Seana's Insights: Leadership Traits That Make (or Break) Risk Management Success

Hey everyone, Seana here. I've spent years placing risk management professionals, and let me tell you, I've seen the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to leadership in this field. Whether you're a seasoned risk pro or an ambitious leader, these are the things I look for – the make-or-break traits that turn risk management from a box-ticking exercise into a real strategic advantage.

Establish a Risk-Aware Culture

Look, you can have the best processes in the world, but if your people are afraid to speak up about potential problems, you're flying blind. Here's what great leaders get right about building a 'speak-up' culture:

  • Own It: Take responsibility for risk management, don't push it down as someone else's problem. Leaders who show they're invested in understanding risks signal that this is a priority for everyone, and it creates accountability from the top down. Remember that time a team spotted a major compliance risk that leadership had overlooked? They only felt comfortable raising it because the CEO asked for their assessment, even though it wasn't technically their job.
  • Listen Up: Make time for those "uh-oh" moments, and don't shoot the messenger. We all know hearing about problems is uncomfortable, but it's way less painful than getting blindsided by them. Try having regular "risk brainstorming" sessions where the sole purpose is to think about potential trouble spots, and make it clear that the point is prevention, not blame.

  • Reward the Right Stuff: Recognize people for spotting risks, not just for smooth sailing. This doesn't need to be a big deal – even a shoutout in a meeting or a "thanks for the heads-up" email goes a long way. It shows that you value proactive thinking, not just keeping things quiet.

Develop Robust Risk Identification and Assessment Processes

Gut feeling has its place, but risk management isn't about guesswork. Leaders who excel have a systematized approach. This doesn't have to be complex, but it does need to be clear:

  • Name the Game: Help teams identify the risks that matter most (it's not everything that could go wrong). Trying to boil the ocean just leads to overwhelm. Start by focusing on the handful of risks that could seriously derail your strategic goals – those are the ones worth putting real energy into.

  • Mix Your Tools: Use data where you can, but don't forget about that expert hunch – sometimes your most experienced people see what the numbers don't. Data is awesome, but remember, it's often backwards-looking. Respect the intuition of those who've been in the trenches for years, they often pick up on subtle patterns that a spreadsheet won't show you. Like that project manager who just had a "bad feeling" about a supplier, and it turned out they were right on the verge of bankruptcy!

  • Make it Visible: Share those risk assessments, and help everyone connect the dots to the bigger picture. Transparency builds trust. People are more willing to buy into tough decisions, even with some risk involved, if they understand the rationale behind them.

Prioritise Risks and Build Mitigation Strategies

Nobody's got unlimited time or money, so this is where leaders make their mark. Focus on what will really bring you down if things go bad, and get serious about:

  • Action Plans: What are you going to do about the big risks? Who owns them? What's your timeline? Don't leave this as vague intentions, get specific!

  • Contingencies: Don't get caught flat-footed! Have backup plans for if your mitigation fails. Nobody likes to think about the worst-case scenario, but having a plan B in your back pocket makes it way less scary if it does happen.

Foster Adaptability and Resilience

Things change, and fast. The best leaders build organisations that can handle curveballs. This means:

  • Scenario Planning: Play those "what if" games to build your organization's agility muscle. Treat this seriously, not just a boring afternoon in a conference room. The more realistic you make it, the more likely your team will spot the weak points in your current plans.

  • No Surprises: Bad news doesn't get better with age. Encourage fast reporting when things go sideways. Make it clear that hiding problems is way worse than the problem itself.

  • Learning Mindset: Treat every issue (big or small) as a chance to improve how you'll handle the next one. Debrief after any hiccup, figure out what could have gone better, and actually change your processes.

Promote Continuous Learning and Improvement

Risk management is never "done and dusted." Leaders need to make it a priority. That means:

  • Staying up to Date: The risk landscape shifts, so invest in staying current with what's out there. Don't just send your risk team to conferences, find ways to share those insights with everyone.

  • Sharing Knowledge: Don't let your best insights stay stuck in one team, spread those learnings. Could be a company-wide risk newsletter, brown bag lunches... doesn't have to be fancy.

  • Question Everything: Encourage everyone to challenge old assumptions, because what got you here might not get you there. This sets the tone that risk management isn't about being negative, it's about finding smarter ways to achieve your goals.

Embrace Technology

There's some amazing tech out there that can streamline your risk management. Leaders should be looking for:

  • Visualisation Tools: Make complex risks easier to understand and communicate. A picture really is worth a thousand words, especially when you're trying to get buy-in from non-risk folks.

  • Automation: Take the grunt work out of reporting and monitoring where possible. Free up your teams' brainpower for strategic thinking, not manual data entry.

  • Real-Time Data: Look for tools that can help you spot trends faster. The sooner you pick up on something going sideways, the more options you have to address it.

At the end of the day, the best risk management leaders aren't fortune tellers. They're the ones who create a culture of preparedness, strategic thinking, and agility. If this sounds like you, or you're working to develop those traits, let's chat – there are exciting opportunities for people who can make a real difference.

Meet Our Recruiter

Seana McGuinness
Seana McGuinness
Senior Recruitment Consultant focusing on Internal Audit - US