Risk management is a laughing matter
FORT WORTH, Texas — Who doesn’t like a “two-fer?” Whether it’s a buy-one-get-one deal at the grocery store or a baseball doubleheader, more generally is viewed as better. Yesterday, at the National Emergency Number Association conference, attendees were treated to a unique two-fer, a keynote address that doubled as a stand-up comedy routine.
Gordon Graham was the speaker. His career is a two-fer: he started his professional life as a California Highway Patrol officer, rising through the ranks to captain before his retirement; later he became a successful attorney and educator. In 30 years of attending keynote addresses — the list includes such entertaining and/or inspiring speakers such as Mike Ditka, Bo Schembechler and Adrian Cronauer (whose exploits inspired the cult-classic movie “Good Morning, Vietnam“) — Graham’s stands alone. I’m not the only one who thought so. Throughout the day, I overheard similar comments. Indeed, Graham himself is a two-fer — someone who delivers a relevant, on-point message in a completely hilarious fashion.
His topic was risk management, and his message was remarkably simple: nearly every bad outcome is predictable and thus preventable. He used several historical examples to illustrate the point. The one I found most interesting was the most recent. He showed a copy of yesterday’s USA Today, which reported that nearly every “serious” regional airline accident over the past 10 years involved at least one pilot who had previously failed a proficiency test. According to Graham, each of these incidents was predictable and preventable. “If your pilot can’t pass the test, then maybe he shouldn’t fly the plane,” he said.
In contrast, Graham then presented US Airways Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who landed his airplane in New York City’s Hudson River in January after several birds flew into the craft’s engines, rending them inoperable. Sullenberger is a shining example of one of Graham’s seven rules of risk management: training has to be constant and rigorous. “Every day needs to be a training day,” Graham said.
He spoke of something that Sullenberger said in an interview shortly after his heroic actions saved the lives of everyone aboard Flight 1549. Sullenberger said that he tried, throughout his flying career, to make small deposits each day into his memory bank, knowing that one day he would “have to make a massive withdrawal,” Graham said. It was a sound strategy, Graham said, because doing so enabled him to make instantaneous, life-and-death decisions on that fateful day. It’s a lesson especially adaptable to the public-safety sector, whose personnel make such decisions on a daily basis.
“You will run into the unthinkable event someday, and you will have to make instantaneous decisions,” Graham said. “Whether you are prepared to do so is up to you.”
His other rules of risk management included the following:
- Organizations must strive for continuous improvement in their personnel;
- Organizations must hire quality people — “If you hire stupid people, they are not going to get better over time,” Graham said;
- An organization’s supervisors must spot problems before they become tragedies;
- An organization and its members must have a healthy respect for the dangers and risks they face;
- An organization must establish performance metrics for its personnel and hold them accountable — “Rules without enforcement are just nice words,” Graham said;
- An organization and its personnel must be able and willing to learn from their mistakes.
Concerning the final rule, Graham told the story of a woman he encountered while a member of the California Highway Patrol. The woman lived near Malibu, Calif. On three separate occasions, each roughly a decade apart, wildfire destroyed the woman’s home, which she promptly rebuilt on the same spot each time.
During the most recent wildfire, Graham said he received numerous e-mails from people who had attended one of his lectures at some point over the years and were now concerned that he might be in danger. The e-mails, which came from all over the country, were so numerous that Graham eventually was forced to craft a blanket response, which he wrote firm in the knowledge that “California catches on fire every year.” It read, “Risk management is not a class I teach; it’s a way of life. Do you really think I’d build my [freaking] house in the [freaking] woods?” Predictable and preventable.
If you ever have a chance to take in one of Graham’s lectures, I urge you to do so. I guarantee you will learn something — and will be thoroughly entertained in the process.
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