Igniting Next Gen: Exploring a Career in Risk Management - Insights from a City Risk Manager
Karen Caterino is joined by guest, Melissa Thomson, City of Phoenix, on her insights on Enterprise Risk Management (ERM). Melissa shares her journey into risk management and how she used ERM to make her organization more successful, as well as her involvement with the Association of Federal Enterprise Risk Management (AFERM). She also discusses her upcoming plans to build a local outreach committee for AFERM and start an ERM book club, along with advice for students and young professionals looking to break into the world of insurance.
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You are listening to a special episode of In The Public Eye Podcast, Igniting Next Gen for careers and risk management, where we explore all the exciting career opportunities and possibilities within the insurance industry. Here is your host, Karen Caterino.
Karen Caterino (00:18):
Welcome to Igniting Next Gen for careers in risk management and insurance. Our podcast series focuses on enlightening students and young career professionals about all the exciting possibilities in the insurance industry. I am your host, Karen Caterino, Senior Vice President with Alliant Insurance Services, and our guest today is Melissa Tomson with risk management from the City of Phoenix. Welcome to the show, Mel, as you prefer to be known. How are you?
Melissa Tomson (00:46):
I'm doing great. How are you, Karen?
Karen Caterino (00:48):
Doing great. We're excited to have you on the show today. I'd love for our students to know a little bit more about yourself. What's your current role and how did you get started in risk management?
Melissa Tomson (00:58):
It's funny because sometimes we have parents or family members that have been in insurance before. My father was actually a certified financial planner and sold life insurance for over 40 years. And one thing that I regret, which I wish I would've done many years ago, was really asked him questions when I was younger and said, wow, what's insurance all about? It's a funny thing because later I just fell into insurance. Then I started actually in benefits and then, when I went to work for state government, they said, "oh, you have an insurance background," and as you know, insurance with benefits and property and casualty, they're just like apples and oranges, completely different. I was really excited, to say, "okay, well let's try a different type of insurance." So, property and casualty and looking at our losses in one of our government agencies and state parks is where I started. And then I just really enjoyed learning about losses and controls and prevention and then I started working at the Arizona Department of Administration for the state of Arizona in their risk management. And now I'm at the City of Phoenix, just really enjoying my time here and really starting to hone in on enterprise risk management. So that's really what my current focus is right now.
Karen Caterino (02:23):
Yeah, it's a common theme when I talk with guests on the show that they start in one facet of risk and insurance and move into so many different areas, and I think that's really exciting about the industry is that you have those opportunities. What would you say you like most about your role?
Melissa Tomson (02:42):
You know, that's a great question, Karen, because I like so many different aspects. I think what I really like best is that it's so dynamic and it's different every single day. For those people that really like to enjoy looking at risk in a different light depending upon who you're talking to and their perspective; and then watching people watch the light bulb turn on when they start to understand, "oh, okay, well maybe some risks are good, sometimes we have to take risks in order to have the benefits." And then some start to understand a little bit of their tolerance levels too, on what they can accept and what they cannot accept. So just helping people navigate through that and understand it, for me, I think that that's probably what I like most.
Karen Caterino (03:28):
Oh, that's great. Can you tell our audience a little bit about what does a typical day look like for you at work? What's a day in the life of a risk management professional?
Melissa Tomson (03:37):
Oh my goodness. Well, not one day is ever the same. What your intentions are in the morning, usually completely change by the end of the day. It's funny because usually on by Friday afternoons, everybody's headed home and that's when you can expect something to happen. One thing that I look for is really what am I doing today to create impact and value for our departments? And so there's things that we don't want to do that we have to do, but if we can balance those things that we are passionate about and try to make sure we get to that every single day if we can, that's what keeps us going, are the things that we love to do.
Karen Caterino (04:15):
Yeah, I agree. Well, you mentioned Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) earlier. You've begun implementing Enterprise Risk Management in your city. What is ERM and tell us how you got the project started.
Melissa Tomson (04:27):
You bet, it's funny because everyone says, "well you got an ERM program?" And I think, program is kind of a diluted word for Enterprise Risk Management. Enterprise, we think of across the enterprise, your whole organization and looking at a portfolio of risks. But we also look at it as a system. So, you're basically putting in an entire system into an organization and looking at the risks in its entirety and figuring out, are we able to adapt to change? Are we prepared for an uncertain future? And especially, today with so much uncertainty, we're finding it more and more valuable to bring conversations and prioritizations of risks to the table. And I think that's really what I enjoy about it. And I got started actually back in 2017, in state parks where we were going to be judged nationally for our best practices with the best managed state park in the country. And I used the platform of ERM to get us there. And so that's where I found it beneficial. You're not going to start it day one and have it textbook perfect, just starting to take some of those elements and hit success, for me, that's where I found great value.
Karen Caterino (05:45):
Well, it's really interesting. Certainly, your passion and what you've already started at the city and what you've done in the past, grabbed the attention of an organization, AFERM. You were just invited to Washington D.C. to speak to AFERM. What is AFERM and how did you get involved and what are you currently doing with them?
Melissa Tomson (06:05):
Yeah, AFERM is a great federal association. It's the Association of Federal Enterprise Risk Management and they started back in 2004 and it was really during the response of, "hey, we've got major crises happening around the country." And then all of a sudden the '08 crisis hit, then it got everybody's ears perked up and OMB and other federal agencies said, "okay, we need to start thinking about putting ERM in all of our federal agencies." And so what I did was, I was just really starting to put my ear to the ground, start understanding what's happening in the federal level for enterprise. And then we started to adopt it at City of Phoenix, and I said, well, let's take elements of good practices everywhere. And I started talking to our federal partners and they said, really, you're doing that at the city level? And they said, we'd love to know more. And they said, well how about you come out and talk about your pilot program and what you're doing over there with the water department. Since then, we've been really making a lot of strides forward with our water department and building that enterprise throughout 2,000 employees so that we can use that as a model for the other 12,000 employees that we have.
Karen Caterino (07:23):
It's great that you got engaged with AFERM, so much so you're leading or spearheading a committee for them. Why don't you tell us a little bit more about that?
Melissa Tomson (07:28):
Yeah, when I went to Washington D.C. this past October, I was able to talk to a few of the key people there. We were talking about how there's just not a lot of people that know that you don't have to be a federal agency to belong to AFERM, even though that's what the name of it is, they really would like to look at some outreach. And so we worked together to come up with a new committee. I'm chairing it up, and it is the state and local outreach committee for AFERM. So any cities, universities, colleges, anyone that is a non-federal government entity that is starting or currently has an ERM program, we really invite them to come over. They can go to AFERM.org and they can look at us through committee. We're just trying to get the word out, that there really is a way to bridge those areas and levels of government, between state and local and federal, to start having conversations of best practices and what we can learn from each other.
Karen Caterino (08:37):
Well that's so great, Mel. You take such initiative and I just applaud your efforts in really promoting Enterprise Risk Management. So much so, that you're about to kick off an ERM book club, very exciting. I think this has to be the first book club ever in risk management. So firsts on a lot of levels, tell us more about this.
Melissa Tomson (09:00):
It just dawned on me. It was one of those nights you can't sleep and I'm so frustrated because I love this Enterprise Risk Management book so much, but I have no one to share it with. So, I've already spent nine months reading the book, but every chapter I want to talk to somebody about it. And I said, well, why don't we do a book club? And so I started putting it together. I got with PRIMA and I got with AFERM and they thought it was a great idea. So we've been starting to put that out on their platforms and we've had an overwhelming, wonderful response from PRIMA members and from AFERM. We think that this will be a really great way to also get that engagement from everyone. My mentor Rob Quail is one of the authors and it's a collection of work. So for anybody that wants to reach out to me, you can find me on LinkedIn and say, “Hey, I'd love to be a part of the book club.” We're actually starting it May 1st because we do have some interns that are interested in being on the call during the summertime.
Karen Caterino (10:02):
Well, that's very exciting. I think that's really neat. A lot of risk managers say other things that keep them up at night and for you it's Enterprise Risk Management and a book club. So tell us a little bit, what is your city, City of Phoenix, doing to develop talent in the field of risk management and ERM? You just mentioned interns. Maybe talk a little bit more about that.
Melissa Tomson (10:21):
We are really trying to get out and reach out to interns and those that are still trying to figure out what they want to do with their program of study. They might have tried a few business classes, maybe they have a few risk classes at their school, but just think about, well, what do I want to do with my summer? When you were that age, what's something that would be of value to you that you might not know or want to try out? So we do have some paid internships, hopefully, that will be coming out, 1st of April or mid-April. They can contact us at risk management or our HR department. But, we will have a series of internships for my ERM team. So we're going to work very closely together. So we'll have those that like to present, those interns that really like to be on the front stage and engage with people. And then we'll also have areas where people want to do the data analytics and enjoy the backend work. So it'll be a real tight-knit group. We'll work collaboratively and try to scale enterprise risk management through the water department. So we'll be getting about 2,000 employees this summer from the beginning of May all the way to the end of July, first part of August.
Karen Caterino (11:45):
Well, that is a very exciting opportunity and for those students listening in, here's your chance. It's wonderful if the city is being so proactive and certainly engaging in the local university community and college community to solicit talent. So congratulations, It's going to be exciting to hear more about. So Mel, in closing, what is your best advice for students and those that are just getting started in insurance?
Melissa Tomson (12:09):
Well, I would say conduct informational interviews. Go talk to people that you know. Everyone says, oh gosh, insurance is so boring. It's kind of sticky, it kind of sticks to you and really, it's just a phenomenal world of opportunity and so many different types of career paths in insurance. So go out, talk to people, conduct informational interviews and if you know your neighbors, your best friend’s parents, see what they do because you'll be surprised at what is out there in the industry.
Karen Caterino (12:45):
Well, that's great advice, Mel. We're very fortunate that, perhaps, you didn't follow in your father's footsteps and you're in the position you're in today because you're sure making an impact. Well, Mel, it has been such a pleasure talking with you today and thank you so much for all you do and sharing your expertise, your experience and certainly your high enthusiasm for risk management and Enterprise Risk Management. Thanks so much.
Thanks for your message.
We’ll be in touch shortly.
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