Joe Plumeri Tells College Grads to “Go Play in Traffic” — Something Risk Managers Should Tell Their Bosses

Willis chief Joe Plumeri unveils at RIMS 2010 in Boston.

Between his giant, presumably quadruple Windsor knots, his impeccable suits and his combed-back, salt-and-pepper hair style with nary a single strand out of place, it’s tough to mistake Joe Plumeri for any other insurance executive. This is doubly true when he is on a stage talking in his signature New Jersey accent. Few in this line of work — or any profession, really — speak better publicly.

So it’s no surprise that Plumeri reportedly gave a rousing commencement speech to graduates at the College of William & Mary, his alma mater, this past weekend in Virginia.

He kicked off his talk just as you might expect.

You’re 20, 25, 30 minutes — maybe an hour  from the zenith of your years of effort. Only an insurance guy stands between you and your degree.  How in God’s name did it come to this?

The “insurance guy” standing before you was once a rare Italian American on campus.  On my first day, my English professor read the roll and called out “Pulmonary.”

No one answered.

I realized he meant me. I spoke up.  And this is virtually the first thing I ever said on this campus: “Professor, I am not an artery.”

Classic Joe.

He continued beyond the jokes with some wise, risk-relevant advice for the soon-to-be-unemployed young adults of America.

In your time here, you’ve been taught not to rely on tradition but to question the status quo.

We revere our Founding Fathers, many of whom passed through this campus.  But when they propelled us toward revolution, there was no tradition to guide them. All they did was question, with good reason, decades of dictatorial British rule.

In 1989, in Tiananmen Square, a lone protestor known as Tank Man did the same thing standing before a column of Chinese tanks.

A few months ago, in 2011, a young Google executive in Cairo named Wael Ghonim helped engineer a revolution overthrowing a corrupt regime.

From Williamsburg to Beijing to Cairo, what united them all, separated by centuries, was a collective courage to defy tradition and play in traffic.

Let’s agree that throwing yourself in front of a Chinese tank takes playing in traffic to the extreme.  What I mean by playing in traffic is that, each of you in your own way, need to take risks, mix it up and make something happen.

I share this not just cause it’s so odd to hear an “insurance guy” be riveting in front of a crowd. (Although, no offense to most of you, that is the case). No, I share it because it highlights a common misconception about the perspective of risk managers.

Joe isn’t a risk manager in title. He is a chairman and CEO of Willis — which means he has access to the types of budgets, chartered flights and ties of which few risk managers could even dream. But he is a “risk manager” in the sense that he thinks about risk constantly, weighs his options in relation to those thoughts and then makes a decision.

That’s all risk management is really.

It’s not about being risk adverse as so many presume — and too many practice. It’s not about being the wet blanket who always tells the CEO and board why something can’t or shouldn’t be done. It’s about looking at all the potential downfalls of a course of action in an articulate, comprehensive way and then saying “here’s what could go wrong” — and then figuring out how to do it anyway.

That’s what Joe is telling these William & Mary grads to do. Be smart but never be afraid. Don’t be reckless but don’t be gutless either. There are opportunities out there; go take them before someone else does.

That’s what risk managers need to be telling their superiors: go play in traffic.

Just make sure that, before they do, you tell them about the speed limit on the street, the number of lanes in each direction, the typical models and makes of cars that drive by, the projected weather conditions, the location of potholes, the time the sun will go down, which street lights need replacement bulbs …

(Here are some excerpts from Plumeri’s address to William & Mary.)

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