What’s in a Word? Risk Management Leaders as Mission Champions

By Erin Gloeckner

“What’s in a name?” asks Juliet in William Shakespeare’s famed play Romeo and Juliet, as she argues that her and Romeo’s family names are the only cause for their families to remain enemies. Though the Capulet and Montague names were meaningless to Juliet, researchers and philosophers from ancient to modern times have investigated how language affects human worldviews, beliefs, and emotions.

In risk management practice, there is much anecdotal evidence that language does affect human perception of risk and even willingness to engage in conversations about risk. Myriad negative emotions could be elicited by ‘risk’ as it is defined by Merriam-Webster: “possibility of loss or injury;” “someone or something that creates or suggests a hazard;” “the chance that an investment will lose value.” No wonder many people struggle to view risk-taking as potentially positive and necessary to mission advancement.

At NRMC, we prefer to think about risk in a positive way—specifically about the potential rewards that risk-taking can garner. The NRMC team believes that risk management aims to safeguard against threats in order to open up time and resources for nonprofit leaders to take on more risk that offers potential to advance their missions.

Considering the prevalent confusion about the nature of risk and the negative emotions that risk tends to elicit, the NRMC team works to showcase risk management in a positive, more progressive light. Of course we aim to do the same for risk management leaders, who we call Risk Champions.

The ‘champion’ designation pervades many industries but we have taken it to heart in regards to risk management. Members of the NRMC team have heard risk leaders described as “the risk police,” “the department of NO!” or “the person that everyone avoids… and asks forgiveness from later.” Why are risk leaders—individuals working to protect the work of their peers and also empower them to leverage opportunities—viewed as naysayers and Debbie Downers?

Risk leaders should be viewed as mission champions, and they should self-identify as champions.

What’s a Risk Champion?

Aside from defining champions as the victors or winners of contests, Wikipedia explains what it means to champion a cause: “In an ideological sense, encompassing religion, a champion may be an evangelist, a visionary advocate who clears the field for the triumph of the idea. Or the champion may merely make a strong case for a new corporate division to a resistant board of directors. Such a champion may take on responsibility for publicizing the project and garnering funding. But in this case he or she is beyond a simple promoter.”

Staying in that vein, at NRMC we believe that people who champion risk management initiatives likely strive for and achieve goals such as the following:

  • Uplifting the notion of ‘risk’ as something more dynamic than a threat—something that is worth consideration and investment
  • Cultivating a culture of inquiry and candor amongst nonprofit team members who must be willing to openly discuss and deconstruct risks
  • Driving a holistic or systems perspective that takes into account many diverse perspectives on risks and recognizes how risks intersect and play out across many departments and functions of an organization
  • Instilling productive—not punitive—risk assessment and risk management practices, including honest reflection on past risk events and organizational failures as a platform for collectively doing better next time

What other broad goals might a Risk Champion work toward? Some goals might be unique based on the individual’s vantage point and job role in the organization. A Risk Champion can be anyone—it’s not necessarily a person with ‘risk’ in his or her job title.

For an NRMC client that has established an interdisciplinary Risk Champion workgroup, the individual risk leaders are sought from every department and every authority level across the organization. This inclusive model enables the workgroup to source relevant risk expertise from wherever it sits—without reverting to using job titles and authority levels to dictate who takes part in the risk conversation.

Inspired by this client’s homegrown model and the positive cultural effects I’ve witnessed amongst the workgroup peers, I mulled over the Risk Champion goals listed above and drilled down a bit further to explore qualities desirable in a risk leader. This isn’t an exhaustive list but it captures some of my personal favorite qualities of risk leaders I’ve been honored to work with:

  • Big picture thinker, explorer: capable of understanding the organization, the organization’s environment, and the organization’s risks from a holistic or interdisciplinary perspective; seeks to understand how risks and risk management initiatives influence multiple stakeholder groups and staff teams across the organization
  • Problem solver, solution-oriented: able to guide conversations about risk concerns—which can easily turn into griping sessions—into productive dialogue that results in multiple possible solutions
  • Team player, organizer: able to break down workplace barriers in order to engage diverse staff across the organization and cultivate buy-in and investment (staff time, resources) for cross-departmental risk management initiatives; demonstrates a ‘service mindset’ and is willing to help and listen to peers from any department
  • Positive, future-focused: demonstrates that risk management is not a backwards-looking ‘blame game,’ but is a way for all team members to collectively move forward and protect the organization; believes that effective risk management creates opportunity for taking more risk-informed risks that can advance the organization’s mission
  • Candid, caring: comfortable with candid dialogue and transparent risk reporting, both in sharing his or her own individual perspective and in listening and thoroughly considering myriad perspectives from the diverse team members in the organization
  • Life-long learner: does not necessarily have previous risk management experience, but prioritizes risk management and continuous learning; derives energy and satisfaction from risk management work, is always looking for ways to integrate risk-aware thinking into team discussions and other business practices/processes

If you made it through my shortlist of Risk Champion qualities, please reflect for a moment on these questions, and email NRMC at info@nonprofitrisk.org to share your thoughts.

  • What qualities resonate with risk leadership priorities at your organization? And what essential risk leadership qualities are missing from my list?
  • Are risk management leaders empowered to live out these qualities (or other effective leadership qualities) at your organization?
  • What elements of your organization (e.g., cultural, structural, strategic priorities, etc.), have helped make the Risk Champion role a reality OR have hindered Risk Champions and the adoption of risk management practices?

A Language for Risk Champions

Being a Risk Champion is a two-way, or more appropriately, multi-way street. Remember the perception that risk leaders are risk police? I do believe that team members often instinctively perceive a risk leader as a hindrance—again, even the topic of risk or the word ‘risk’ can prime people to retreat to a defensive or negative mindset. I also believe that risk leaders sometimes bring the police title upon ourselves.

 Our language affects our peers, too. As recapped above, risk leaders sometimes face immediate pushback from peers simply because of their risk-related job roles or even because of the implications of the word ‘risk.’ During risk assessments, NRMC consultants typically interview many members of a nonprofit team in order to understand their perspectives on risk. Some individuals are comfortable with the conversation, but it’s clear when others worry about retaliation for having identified risks they are concerned about. We notify interviewees of confidentiality, but during many interviews we hear, “I’m double checking that this is confidential, right?” This experience makes it clear to me that some people feel ‘risk’ is linked with words like ‘fear,’ ‘blame,’ ‘retaliation,’ ‘secret,’ ‘danger,’ etc.

While risk leaders wage a linguistic and cognitive battle—persuading our peers that it’s safe and even good to talk about risk—we might be inadvertently exacerbating these cultural barriers. The next time you enter into a risk assessment conversation or you provide a colleague with insights about the risks involved in a specific project or program, be mindful of the language you use. Are you the department of no? How many times do you put the kibosh on an idea? You’re responding with good reason, I’m sure, but a colleague might simply hear ‘no’ without hearing or understanding your reasoning.

Much like advice I’ve heard about managing arguments between family members or friends, I think we can change the dialogue approach and the language to support a better outcome for both parties—the risk leader and his or her peers.

  • Unless absolutely necessary, don’t start with “no.” Try explaining the WHY—your reasoning—before getting to the bad news (e.g., We both care about ABC Nonprofit’s reputation, and I’m worried this action could damage that reputation because…).
  • Always try to present a solution or another idea, especially if you have to say “no” to what your peer has presented. Whenever I call a customer service line for help, the worst outcome is when the representative says, “I can’t help you.” It always feels better when the rep presents another solution to my problem or suggests another way to resolve my complaint.
  • Lean on Aristotle’s three rhetorical appeals—when combined, these three elements make for very persuasive messaging.
    • Credibility: demonstrate that you’re the right person to be having this conversation with your coworker. You’re the Risk Champion, you’ve been trained and empowered to fulfill this role. Aristotle suggests that to appear credible, you should be competent, and show goodwill and empathy. So acknowledge your colleague’s concerns and explain that you can work together to make the idea a reality—while managing risks as well.
    • Logic: Present a clear and sensible rationale for why your peer should consider the risks, or why she should take a different approach in order to manage risks associated with the initial idea. Even if you get a negative reaction at first, most people will see the logic, even if it takes time for them to come around.
    • Emotion: appeal to your colleague’s heartstrings by connecting risk management to your nonprofit’s mission. You could even try connecting risk management to your colleague’s own job (e.g., “John, I know as program director, this new program is so important to you, and managing the risks will help you achieve the best possible outcomes in your work…). Emotional appeals will achieve for the heart what logical reasoning achieves for the brain.

Just as our family members and friends react to our words, our peers, supervisors, and direct reports might beam or flinch based on the language we use to discuss risks and risk management initiatives. Practice mindfulness to remain aware of the semantic signals you’re sending to your team members. Do right by Juliet and strike negative sentiment from the name Risk Champion.

Erin Gloeckner is the former Director of Consulting Services at the Nonprofit Risk Management Center.