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What competencies should risk managers in non-financial companies really have?

What Competencies should Risk Managers in Non-Financial Companies really have?

Risk management competencies can significantly improve decision making in any profession. The bad news is that these competencies do not come to us naturally. They have to be developed. Risk managers who actively develop them have a significant competitive advantage to other risk professionals.

I have tried to summarize some of the key competencies risk managers in non-financial companies should develop to successfully support the decision makers and risk takers and hence add value to their organizations:

A. Understanting how human brain works and how people make decisions in situations of uncertainty

The study of risk perception originated from the fact that experts and laypeople often disagreed about the riskiness of various technologies and natural hazards. A lot of this information is available at

The mid-1960s experienced the rapid rise of nuclear technologies and the promise for clean and safe energy. However, public perception shifted against this new technology. Fears of both longitudinal dangers to the environment and immediate disasters creating radioactive wastelands turned the public against this new technology. The scientific and governmental communities asked why public perception was against the use of nuclear energy in spite of the fact that all the scientific experts were declaring how safe it really was. The problem, as perceived by the experts, was a difference between scientific facts and an exaggerated public perception of the dangers (Douglas, 1985).

Researchers tried to understand how people process information and make decisions under uncertainty. Early findings indicated that people use cognitive heuristics in sorting and simplifying information which leads to biases in comprehension. Later findings identified numerous factors responsible for influencing individual perceptions of risk, which included dread, newness, stigma, and other factors (Tversky & Karneman, 1974).

Research also detected that risk perceptions are influenced by the emotional state of the perceiver (Bodenhausen, 1993). According to valence theory, positive emotions lead to optimistic risk perceptions whereas negative emotions incite a more pessimistic view of risk (Lerner, 2000).

The earliest psychometric research was performed by psychologists Daniel Kahneman (who later won a Nobel Prize in economics with Vernon Smith “for having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty”) (Kahneman, 2003) and Amos Tversky. They performed a series of gambling experiments to understand how people evaluated probabilities. Their major finding was that people use a number of heuristics to evaluate information.

These heuristics are usually useful shortcuts for thinking but may lead to inaccurate judgments in complex business situations of high uncertainty – in which case they become cognitive biases.

Besides the cognitive biases inherent in how people think and behave under uncertainty, there are more pragmatic factors that influence the way we make decisions, including poor motivation and remuneration structures, conflict of interest, ethics, corruption, poor compliance regimes, lack of internal controls and so on. All of this makes any type of significant decision-making based on purely expert opinions and perceptions, highly subjective and unreliable.

B. Corporate finance, probability, forecasting and risk modeling

The official definition of risk, according to ISO31000, is an effect of uncertainty on objectives. To me, this implies that risks have to be expressed in the same language, form and shape as the objectives they can potentially affect. Think about it.

That means if the objective sounds like grow revenue by 10%, then risks should be expressed as a volatility of that revenue target. Expressing risks as high, medium, low or even by using impact (in dollars) multiplied by probability (in percent) is pretty meaningless because it lacks the clear connection with the original revenue target.

With the exception of some operational risks, that require to be managed in a particular way by law, most business risks will be assessed/analysed in a financial model or plan. Depending on the objective, it may be strategic, investment, project financial model, budget or even project schedule.

All risk managers in the team must have a basic understanding of corporate finance, probability, forecasting and risk modeling. With at least one person on the team having in-depth knowledge and experience in corporate finance.

Here is a useful resource from Wharton and another example on statistics and probability from Duke University or Stanford

C. Laws, standards and regulations

Some industries have risk management related standards or guidelines and some countries have specific laws and regulations related to risk management. Risk management team should have an in-depth knowledge of this. Any additional guidance should be taken into account when implementing risk management in any given company.

Risk managers also need to know and understand applicable risk management standards and guidelines. The best choice for non-financial company is by far the ISO 31000:2009. At the time of writing the standard had been officially translated and adopted in 44 out of 50 largest countries by GDP, making it truly global. The standard is currently being updated by a group of experts from 30+ countries and the new version is expected to be published end 2017-start 2018. My short video on the new ISO31000 draft can be watched here:

More information can be found here:

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Alex Sidorenko

Alex Sidorenko, CT31000, CRMP.RR is an expert with over 13 years of strategic, innovation, risk and performance management experience across Australia, Russia, Poland and Kazakhstan. In 2014 Alex was named the Risk Manager of the Year by the Russian Risk Management Association. More info about Alex in

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