Our Tree House

Finding Our Way to A Better Future with Risk and Sustainability Management

I remember that before my grandmother passed away more than 15 years ago, I used to visit her every night while she was in hospital. At the time, I was a risk manager for a large multi-national, multi-listed company on a big project – and we were putting in many additional hours. One evening I fell asleep at her bedside, waiting for her to finish her reading. When I woke up, she was smiling at me, asking what work I do that makes me so tired. It was then that I realised I did not know how to explain to her without using corporate risk management jargon what I do and why I thought it was important, in a way that she could relate to.

I had a similar experience recently when colleagues in local government asked me how risk managers could prepare themselves for coalition government (which may be our future at national and provincial levels after the coming election). Again, I was wondering how to explain a risk manager’s role to the political players coming into coalitions, the constituencies with expectations for improved lives in line with election manifestos, or the operational and administrative staff who must get the job done under challenging circumstances, with unsolidified coalition agreements driving decisions in their organisations. Add to this the additional complexities on including sustainability, ESG, climate change, and planetary boundaries in risk appetite frameworks, and all I could think of was how I would explain this to my grandmother. So, this is what I came up with…

Imagine you want to build something, let's say a treehouse. You gather all the resources required, like wood, nails, and paint. You then realise you can’t do this on your own and invite your friends to help you. In this scenario, you resemble a local town council or a company (if you are in the private sector). Like you, local government and companies gather what they need, like money and materials, which they transform into something that people want. They also give jobs to people that have the skills to make their products or deliver their services. But here's the thing: just like you need your friends to help with the treehouse, local governments need companies to work with them, and they need communities to buy (and pay for) their products and services, give them a place to operate, and provide skilled people to deliver their products or services.

Unless local government, communities, and companies (large and small) work together, we cannot find a balance to improve people’s lives in a way that will last for generations to come (which is what we call risk and sustainability management). We, together, must realise that sometimes (even if we think it is outside of our control or not our fault) we do things that aren't so good for our organisations, our people, or our planet. We often try to make up for this by doing good things (mostly through our community outreach and corporate social investment programmes), like giving money to schools and feeding schemes, or cleaning up towns. In a coalition governed South Africa, we need to work together in the same way as if we had to build a treehouse, where everyone can play. We should think of it as a big teamwork project where different groups work together to make sure people are OK and our planet stays healthy.

On a practical level, we need all sorts of people and organisations to meet minds, share ideas, and start projects to help make the places where people live and work better – by changing what we can together, and managing the impact of what we can’t change on people and the planet. Just like a treehouse, which every child can imagine, we must not over-complicate this. We must figure out how to do this in the simplest and least costly possible way. As local government risk managers, we must deliver our risk management “product” in such a way that mayoral councils, and town or ward councillors can use it to identify sustainable projects (otherwise, our treehouse could fall apart after the slightest gust of wind), and to identify the friends to help build the treehouse (the small businesses, companies, and community members that will help them implement the projects).

We must talk to these people (who must often make their decisions without us), in ways that will help them understand and cope with uncertainty. Like choosing the right tree and the strongest branch to build our treehouse in, we must manage the pure risks (like fire, crime, natural disasters) to our projects so that we can insure them at a good price. Like designing the actual layout of the treehouse, we must think about what we will need in the future (if we ask twenty friends to help us build and the treehouse is too small for all to play in, some of them may become upset and break it down or go build their own treehouses elsewhere).

We must upskill ourselves in what we need and not waste our time and effort on what we don’t need, like a friend who doesn’t like climbing trees that will not want to help build a treehouse. We must work hard to gain the right experience, and we must give our friends the training and tools they need to manage the things that could go wrong. People often say we must WORK SMART, NOT HARD. However, we must WORK SMART AND HARD. We must become strong for when things get tough, which consists of having clear processes and relationships in place with the right friends. Simply put, it is our responsibility to enable our national, provincial, and local governments, our communities, and our companies to make the best decisions that will allow us to implement the projects that will improve our future for the long run.

Christelle Marais

Executive Director Lucidum