Myths vs. Realities: How I "Do Risk"

I often hear from students and young professionals that their career goal is to "do risk." Some of you may laugh, while others may lament that it's similar to those who want to "make policy." They sort of know what it means, but they couldn't tell you about a day in the life of someone who "makes policy." Many students and emerging professionals are starting to learn about the field of risk consulting and are unsurprisingly drawn to the excitement of a field where one is never bored, and where one's skills, languages abilities, and insights are applied to interesting problems that sometimes require travel to exotic locales. To some extent, it's true- no two of my days are ever the same, and I'm constantly learning new things and solving complex challenges. But what does it mean to "do risk?" Until you've spent a day in the field, and I do mean the field, and not just in an office, it's hard to imagine a day in the life of a geopolitical risk consultant. Here's how I "do risk," and I don't claim it's representative of a typical career in risk consulting, but I do hope it provides some insights to those who are considering a career in the field. For those who are consumers of political risk, the lesson is- never trust a political risk consultant who just stays in their office all day long. 

Morning: A typical day starts with catching up on news from Asia and Europe over a cup of strong coffee. I read as much as possible, in all the languages I speak, to get as broad a picture of overnight developments as possible. I try to identify potential flash points: where there might be a major holiday that's likely to spark protests or business disruptions, which government is likely to announce a big policy initiative or what industry might be facing a big challenge due to logistical issues in a shipping hub. For this, I use a multitude of news apps (my favorite being Circa), as well as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook news feeds. I've tried the aggregator news apps, but I find they either overload you with info, or miss important things. I try to read government statements too. Even though I might know they're essentially meaningless or that you have to read between the lines to understand the true meaning, those who come to me with questions might be intrigued by such proclamations and lack the expertise to interpret them. 

Next comes a review of email. I know it's a little obsessive, but I read every single email and promptly delete anything irrelevant. I don't know how or why people can be fine with having thousands of unread messages in their inbox. I respond to anything that requires a response, and then move on to my projects for the day. 

Usually, the project I'm working on requires me to speak with a couple of subject matter experts or local contacts. I prefer to meet with people in person, since it helps build rapport, but given vast distances, I'm usually limited to Skype and phone calls. I always have a list of questions prepared to help guide the conversation and make sure I acquire all the information I need. When a student calls me to chat about the field, I can always tell when they haven't prepared any questions, and I wonder if they hang up and realize they've neglected to ask something important. 

Every hour, I check in with Twitter and the news apps so see what's changing and any new stories that may spark questions. Is the situation in Yemen really evolving or is this newest attack more of the same? Are protests in Brazils likely to die down or will they keep growing and affect ports or industrial hubs? Is an upcoming election in Nigeria likely to be delayed again due to the fight against Boko Haram? I look at the news through the eyes of a CEO, forced to make decisions about expanding operations, evacuating employees or delaying a major investment based on something that may be a flash in the pan, but also could be a sign of a quickly deteriorating security situation. Many of these questions need to be answered quickly, so keeping an eyes on the major stories allows me to analyze developments in real time, instead of having to catch up under a tight deadline. It takes some time to learn how to decide what's important, but once you've answered a couple hundred questions, you start to see that themes emerging- what businesses consider political risks and what's just noise. 

Lunch: Over lunch, I may have a meeting with someone I've met at a networking event. I'm always eager to learn about people's experiences, so I'll have lunch with someone who's just returned from abroad and can offer some local insights into developments that just can't be absorbed via other means, or I'll speak to someone in a field that could benefit from political risk analysis to explain why they might want to consider incorporating it into their decision-making process. Often I learn something new about how someone outside the political risk field views what I do, which leads me to believe the field is failing miserably at managing its own public relations image, but that's a topic for another post. 

Afternoon: After lunch, I tend to focus on research and writing. A motivational playlist is an absolute requirement for this, as is muting my phone's notifications settings. I'll have a screen with news on mute in the background, just in case something significant happens, but otherwise, I try to concentrate on doing my research and drafting good analyses. This often requires some good detective skills. My research might be about something very specific, or very general. For example, if I need to forecast whether a country is likely to buy a certain weapons system or institute a new far-reaching law, I work backwards, researching the circumstances of the last few major sales or announcements of new laws to see if I can identify any clues that I can then look for in the current situation. 

Sometimes word comes in that there's a new focus for a project, or an added element, or a last minute request. It requires flexibility to shift focus and adapt to changes in projects, but it's the nature of the industry that decisions suddenly have to be made or projects are abandoned or modified as the market shifts. This is frustrating for many new entrants to the field, who like to take some time to really dig into a project, only to find it cancelled after a great deal of work has been done. There are good ways to minimize the chances of this if you have sound protocols for determining whether a project is worthwhile from the start, but generally, it's important to learn to go with the flow. 

Evening: In the evenings, there's usually a networking event, a lecture, or a cultural event. There's always something going on in DC, but it takes some trial and error to learn which events are worth attending. Cultural events tend to draw people with great stories, while lectures draw lots of fanboys and fangirls eager to hear an impressive personality rehash the argument from their latest book.  Lately, my favorite ones are the events hosted by The Project for the Study of the 21st Century, where, full disclosure, I'm also a Global Fellow. The Project's goal is to spark interesting conversations, and that's certainly happening. I usually go out for drinks with a group of attendees after these events to discuss what we've learned, what we agree or disagree with and how it translates to our work, whether in the private sector, in government, or at non-profits. These conversations are always thought-provoking, as long as it's with a diverse group. We almost never agree on a single interpretation, but we have fun trying to persuade one another, and it's always useful to see the world through the eyes of people in different fields. A good geopolitical risk consultant needs to be articulate and know when to talk, but it's equally important to know how to listen and observe, since it helps you learn to interpret developments from other viewpoints. 

Some evenings are dedicated to responding to requests from journalists who want my insights on a news story. It's great to see some elements of the media slowly start to appreciate the political risk field and the insights it can contribute to helping people understand the significance of breaking developments. Generally, though, the media isn't very interested in deep analyses, and I sometimes have to make sure my analysis fits in a short quote or sound byte. A general rule to remember is that by the time something is being reported on TV, a good political risk consultant should have already warned a client about the emerging situation and crafted an analysis that will help them take action. Once something is on TV, it's usually too late for a business to take any proactive measures. If a business is hearing about something for the first time on TV, they should probably consider a better political risk firm. Reactive responses are costly- far more costly than the monthly retainer for a political risk firm. Take the recent attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Cruise lines with good political risk firms would have been aware that terrorists are eager to target foreigners in Tunisia, and been in a position to take measures to protect their passengers or avoid certain ports while the threat level was high. 

At the end of the day, I typically make a few notes... names of people to follow up with, what topics came up in conversations, upcoming events that may be of interest. And then I get ready to recharge and tackle the next day's challenges, always in a pair of stilettos.

Questions? Comments? Let me know...