About Steven Minsky

Steven Minsky is CEO of LogicManager and co-author of the RIMS Risk Maturity Model for Enterprise Risk Management.

Using ERM to Protect Your Business from The Equifax Fallout

As with many data breaches, the general conclusion of the Equifax attack is that personnel were not aware of the issue beforehand. This conclusion, however, is false.

In early September, I anticipated that a vulnerability in Equifax’s software was known ahead of time, and that this scandal was, therefore, entirely preventable. A month later, the NY Times reported that the Department of Homeland Security sent Equifax an alert about a critical vulnerability in their software. Equifax then sent out an internal email requesting its IT department to fix the software, but “an individual did not ensure communication got to the right person to manually patch the application.”

The Equifax data breach was a failure in risk management. As a credit bureau that deals with the personally identifiable information (PII) of 200 million U.S. customers, Equifax has a legal and moral responsibility to safeguard their customers’ security, and to adopt the proper systems to do so.

For instance, if Equifax had an enterprise risk management (ERM) system in place, the warning from Homeland Security would have been properly recorded and assigned out to the appropriate personnel. This system would have provided transparency over the status of the task in progress, and would have triggered reminders until the vulnerability was patched and verified by the right subject matter expert.

A Point of No Return

It’s my opinion that this scandal is a point of no return for risk management. While data breaches have abounded in recent years, there has never been one of this magnitude or one that provides every piece of information hackers need to steal our identities. Of course, lawsuits and penalties are piling up around the company’s negligence, but these financial losses are nothing compared to the reputational damages Equifax will suffer—shares fell by 18% following the breach and have yet to fully recover.

What makes this scandal so unique, and therefore a point of no return, is that these reputational damages reach far beyond Equifax. Consumers can’t always choose whether they’re a customer of Equifax, but they can choose whether to do business with the institutions that gave away their information to Equifax in the first place.

I also believe that consumers’ outrage with this scandal will cause them to shift their money, loyalty, and trust to institutions that can demonstrate effective risk management. CEOs and boards of every company will have to prove their organizations have adequate enterprise risk management systems in place. They’ll find that more effective risk management and governance programs are necessary to keep their market shares up and their reputation clean.

Where to Go from Here

While this breach may appear to be an event of the distant past, we are in the eye of the storm. Stolen information can lie dormant for months or years as criminals wait to make their move, and when they do, you’ll have either taken this period of calm as a chance to forget the scandal, finding yourself ill-prepared, or a chance to get to higher ground, finding yourself fully protected.

To protect themselves, businesses must:

  • First, to determine where to focus your security resources, recognize that people, processes, and procedures are now the biggest risks. Businesses need to perform risk assessments across all departments to determine who has access to sensitive information and authentication processes, and what the business impact would be if these employees were to be impersonated.
  • Next, to address these risks, businesses must rewrite their procedures for authenticating the people involved in sensitive requests and actions both verbally and electronically. With so much PII now in the public domain, it is no longer safe to rely on traditional authentication based on these pieces of information. For example, the security question “What was your first car?” is not effective because the answer is now easily accessible. A more effective question would be “Who was your best friend in elementary school?”
  • Finally, it is important to keep your third-party vendors in mind. Vendors often have access to sensitive information and processes, which could have an enormous impact on your company. It is crucial, therefore, to extend your internal authentication procedures out to your third parties so that they are authorizing sensitive requests and actions as securely as your own organization.

Our world, including the business world, is becoming increasingly transparent, meaning it’s up to you to act with integrity and protect your stakeholders. Keeping the Equifax data breach in mind, along with enacting these tactical steps, will help you stay ahead of the competition and out of glaring social media headlines.

In a Changing World, Questions For the CRO

Before the financial crisis in 2008-2009, many businesses didn’t think of risk as something to be proactively managed. After the crisis, however, that paradigm shifted. Companies began perceiving risk management as a way to protect both their reputations and their stakeholders.

Today, risk management is not just recommended, it is considered crucial to successful operations and is required by federal and state law. The SEC’s Proxy Disclosure Enhancements, enacted in 2010, mandate that organizations provide information regarding board leadership structure and the company’s risk management practices. Company leadership is required to have a direct role in risk oversight, and any risk management ineffectiveness must be disclosed.

The CRO’s role

Volatility in the current business environment—a confluence of factors including transfers of power, the world economy and individual markets—is nothing new. Political transitions have always been accompanied by new agendas and shifting regulations, economies have always experienced bull and bear markets, and the evolution of technology constantly changes our processes.

Even so, recent events like Brexit, the uncertainty of a new administration’s regulatory initiatives, and thousands of annual data breaches have contributed to an unprecedented atmosphere of fear and doubt. To navigate this environment, the chief risk officer needs to adopt a proactive risk management approach. Enterprise-wide risk assessments grant the visibility and insight needed to present an accurate picture of the company’s greatest risks. This visibility is what the board needs to safely recognize opportunity for innovation and expansion into new markets.

To grow a business safely—by innovating and adding to products/services and expanding into new markets—risk professionals should not focus on identifying risk by individual country. This approach naturally leads to a prioritization of “large-dollar” countries, which aren’t necessarily correlated with greater risk. Countries that contribute a small percentage of overall revenue can still cause major, systemic risk management failures and scandals.

A better approach is to look at risk across certain regions; how might expanding the business into Europe, for example, create new challenges for senior management? Are there sufficient controls in place to mitigate the risks that have been identified?

When regional risks are aggregated to create a holistic picture, it becomes possible for the board to make sure expansion efforts are aligned with strategic goals.

Three processes that require ERM

Risk management is an objective process, and best practices, such as pushing risk assessments down to front-line process owners who are closest to operational risk, should be adhered to regardless of the current state of the international business arena.

While today’s political climate has generated a significant amount of media strife, it’s important not to let emotion influence decision-making. By providing the host organization with a standardized framework and centralized data location, enterprise risk management enables managers to apply the same basic approach across departments and levels.

This is particularly important when an organization expands internationally, which involves compliance with new sets of regulations and staying competitive. Performing due diligence on an ad hoc basis is neither effective nor sustainable. Instead, the process should follow the same best-practice process as domestic risk management efforts:

  1. Identify and assess. Make risk assessments a standard part of every budget, project or initiative. This involves front-line risk assessments from subject matter experts, revealing key risks and processes/departments likely to be affected by those risks. For example, financial scrutiny is no longer a concern just for banks. Increased attempts to fight terrorism mean transactions of all kinds are becoming subject to more review. Anti-bribery and anti-corruption processes estimate and quantify both vulnerability and liability.
  2. Mitigate key risks. Connect mitigation activities to the resources they depend on and the processes they’re associated with. ERM creates transparency into this information, eliminating inefficiency associated with updating/tracking risks managed by another department. Control evaluation is the most expensive part of operations. Use risk management to prioritize this work and reduce expenses and liability.
  3. Monitor the effectiveness of controls with tests, metrics, and incident collection for risks and controls alike. This ensures performance standards are maintained as operations and the business environment evolve. Evidence of an effective control environment prevents penalties and lawsuits for negligence. The bar for negligence is getting lower; technology is pulling the curtain back not only internally but (through social media and news) to the public as well.

Lastly, the CRO role is increasingly accountable for failures in managing risk along with other senior leaders and boards—look no further than Wells Fargo.

Key Steps to a Robust Risk Management Program

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Our business environment is constantly changing—technologies improve, regulations are modified, competition increases, and demand evolves. Effective risk management grants an ability to adapt to these changes.

Recent headline events, including the Volkswagen emissions deception, the Wells Fargo scandal, and the penalty paid by Dwolla to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), illuminate powerful motivators for strong risk management programs. Key to a robust program is preventing stressful, and possibly catastrophic, surprises.

When Plains All American Pipeline failed to detect corrosion in its pipeline, for example, the result was a 3,000-barrel oil spill and millions of dollars in fines. The corrosion had run under the radar because the company did not delegate sufficient inspection resources and did not maintain proper procedures and systems for preventing problems from escalating into emergencies. Risk management best practices, however, could have standardized these procedures throughout the organization and prevented the disaster from occurring.

Complying with regulators like the SEC and CFPB
Dwolla, a small, private e-commerce and online payment company, was found by the CFPB to be guilty of risk management negligence for inadequate data security practices. The catch is that Dwolla did not suffer a data breach and none of its customers were compromised. The CFPB fined Dwolla $100,000 as part of its increased focus on companies’ existing prevention strategies. Regulators are no longer simply pursuing organizations that have suffered risk management incidents; organizations need to take proactive approaches rather than simply hope to get by.

Improving productivity and encouraging innovation
An independent, peer-reviewed report, “The Valuation Implications of Enterprise Risk Management Maturity,” published in The Journal of Risk and Insurance, proved that organizations with mature ERM programs (as defined by the RIMS Risk Maturity Model) can achieve a 25% firm valuation premium over those without. Risk management does not have to be a burdensome addition to daily responsibilities—and if it is executed properly, it won’t. It simplifies daily operations by increasing transparency and allowing more resources to be devoted to value-add activities, like product development and customer services.

Checklist for evaluating your risk management efforts

A better question than “does my organization perform risk management?” is “how effectively does my organization identify and mitigate risks?” The following checklist outlines characteristics common to effective risk management programs. Your organization should prioritize development in these areas.

  1. Effective risk management governance

Boards, through their risk oversight role, are accountable for a risk’s material impact, whether the cause is at the executive level or on the front lines. The SEC considers “not knowing about a material risk” negligence, which carries the same penalties as fraud.

  • The board must monitor the effectiveness of the organization’s risk management process, ensuring it reaches all levels and business areas.
  • Internal auditors must independently confirm the board is informed on all material risks.
  • All material risks must be disclosed to shareholders, along with evidence that they are effectively mitigated.
  1. Performance management and goal management
  • Divide corporate objectives into business-unit contributions.
  • Identify business processes contributing to a goal within each business unit.
  • Cascade goals to all front-line managers within contributing processes.
  • Aggregate goal assessments and determine links between contributing business processes.
  1. Consistent risk identification and prioritization

Risk assessments must address more than high-level concerns. Effective assessments drill into risk events, uncovering the root cause, or problem “driving” the risk. Repeatable risk assessments are based on common numerical scales and scoring criteria across departments.

  1. Actionable risk tolerances

Risk appetite is a high-level statement that serves as a guide for strategic decisions. In order to be actionable, it should be accompanied by its quantitative cousin, risk tolerance. Risk tolerance is an effective monitoring technique for key performance goals and risk metrics.

  1. Centralized risk monitoring and control activities

Risk managers need to do more than design processes to identify risks and appropriate responses. A critical third component—monitoring—is the verification of a control’s effectiveness over the risk. A few key things to keep in mind to make monitoring effective:

  • Adjust risk assessments over time (spend less time on risks with decreasing indexes).
  • Reduce testing by identifying areas that can share controls (increase organizational efficiency).
  • Link risks and activities to determine which processes need to be monitored (prioritize activities/initiatives).
  • Monitor business metrics (discover concerning trends before they affect the organization).
  1. Forward-looking risk and goal reporting and communication

In order to continue funding their organizations’ risk management programs, boards need evidence that those programs are working. Risk managers should ask two basic questions before reporting to the board:

  • How might identified risks affect the board’s strategic objectives and key concerns?
  • Which metrics or trends most validate the program’s effectiveness?

These items are just a starting point for an analysis of your organization’s program. For a more in-depth blueprint and “state of ERM” report, take the RIMS Risk Maturity Model (RMM), a free best-practice assessment tool that scores risk management programs and generates an immediate report of your organization’s risk maturity.

Wells Fargo: What Should Have Happened

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When Wells Fargo fired 5,300 employees in September for inappropriate sales practices, then-CEO John Stumpf approached the scandal with an outdated playbook. In response to the $185 million in fines levied by regulators, he first denied any knowledge of the illegitimate accounts. Attempting to mitigate press fallout by distancing the company from a group of “bad eggs” acting independently is not the answer, however. Even if Stumpf had maintained this assertion of innocence, changes in the risk environment over the past few years demand a proactive approach.

Rather than simply deflecting responsibility in these situations, executives must be able to accomplish two things:

• Provide historical evidence of due diligence and risk management (if such a program was actually used)
• Demonstrate how the company is adjusting its policies and/or implementing new policies to ensure a similar incident doesn’t happen in the future

In 2010, the SEC’s Proxy Disclosure Enhancement (rule 33-9089) explicitly made boards of directors responsible for assessing and disclosing risk management effectiveness to shareholders. It mandates the use of risk monitoring systems to demonstrate that existing controls (mitigation activities) are effective. Under this rule, “not knowing” about an activity performed by employees is considered negligence. This is a crucial development; negligence carries the same penalty as fraud, but it does not require proof of intent. The Yates Memo (2015) gave the SEC ruling more “teeth” by requiring organizations to provide the Department of Justice with all the facts related to responsible individuals.

As a result, many companies have suffered significant penalties and frequently criminal charges, even though their executives were allegedly unaware of illicit activities. Consider the emissions scandal at Volkswagen and fines paid (to the SEC) by global health science company Nordion Inc. In both instances, deceptions were perpetrated by individuals below the executive level, but senior management’s inability to detect/prevent the incidents came back to bite them.

How to Prevent Risk Management Failures at Your Organization

John Stumpf’s approach should have started with an admission of Wells Fargo’s failure in risk management processes across the enterprise, followed by evidence that a more effective, formal enterprise risk management process is being implemented. For example, risk assessments must cascade from senior management down to the front lines and across all business silos. This ensures that the personnel most familiar with operational risks (and how to mitigate them) can keep the board informed.

In other words, instead of simply apologizing and attempting to provide restitution, Stumpf should have demonstrated that Wells Fargo is taking proactive risk management measures to protect its many stakeholders. It is the company’s duty to ensure that something like this never happens again.

The scandal is predictably following the same track as have previous failures in risk management: it starts with regulatory penalties, then leads to punitive damages, class action lawsuits, and finally, criminal charges and individual liability, depending on the particular case. The key to this pattern is the absence of adequate risk management, which means negligence under the new enterprise risk management laws, regulations and mandates passed since 2010.

The good news is that avoiding serious, long-term consequences is possible if proper actions are taken. For example, by providing a historical record of risk management practices, Morgan Stanley avoided regulatory penalties when an employee evaded existing internal controls. Other corporations that can provide evidence of an effective risk management program (risk assessments, internal controls that address risks, monitoring activities over these internal controls, and an electronic due-diligence trail) are largely exempt from punitive damages, class-action lawsuits, and possible jail time.

When implemented proactively, effective risk management systems have and will continue to prevent scandals, regulatory fines, litigation and imprisonment. For a more in-depth analysis of the Wells Fargo scandal, read the LogicManager blog post “The Walls Fargo Scandal is a Failure in Risk Management.”