Mentoring - risk managers: Passing the torch

mentoring

The process of mentoring, where experienced people give advice and encouragement to younger professionals, can be hugely beneficial and cost virtually nothing. Elaine Heyworth details a new scheme about to launch to assist up-and-coming risk managers.

Anyone who has been successful in their career will recall occasions when someone older or more senior gave them a helping hand at a crucial stage. Be it advice, encouragement or simply pointing out opportunities that might otherwise be overlooked, a few quiet words can make all the difference. It is said, for example, that Sir Freddie Laker once mentored Sir — as he now is — Richard Branson.

This kind of informal support is arguably especially important in the risk management profession, where people typically operate in very small numbers within their own workplaces. Unless they join a wider professional organisation, they have few places to turn for this type of help.

Practitioners that have reached the later stages of their careers are generally happy to help bring on younger people — yet it does not have to be an entirely altruistic activity. From personal experience, I know that the learning is very much a two-way process. Intelligent but junior staff from a different generation, and often from different backgrounds, can have an uncanny ability to ask awkward questions that you may never have considered or to see different ways of doing things.

Mentoring, therefore, is a great way to spread knowledge and understanding, and all for the cost of an occasional coffee or lunch. This is a field where the UK lags behind some other European countries, where it is already an established and well-understood business practice. Within the UK, some professions have latched onto the concept more than others.

Mentoring scheme launch
I am not aware of any such programme for risk managers being organised on a systematic basis — at least not until now. That is why the Association of Insurance & Risk Managers is to launch its own mentoring scheme at its conference next month, as part of a commitment to supporting members in their careers and, specifically, helping them to develop their skills.

The timing could hardly be more appropriate; the need to develop the 'executive pipeline' of risk managers is more pressing than ever. A whole layer of very senior people will be retiring over the next 10 years, and there are lots of newer entries to the market who are not yet ready to take their places.

With additional help and guidance, many of these individuals might fast-track their careers to more senior levels. Now that risk management has been catapulted up the business agenda following the financial crisis, there is real need for a continuous flow of risk professionals to step forward when the opportunity arises.

The idea of mentoring is very simple. A more experienced risk manager is matched with someone at a relatively early stage in their career. An important point is that they will work for different organisations, making it easier to discuss matters with a frankness and freedom that might not be possible if they were direct colleagues. Training can be given to mentors, but is not normally necessary.

How often they meet or speak and for how long is up to the two individuals to agree, as will the topics they discuss. Typically, the expectation would be for them to communicate monthly as a minimum, though this will fluctuate depending on need and how busy they are.

Similarly, the type of help will depend on the individuals. Undertaking such a varied type of work, risk managers and corporate insurance buyers often find themselves in situations that are completely new to them. Inevitably, when they look back on how they responded to a particular challenge there will be things they might have done differently with the benefit of hindsight.

This is one example of how a mentor can be of particular assistance; they have probably been there before and may even be able to help based on the mistakes made earlier in their own careers.

The idea of mentoring can be of equal benefit, however, in softer areas. Ironically, now that more and more people have signed up to the idea of risk management, our jobs have in some ways become more difficult. In simple terms, one could call it 'office politics'. Ensuring that the risk management message is consistently understood and applied across the organisation — and does not become an exercise in ticking boxes — requires communication skills that are not normally taught during training. Yet they can be vital.

Essential engagement
Presenting risk management to senior executives is not just about understanding the technical risk and insurance issues. It is also about ensuring you speak in terms that engage senior management, that you see things through their eyes and address concerns they may have.

It is vital that risk managers learn how to speak the language of business, and this is one area where senior practitioners can help. They may also benefit from the insight the exercise gives them into the challenges faced in other organisations.

For all these reasons, I am genuinely excited that Airmic has asked me to launch its own mentoring scheme. Several senior people are already signed up, and I anticipate no shortage of mentees, as they are called. This initiative has the potential to change careers, enable young people to decide how they wish to develop and give them some ideas and encouragement along the way.

Elaine Heyworth is an Airmic board member and also on the board of the European Professional Women's Network, with responsibility for UK-based and cross-European mentoring. The Airmic annual conference — Embracing New Horizons — takes place in Bournemouth from 6 to 8 June

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