You finally did it! You landed that senior risk management position at a fabulous firm. The job search took a while, and the vetting was intense. But you made the cut. They chose you!

A bigger challenge is yet to come.

Starting a new job is exciting. It can also be a little frightening. You want to get off on the right foot, but how?

I’ve had plenty of clients start new risk management jobs and call me with the same question. I’ll give you the advice I give them.

For your first few weeks focus on three things, and nothing else.

First, you will have certain duties, such as signing off on the daily risk report. You need to learn these duties and perform them. Don’t let this consume too much of your time.

Second—and most important—you need to listen.

I don’t know what risk management was like at your old firm, and I don’t know what it will be like at the new one. But I know they will be completely different.

Every firm has its own business model and its own risks. Every firm has its own mix of personalities and culture. Every firm struggles with its own recent history.

That’s important. I’ll give you some examples.

  • Suppose your new firm is beefing up risk management in the aftermath of some staggering loss. In such a circumstance, there is a tendency to go too far—to view all risk as bad and to push risk managers to be risk police. Your role may be to quickly implement sound risk management and then communicate that it is safe to resume judicious risk taking. This may take some hand holding.
  • Or maybe you are replacing a risk manager who was larger than life. She built a successful risk management function from the ground up. She was the heart of the operation until she decided to take early retirement. Now she is relaxing in New Mexico, and you’re supposed to fill the void. You need to establish credibility as a worthy replacement, identify all that was positive about her operation, so it can be continued, and recast risk management as more of a team effort.
  • Or maybe you were hired following a long political battle between a senior risk manager and the head of an operational unit. Politics around risk management can be ugly. In the aftermath, morale will be depleted. You may be encouraged to run a token risk management function and not create waves. That would be a recipe for disaster. What you need to do is give risk management a fresh start as you move the firm beyond the battles of the past. Your enthusiasm, communication skills and diplomacy will be critical.

Here I have given you three scenarios. Each one is a potential minefield. And each is completely different. What did I tell you? Every firm poses unique risk management challenges.

That’s why you need to listen.

You need to orient yourself to your firm’s recent history as well as the attitudes and consequences that linger from it. These will shape your prerogatives. They will dictate your goals—and how you achieve them.

Reach out to your new colleagues—within risk management and across the organization. Schedule one-on-one meetings. Talk a little and listen a lot. Approach your task like a reporter researching a story. Here are sample questions you can ask to draw people out.

  1. From your own perspective, what is risk management? Give me your definition.
  2. What risks relating to your own work most concern you?
  3. Do you feel the firm has a culture that is supportive of risk management? Why or why not?
  4. Overall, how satisfied are you with the current risk management process? What would you keep. What would you like to see change?
  5. What were my predecessor’s strengths? What were his/her weaknesses?
  6. What was the firm’s biggest risk management failure in the past five years? Tell me what happened.
  7. Is there anything you think I should pay particular attention to over the next eighteen months?

Don’t treat this like a survey. No. The purpose of the questions is to get people talking. Ask follow-up questions, probe, delve deeper. Don’t move on to another question until discussion of the previous one is exhausted. If you don’t get to all the questions, that is fine.

But make sure you ask the one question reporters always ask:

     8.  Who else do you recommend I talk to?

People are likely to ask what your plans are for risk management—or what you perceive as the role of risk management within the firm.

Be careful how you respond. You might truthfully say

My focus for now is on learning the current risk management system—what it does well and what needs to be improved. I also want to learn how you—and everyone—would like to see risk management develop. I will use that as a jump-off point for my own planning, when I get to that.

Through open-ended discussions, you will develop relationships. You will learn the context into which you were hired. You will understand the unique task that lies ahead.

As an outsider, you bring a fresh perspective, so it is likely you will have some good ideas. Through your meetings, you may identify some immediate improvements you can make to risk management. Or you may find a simple solution to some longstanding problem.

Implement these.

That is the third thing I want you to focus on—achieving some early successes.

Optimally, these will be things everyone can support. They will give you credibility and make people want to work with you. They will affirm in people’s minds that you were the right person to hire for the job.

Early successes will give you momentum to take on bigger challenges in the months ahead.

So that’s your game plan for the next few weeks—perform your duties, listen, and achieve some early successes. Follow the plan, and I won’t have to tell you what comes next. You will soon know what needs to be done—and how to do it.