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Leadership Content From product scandals to data breaches to natural disasters, companies are dealing with constant risk. But how they prepare for those risks can make the difference between riding the roughest wave — or drowning in it. The field of risk management, once an afterthought for many companies, is getting renewed attention with a new book by two Wharton professors who want to help business leaders think more deeply about worst-case scenarios.
How Companies Are Coping with Disruption. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
How did the two of you come to collaborate on this book? I think we came to do this because of our interest with respect to leadership and how risk is dealt with by corporations. We were very fortunate to have the late Jay Fishman, CEO of The Travelers Companies, really supporting this effort in the sense of giving us complete freedom to do a whole set of interviews and providing the financial support.
The book is dedicated to him. Mike and I had gotten together over a number of years to think about these issues, but this was the first time that we had formally worked on the notion of interviewing key people in organizations.
If you think about the two terms that Howard has referenced, risk and leadership, they go together in this case. Often, we think of those as something separate. Many companies now are self-conscious about appraising risk, measuring risk, managing risk and ensuring the company is ready to lead through a tough moment the risk has caused.
Ten or 15 years ago, no companies had a chief risk officer. Risk was barely mentioned. But if you look at any trend line out there, what do people worry about when they get together at watering holes for senior management?
Risk now is on the agenda just about everywhere, for good reason: Because the risk that companies have faced in recent years has gone up. The catastrophic downside of big risk also has increased. More risk, more downside, more people are paying attention. As a result, firms are paying attention.
When interviewing people, they were very clear with us that now that the events have occurred, they are putting it high on the agenda. How did that change the view of risk?
We raised the question in these in-depth interviews with people inside the company, whether on the board or in the management suite, and they consistently said that four events became a wake-up call or an alarm bell.
A couple of hurricanes came through, including Sandy, which was a huge event. The recession or the near-depression back in Who thought that the Dow was going to lose points in a day?
Who thought Lehman was going to go under? But it all happened. And finally, the events in in Japan with the enormous tsunami after a 9. Even if you were a company that was not touched, just look at the four points on a graph.
The costs are high. Many companies are impacted. How have business leaders changed their thinking about risk management because of those four events?In this list a military disaster is the unexpected and sound defeat of one side in a battle or war, sometimes changing the course of history.
Military disasters in this list can range from a strong army losing a major battle against a clearly inferior force, to an army being surprised and defeated by a clearly superior force, to a seemingly evenly matched conflict with an extremely one sided.
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