Creating a Culture of Risk Management

Dean Coughenour, ARM
Risk Manager, City of Flagstaff, AZ
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It’s my first day on the job as the new municipal risk manager. I am excited for sure, but then I realize that the “Culture of Risk Management” is nearly absent. My excitement dwindled to an anxiety of how in the world can I turn around this very large ship of “that’s not my job," to a team of, “I am the risk manager.”

My first advice is to assess where you are now. Do employees know how and when they should report incidents and accidents? Do employees actually follow that procedure? Is compliance training up to speed? Are policies in place that support my organization’s goals and objectives?  Are incidents and accidents reviewed by peers and then the message of prevention shared? How is risk management viewed by my supervisor, directors and the employees at large? Maybe the most important question is: who do the employees think the risk manager is?

Other signs a risk management culture was seriously lacking was also obvious; a high experience modification factor, a number of frequent flier claims, late reporting of incidents and accidents, a lack of near miss reporting and a view that risk management was... over there somewhere.

And so it began. I had to slow down and recognize that this is a 3-5 year change process.

I first had to start with what is most important and will have the largest positive impact with the least amount of resistance. Small wins early on build credibility and foster inclusion of risk management.

I have come to learn that the secret to building a positive culture is - - you guessed it - --  people. Begin by sitting down with directors and key leadership to talk about risk management. Find out what they believe it has been, what they see it as today and how they envision risk management in the future. To be clear, this meeting is NOT about risk management, but about building the foundation of a working relationship and teamwork with the organization’s leadership.  The side benefit is you will get to learn about their department and to educate them on how, when and where risk management can help them meet their objectives. At the same time, invest a few hours every month in “ride alongs” with the employees on the ground…police, fire, sanitation, public works and other departments you serve. Always keep in mind that to achieve desired results, you must have the support of the employees or progress will be severely impaired.

Then, policies need to be current and in place to provide direction to the employees and to assist in meeting the organization’s goals.  Remember, small steps.  This is a 3-5 year plan of teamwork. Networking and a series of small wins is the course.

Reporting of incidents and accidents is also most critical. Make your reports short and easy to understand in a form that can be easily emailed. When I first arrived at my entity, the ONE and ONLY report form was 13 pages long and contained sections that seemed to duplicate each other. A large percentage of time the reports were not completed, nor sent to risk management promptly, or at all. The structure today is outlined in a how-to manual broken into specific loss sections. The instructions are on one page and the corresponding report form is one or two pages long. The objective is to be in the loop as soon as is practical and making it easy for employees to make that happen.

When a new training program is first designed, polished and ready to roll, the first audience is the department director. After review, look for input into making changes, adds, deletes and most importantly, ask the key questions.

We professional risk managers are really risk consultants. Our role is to grow and nurture employees to understand their role as risk manager and encourage concepts like, “Stop Work Authority," “I am the Risk Manager," and “My Voice Matters,” to move the needle to a culture of risk management.

I did not realize how far we had moved the needle until one day, in a large auditorium filled with employees, I approached the podium and asked a question. “So, who is the risk manager?” Over the background music the resounding reply of hundreds of employees was “I AM." It brought a tear to my eye, for in that moment I realized we were there.

*The views and opinions expressed in the Public Risk Management Association (PRIMA) blogs are those of each respective author. The views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of PRIMA.*

By: Dean Coughenour, ARM
Risk Manager, City of Flagstaff, AZ

Dean is the risk manager for the City of Flagstaff and directs their Risk Management Department, managing a comprehensive risk and safety program that includes reducing risk factors, grass root integration of the risk management decision matrix, safety, insurance, litigation management, workers' compensation, training, and facility inspection programs. Dean has over 30 years’ experience in proactive risk management and has served on various boards and associations including Arizona Municipal Risk Retention board and City of Scottsdale Loss Trust Fund board. He is also a past national board member of PERI (Public Entity Risk and Insurance), past loss trust fund board chair for the City of Scottsdale, past president of PRIMA National and has held various other community leadership positions. He is a frequent speaker on risk management topics both at national and local conferences. Dean serves on PRIMA's national speakers bureau and is a champion for risk management and the employment of the risk management decision matrix in day-to-day operations of public sector entities.

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