FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

June 25, 2015

Custer’s Last Stand and Risk Management

Custer's Last StandOn this day in 1876 one of the greatest failures in risk management took place when Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his entire 7th Cavalry were wiped out at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Custer had split his command into three wings and he took his battalion of 200 or so men down the center of what he thought would be little resistance. Instead he found that he was facing a far superior force of 3000 largely Sioux warriors who quickly overwhelmed and defeated Custer’s command, with all US troops being killed. There is now some debate on whether all the cavalrymen were actually killed by the Native Americans or took their own lives, saving the last bullet for themselves, in western parlance.

Historians have debated over time the reason for Custer’s defeat. Was it arrogance; bad intelligence; faulty command, just plain stupidity or even a wish for martyrdom by Custer? Whichever the cause, it was the worse defeat of the US Army by Native Americans in the Western campaigns of the later 1800s. Today, it might be termed as a faulty assessment and management of the risks involved.

I thought about Custer and his defeat when I read a recent article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), entitled “Strategy How to Live With Risks. It presented risk, risk assessments and risk management in a new light, a key acumen being that risk management should be used as a “protection shield, not an action stopper.” It was based upon a research paper by the CEB, entitled “Reducing Risk Management’s Organizational Drag”, which I thought it had some interesting insights for the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner.

The first insight is that, in many instances, companies are assessing risks that are in the rear-view mirror. The author pointed to the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act, passed in response to the Enron and Worldcom accounting scandals in noting, “In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis many large banks changed their business models, and other companies implemented systems to better manage credit risks or eliminate overreliance on mathematical models.” This type of mentality can lead to what the author says, is “a variation on what military historians call “fighting the last war.” As memories of the recession fade, leaders worry that risk management policies are impeding growth and profits without much gain.” The author went on to quote Matt Shinkman of CEB, a member based advisory company, for the following insight “Firms are questioning whether the models they put in place after the financial crisis are working—and more fundamentally questioning the role of risk management in their organizations.”

This retrospective look back is coupled with what the author says is a decision making process which “is too slow, in part because of an excessive focus on preventing risk” and not managing risk; in other words, companies were slowed down even further by something termed “organizational drag”. Companies need to find new mechanisms to assess and manage risk going forward. The best way to do so, many companies have indicated, is through reorganizing or reprioritizing risk management and the article presented “three best practices” in doing so.

Strike the Right Balance Between Risk and Reward

Recognizing that risk management is often simply ‘just saying no’, the HBR articcle suggests that “Today’s risk managers see their role as helping firms determine and clarify their appetite for risk and communicate it across the company to guide decision making. In some cases this means helping line managers reduce their risk aversion.” The interesting insight I found here is that if an asset is low performing it may be because the management is so risk averse. This may present a CCO or compliance practitioner with an opportunity to increase growth through other risk management solutions that they could implement.

Focus on decisions, not process

This insight is one that CCO and compliance practitioners should think about and try and implement. Recognizing that risk assessments are important, the author believes that risk managers should focus more on decisions concerning risk rather than the process of determining risk. This means, “In addition to relying on paperwork or process, risk managers are turning to tools (such as dashboards that show risks in real time) and training that help employees assess risk. They are also helping companies factor a better understanding of risk into their decision making.”

By having a seat at the senior management’s table, a CCO or compliance practitioner can help identify risk issues early on in planning. This allows a COO to help craft a risk management solution, or even better yet show colleagues how to “spot potential problems and managers see how their projects fit into the company’s overall portfolio of projects, each with its own set of risks.” The author again quoted Shinkman, “This is less about listing risks from a backward-looking perspective and more about picking the right portfolio of risky projects.”

Make employees the first line of defense

The author channels his inner Howard Sklar (water is wet) by stating, “Decisions don’t make themselves, people make them”. However from that insight, the author believes that “smart companies work to improve employees ability to incorporate appropriate levels of risk when making choices.” But this means you must not only adequately train your employees to spot the appropriate risk but you, as CCO must provide them with tools to manage the risk. The author wrote, “Companies are also trying to identify which types of jobs or departments face a disproportionate share of high-risk decisions so that they can aim their training at the right people. They’re focusing that training less on risk awareness and more on simulations or scenarios that let employees practice decision making in risky situations. Finally, risk managers are becoming more involved in employee exit interviews, because people leaving an organization often identify risks that others aren’t able or willing to discuss.”

The article ends by noting that the goal is “to transform risk management from a peripheral function to one with a voice integrated into the day-to-day management” of an organization. That is also viewed as a component of CCO 2.0 and a more mature model of improvement. By focusing on training employees on how to spot Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) compliance risks and then providing them with the tools to adequately manage that risk, CCOs can deliver greater value.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2015

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