techniques is the easiest way to do this without having to spend time digging for pertinent research on every single deliverable. Sign up to receive email alerts and newsletters about risk management topics and your industry so that thought leadership automatically comes to your inbox as it is released. Consider carving out 20 minutes before each workday begins to read thought leadership content on topics relevant to your role in your organization.

2. Be an authentic chameleon. Know your audience and tailor your message to them. Different audiences need different levels of detail on different topics.

As a general rule, the higher the person you are speaking to is on the corporate ladder, the shorter your message should be. With executive management or board directors, speak in soundbites and get to the point. This audience does not need to hear the granular details of your processes. Their time is valuable and limited, so it is critical to clearly articulate the punchline up front. This may require spending several hours crafting and refining slides and talking points for a 30-minute meeting, but successfully conveying your points could save you hours of rework later. With an audience of middle management, on the other hand, more detail on the risk assessment process, assumptions and results is appropriate and necessary.

With any audience, anticipate the questions each person may ask based on their role in the organization so that you can respond in terms that resonate with them. Find out before the meeting which KPIs that audience is most focused on and be ready to address how your risk analysis could impact those. For instance, while a finance manager is more interested in a risk’s potential impact to the expense ratio, a colleague in customer service is more likely interested the risk’s impact to customer satisfaction scores. Adjust your talking points accordingly.

Awareness of personalities also matters when interacting with any audience. To foster this understanding and build important relationships, attend as many in-person meetings as possible because even the dialogue in the hallway can offer valuable insight. Colleagues may speak more frankly about risks, gaps in controls or other relevant topics after the meeting has ended because they do not want to be “on the record” as identifying a particular risk or control weakness for fear of being perceived as not a team player. Knowing about these risk exposures can help guide your risk assessment activities and help identify which areas are of biggest concern to the audience.

When attending meetings in person is not feasible, work to foster an environment that encourages personal interactions among colleagues. Using videoconferencing as opposed to conference calls, joining meetings a few minutes early and making small talk with others, and building in extra time for questions and feedback throughout the meeting can all help build relationships in a remote environment and promote participation and candor.

3. Leverage the political and social capital of others who have influence. Political capital refers to goodwill, trust and credibility in the organization, whereas social capital refers to relationships and networks built with colleagues. The political and social capital of those who have influence can accelerate buy-in, as these highly influential colleagues can champion risk management organization-wide. Political and social capital considerations are most relevant to risk managers when questioning assumptions and identifying biases in decision-making. Many risks stem from assumptions, so risk managers should not sacrifice quality of work for the sake of avoiding a slightly uncomfortable conversation. However, these effective challenge processes need to be handled with purpose and emotional intelligence in order to avoid losing trust or influence.

Invest the time in building cross-functional partnerships with colleagues above, below, and across the organization before you need to leverage them. Examples may include project managers who can engage you when they need support from a risk manager, finance managers who have insight into project costs and benefits, and the chiefs of staff of executives who can help you understand executives’ points of concern and current priorities. The input from these stakeholders can help you circumvent avoidable pitfalls when creating and presenting to executive leaders, which helps them better understand the risks associated with their business strategies and associated decisions.

Try not to burn any bridges. While this is arguably common sense, it is particularly important given the cross-functional and relationship-oriented nature of the risk management profession. Just as having highly influential colleagues onboard can accelerate buy-in, having resistance from these colleagues can do the opposite.

4. Bounce back when your input is overlooked. No matter how well you apply the first three tips described above, your risk insights may be overlooked. Perhaps your analysis was irrelevant or not actionable enough. Perhaps groupthink and organizational biases were strong (e.g., a widespread “oh, that won’t happen here” attitude). Worse yet, perhaps the exact risks you warned about came to fruition and derailed a project just as you predicted because the risk was deemed too minor or the mitigation measures too expensive. Whatever the case, risk professionals can learn from these instances and optimize their risk analyses and presentations going forward. To bounce back, a helpful first step is seeking and synthesizing specific feedback via open-ended questions without complaining or expressing discontent. View setbacks as learning opportunities and incorporate the feedback received into future analyses and assignments to improve alignment on deliverables and interactions with colleagues. Remember that navigating these interpersonal dynamics is an ongoing process.

Elliott Long, RIMS-CRMP, is an enterprise risk management consultant at Aflac.
Emily L. Bloedel, JD, MBA, is manager of contracts and legal affairs at Merrick & Company.