risk terminology

Make Your Words Count: Translate Risk Terminology to Fit the Business

How many times have you presented risk information to leadership and watched them walk away with glazed eyes and no idea what was just discussed?

Or worse yet, someone falls asleep like this:

Okay – hopefully, it hasn’t been that bad. But speaking from experience, leaving a meeting with executives not understanding the presentation happened to me several times…until I finally realized what was happening.

I wasn’t talking their language.

Yes, I was discussing risks specific to the organization, but I was using standard risk terminology — likelihood, impact, velocity, heatmap, etc.

But it was all wrong. It had zero meaning to them as executives.

Similar to the concept mentioned in this article by The CIO Leader, every organization is not a risk management business that also provides something else, like a product or service. ERM is meant to support the business and provide information to executives to make risk-informed decisions.

We don’t have to use confusing risk terminology to do so.

It is our duty as risk management professionals to stop talking “risk” language to executives and instead, translate risk terminology to language that speaks to them. Talk their language – money, performance goals, people resources, reputation, technology.

The key to talking their language is to get to know each executive. One of the qualities of an ERM professional is the ability to build trust and respect, which means building relationships. As part of building trust and respect with executives, you get to know the way they think, what motivates them, and what their key concerns are among other things.

Here are a couple examples:

If the COO is worried about minimizing downtime for production, then use statements like “if supplier X cannot meet its contractual requirements, the organization may have to stop production for 5 days.”

If the CEO is worried about customer satisfaction levels, then say “if Y happens, then the organization could experience a significant decrease in customer satisfaction over the next 12 months.”

Let me be clear on something – by using their language, you are not manipulating the conversation or the executive. Rather, you are making risk management meaningful to them.

And by discussing risk in this fashion, you are increasing the odds of being engaged in future conversations. And who doesn’t want that?!

When working with clients to develop an ERM presentation for the board, I keep it simple:

  • Put “top” risks into buckets – closely monitoring, working to reduce, etc.
  • Provide key developments update and a status on the action plan, with a timeframe for the next review
  • Solicit feedback and input from board members by ensuring that the presentation isn’t repeating information they already know and not diving too deep (unless they specifically request it)

And those times with the board are invaluable…because it is not a one-way dialogue, but rather a two-way discussion.

Board members know the business, and they have a unique perspective from organizational leadership. They are outside looking into the organization, and they bring a wealth of knowledge and experience. Don’t you, as a risk management professional, want to understand their perspective and hear their thoughts on risks and opportunities to the organization?

Are you struggling with developing a meaningful risk presentation for your executives? 

What have you found to be successful when presenting risk information to executives?

Please feel free to leave a comment below or join the conversation on LinkedIn.

If you need another perspective on creating meaningful risk terminology and communications for your executives, I encourage you to contact me to discuss your individual situation and how I can help.

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Meet Carol Williams, SDS Founder & Lead Strategist

To our readers:

This blog was launched to provide strategy and risk practitioners with a go-to resource to better guide their efforts within their companies. Thank you for bringing me and my team along to be part of your journey towards better risk management, strategic planning and execution, and overall decision-making. Happy reading!

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