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Three sides of the same coin – A Personal Journey

Posted By Alicia Swart, 19 April 2013
Updated: 18 April 2013

When I started my career in Risk Management in the UK, my manager introduced me to the discipline by saying:  

"Risk is simple… it is all about risk and control. Two sides of the same coin.”  

This proved to be true in the context of where I was working at the time. We were in the middle of Terminal 5’s construction at Heathrow Airport and everything revolved around controls and compliance. The risk process was designed and ready for use. As the Risk and Change Manager it was my responsibility to check that all of the risk registers and method statements were updated and that all documentation was in place. Any cost incurred for rectifying issues or implementing controls were included in the project schedule and budget. Everything was very routine and standard. In short, I was tasked with ensuring that we comply with policies, procedures and legislation.  

I gained exposure to Enterprise Risk Management later in my career. It became abundantly clear to me that there were indeed more sides to this "risk coin”. My focus shifted to strategy as opposed to only controls. My role as the Head of Risk suddenly transp6orted me into a world of uncertainty and "what-if’s”. The reality was that there was nothing in place to measure compliance against. I started to get involved with stress testing the strategic projects and strategies. My focus changed from a threats only mentality to one where "the world is your oyster and full off opportunities.” I was confronted with maintaining the balance between creating and supporting a risk taking culture and the responsibility of independence as it relates to the governance of risk. I was actively part of organisational strategy and supported "proactive informed decisions”. 

To be honest I enjoyed jumping into the world of uncertainty, and that is when it hit me… I think that I am different.

I realised that I encouraged risk taking, even though it was calculated and correctly positioned. I realised that I am by nature a "risk taker.” This confused me for a short time in my career and I went through a minor "risk” identity crisis. Aren’t Risk Managers supposed to be "risk averse” and not "extreme risk takers?”  Am I supposed to fit into the mould of a typical compliance function and live for maintaining a process? At that point I realised that if this is what is required of a typical risk manager, then I must find a different mould.  

One day I was sitting in an interview, and to my surprise the first question was: "why do you change jobs so often?” It caught me off guard and I had to respond instinctively. This was not one of my rehearsed questions. My answer was simple and honest: "I get bored quickly. I strive on challenges and complex projects and the moment I implemented the solution and we go into maintenance mode of the solution… I get bored.”  I was as surprised by my answer as the interviewer was. I found myself continuing: "I am a risk turnaround specialist. I am the Risk Manager that is going to start up or revitalise the risk function. Inspire and educate the employees on what risk management really is. Support growing companies with competitive, new, complex and innovative strategies.  I get risk management working, ensure that it is sustainable, people are enabled to maintain it and then I hand over to someone else.” Strangely enough I received an offer. 

At that point I realised 3 things:
1. I am passionate about risk management and making a difference in each company I work for.  I operate to my full potential when I work with future-oriented challenges and dealing with the essential facts.
2. I love delivering excellent work; hence I need to be sure that I find a good fit in terms of the organisational culture. I test this fit by answering two questions: 
     a.What is the expectation of the role? Am I walking into a position where risk management is relatively effective and I need to maintain the status quo?  Or is there room for introducing something new and innovative? 
     b.Where is the company strategically? Do they have a strategy of expansion?  I realised that I am at my best when I actively support the expansion and growth of the organisation. Is there enough room to be contributing to multiple solutions throughout the organisation? 
3. When I am positioned in the correct role and the organisation is aligned with my natural drive, instincts, force and energy, I maintain my motivation and will be able to deliver excellence with the least amount of mental and physical effort. It does not mean that I can’t fulfil the other elements of risk management to an excellent level, but it will take a lot more to sustain my drive. 


As a result I came to the realisation that we need both types of risk managers. To me, risk represents three sides of the same coin – risk, control and strategy.  No organisation can actively manage its risks without both types of Risk Managers. Organisations need maintainers and revitalisers.  It is therefore paramount for organisations to evaluate and understand where they are in their risk and strategy cycle. Chances are that organisations will require different Risk Managers for different cycles. 

I also believe that it is crucial for the Risk Managers of today to know what they want and how they are naturally wired, in order to deliver value to the organisation and to themselves. Risk Managers need to understand whether they are sprinters or marathon runners? I want to stress this point, it is not about your skills and ability to deliver on the respective roles; it is much more about preference. Skills can be expanded on and you can deliver whatever you put your mind to. It is rather about being the best Risk Manager you can be, with the least amount of effort. 

During this journey I remembered a tool that I was exposed to in grade 11 called the "Kolbe Index A”. It measures your natural drives and instincts. The advantage about using this tool is that the answer does not change over time. It does not change with knowledge, context or personality. I put it to the test more than 10 years later and the results changed by less than 2%. 

Kolbe breaks your natural instincts into four key areas: Fact Finder, Follow Thru, Quick Start and Implementer. The figure below provides a high level overview of the respective breakdowns. It must be noted that all of the elements are seen as positive traits. I have also shown my Kolbe results below to serve as an example.  

The primary idea is to match your profile to your position and to make better career decisions. When I re-did the Kolbe two years ago, I realised that if I use my natural instincts to my advantage, I am effectively only competing against 10% of the risk population. Thus, I need to be in a position where passion and drive takes over. I realised that for me to be the best Risk Manager I can be, I should be in a position where I have multiple contributions and challenges at the same time and have the flexibility to revitalise and implement new risk systems. Not to be in a maintenance and compliance only role where I spend my time solely in a specifying and quantitative function. There are Risk Managers that are better suited for those roles. 

Let me end off by saying that the opportunities for today’s Risk Managers are endless. This spans from being assurance and compliance oriented, strategic interventions and change agents, to quantitative specialists, risk consultants and everything in between. The only question is whether you are appropriately positioned to compete against your 10% of the risk population? Are you the best Risk Manager that you can be? 

You can do a "Kolbe Index A” by visiting  
Alicia Swart

Tags:  easy to comprehend  Inciteful  sensible  thought-provoking 

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