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Unrewarded Risks

1

New Horizons


Wearily, Samuel Fredricks took off his glasses and rubbed his face with both hands. Was this what he really wanted … a move to the United States and across the continent? He sat glumly at his desk in his apartment, staring at the monitor. It was a chief risk officer job — the role he’d worked so hard all these years to achieve. He would be at the top of his profession, and he badly needed a job. Two years of unemployment had left his finances running on fumes. Oh, well, he thought, it’s done now, anyway. He had hit the send button a few moments ago, accepting the outlined offer. There would be some further negotiations before a final contract signing, but he was now committed, and he never broke a commitment.


Samuel sat back in his chair. He was physically and emotionally exhausted from nights of restless, anxious sleep. Today, once more, he’d awakened with a feeling of listlessness, depression, and worry, feelings he’d grown unfortunately accustomed to despite receiving the offer from Flight Financial in San Francisco a day earlier.


He had just passed the second anniversary of his departure from CanaTrust Bank, let go from his hard-earned role as senior vice-president of risk planning and resiliency. After the layoff, he had started out with confidence and energy, but that had eroded into a blur of self-doubt, a failed job hunt, and confusion. As he was approaching the possibility of a third year of unemployment, things had seemed hopeless.


Samuel had begun his job search with a well-formulated routine. He got his coffee in the morning, read the newspaper, checked his email, searched online job sites, and reached out to contacts in his network. Gradually, as time progressed, once-frequent calls and inquiries from search firms and large international banks diminished. The networking coffees, lunches, drinks, and dinners became increasingly difficult to schedule.


True, he landed quite a few first interviews and even made it to the final ones for many senior roles, but he was never the final choice. One opportunity was for a senior regulator role. It was hard for him to imagine himself doing that and maybe that was evident in the final interview. In any case, someone else was always a better fit.


Meetings and interviews had been easy to arrange at first but were becoming increasingly hard to come by, and unfortunately, those sources for opportunities were currently quite dry. He hadn’t had a new lead for the past three months and realized he was now quickly fading, becoming invisible in the community that had once recognized him as a strong and respected member.


Then, out of the blue, he got an inquiry from a small West Coast U.S. headhunter looking for a chief risk officer for a digital start-up bank — Flight Financial. He knew the digital space and was certain he could handle that, but he was used to larger organizations with complex multinational operations that included digital capabilities.


Samuel shook off further thoughts about his impending position. He had an outstanding email from his ex-wife to deal with. Just before he’d entered the final interview process for the Flight position, he’d asked his ex-wife for some time to make his next three financial payments to her, and she had responded the previous day. Samuel was committed to making his payments to her, since they were dedicated to the education of their two children, but his funds were almost completely depleted. He was selling his possessions to keep the payments going, but the final items would take a little bit of time to get full value. Samuel had promised to send sale proceeds as each item was sold. He knew his ex, Jessica, was also struggling to make tuition payments along with covering her daily expenses. Now he had good news — he could read her response and provide his news in the reply. Samuel had requested a sizable signing bonus, and the Flight Financial board had agreed. He would get that payment with his first paycheque in about six weeks.


After responding to Jessica, he started arranging for his move. His first day was only two weeks away, barely time to pack let alone make all the plans he felt were necessary. In addition to organizing his move, he wanted to do a lot more research on Flight Financial and its executives and board directors, so he shook off his lethargy and headed back to his coffee maker. He needed a lot more coffee.


*****


Jessica was worried. She needed Samuel to send some money soon for their two children’s tuition and knew he would do his best. Jessica thought of him as the most honest and reliable person she knew and appreciated that he had already given her more than should be expected. When she had told him she was leaving, he’d asked if there was anything he could do to change her mind, and with her no, had only asked what he could do to help her. She again experienced that sense of amazement he often engendered when he seemed so kind. Jessica knew, however, that it was really just a lack of emotion and awareness. This absence had been endearing at first but had eventually left her feeling alone and in need of … well … in need of a different, warmer romantic partner.


She knew she could give him a little more time and also realized she would. However, her friends had pressured her to pressure him. Their standard refrain was that he was just delaying. Many suggested that she take over the sale of the items he’d promised to sell. She knew that would hurt him. His lack of emotional response didn’t go that far. Or perhaps it was more a question of pride.


Jessica was startled out of her reverie with a soft ding from her phone, indicating a new email had arrived. She knew it was from Samuel, since everyone else seemed to use a messaging service rather than email. With some trepidation, she opened her mail and clicked on his message.


2

Meeting of Minds in San Francisco


“We got him, Bart! We got him!”


Bart Smith already knew what his boss, Richard Bueller, was talking about. He had overheard Richard’s end of the conversation on a phone call his boss had just received and was able to follow along.


“He’d better be worth it,” said Bart. “His desperation better be as acute as you think. He has to toe the line … do as he’s told.”


“He will. Don’t worry. I’ll play him like a harp. He’ll be dancing to our tune. You’ll see.”


Bart smiled. Richard was almost dancing himself. His florid face was lit up with a devilish grin, and there was a very real sparkle in his eyes. The man’s rotund body almost vibrated with joy.


Turning away with a wince at Richard’s mixed metaphor and gleeful antics, Bart pretended he was admiring Richard’s office. It was a large corner affair with a huge antique desk dominating one side and two guest chairs that Bart always avoided with distaste. The desk loomed over the chairs, and Bart knew Richard had a footstool handy so he could raise his large black leather throne-like chair to its highest point to lord it over any visitor foolish enough to take one of those seats. Bart suspected Richard had cut the legs of the guest chairs short to make the effect even more imposing. Perhaps just the back legs.

Bart was sitting where he always did. He was in a very comfortable red leather club chair — one of six — at Richard’s custom-made walnut conference table. The tabletop was a compass with inlaid brass cardinal and intercardinal points with north denoted by the traditional fleur-de-lys. The cardinal point rhumb lines were inlaid cherry, while the intercardinal rhumb lines were inlaid maple. The inlaid wood created a beautiful rose design.


Bart had to admit that it was a gorgeous table with fantastic craftsmanship. He knew the table had been painstakingly placed so the fleur-de-lys pointed true north. Looking around again at the too-familiar setting, Bart was struck by its overpowering expression of power and excess.


There were two other reasons to sit at the conference table in the chair he always made sure he took. The first was so he could better enjoy the view of the San Francisco skyline dominated by the pyramid-shaped Transamerica Building. The second was because it irritated his boss who had to join him at the table in one of the seats with a lesser view. Bart wondered why Richard didn’t adapt his approach when Bart entered the office so that he and not Bart got the choice of chairs. Chuckling to himself, Bart thought, Perhaps he understands I’d then adapt my approach. Bart had already considered this possibility and planned to perch on the front of Richard’s desk facing his boss at the conference table if Richard ever took his spot. He greatly enjoyed these cunning power plays. It was his way of assuring himself that Richard should be working for him instead of the way it actually was.

Mentally, Bart shook his head to bring himself back to the topic at hand. “You’re sure you can control this guy? I called some people, and he’s got a reputation for being very decisive, strong, and disciplined in the risk management community.”


“We’ll control him, Bart And not just you and me. I’ll sic Jennifer on him. She’ll fight and undermine him every chance she gets. He’ll be spending so much time trying to keep me happy and her off his back that he won’t have time to look anywhere we don’t want him to. We’ve got him.”


“You’re going to tell Jennifer to go after him? How will that work?”


“Don’t be an ass. I’ll simply imply that he could be a strong candidate to succeed me when I’m ready to retire or depart. Don’t forget how ambitious Jennifer is. She’ll get to the top any way she can.”


Bart snorted in seeming support of what Richard had said. In his opinion, though, Jennifer Sebastien played Richard more than he did her. She seemed to get anything she wanted except Richard’s role and office.


“Well,” Bart changed tack, “don’t forget we thought we had the right person as our last chief risk officer.” Paul challenged him and ended up firing him. We fooled Paul once in getting that moron hired, but we couldn’t keep it going and Paul fired him as incompetent and unable to grasp the risk complexities of a digital bank.”


“That’s why I’m doing this change in approach. This new guy is competent and able to understand, but he’s desperate for the job and the money. Once we move him out here, he’ll be isolated from his support network, and with Jennifer’s attention, he’ll be overwhelmed. You’ll become his closest friend and ally, while I’ll be demanding and withhold support and Jennifer will also undermine him. We’ll have full control of him.”


Bart shook his head, not convinced, then reluctantly admitted, “It might just work. He might be suspicious of the head of the retail-lending business being friendly, though. Chief risk officers don’t generally trust or align themselves with the risk-taking functions.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll have him focus on Mike’s corporate-lending business. That’s where risk managers get their jollies. Everyone thinks that’s where the sophisticated and interesting work gets done.”


Bart uncoiled himself and rose from his seat with a sinewy grace befitting his lanky build. He turned his hooded, unblinking eyes on Richard and nodded, then headed for the door. “I’ve got to get back to work. We’re launching some new business initiatives to get growth amped up further. I’ll talk to you later.”


Glancing back at Richard as he left, he saw Richard pause his happy pacing and wave quickly. “Yeah, see ya, Bart.”


3

First Day, New Job


Samuel’s first day at Flight Financial as chief risk officer was taking a little while to get started. He’d awakened at his usual early time, had undertaken all the usual preparations, and was ready to go. The only difficulty was that it would be a couple of hours before anyone else would arrive at his new company to greet him and walk him through the immediate onboarding processes. So he waited in his new San Francisco apartment with a coffee and a few digital newspapers.


He read the first online paper in the usual order: comics first followed by quick solutions for the crossword and sudoku, then on to the first-page headlines, a deep dive into a story or two, and finally the business section. Glances at the time revealed the need to plunge through a few more stories and slow down his progress. He still had over an hour to kill.

Samuel had to admit he was thrilled at the expectation of his first day back at work in two years. Still, he wasn’t sure he liked his new firm’s name, but he guessed it was meant to convey a modern digital feel and perhaps had tested well with young professionals. He’d read during his research of the company that they were the target market.


Of course, the two weeks preceding this first day had been very busy and exhausting. He got his visa to work in the United States and found somewhere to live. Charmaine Williamson, his new executive assistant at Flight, located a furnished, affordable apartment on a short-term lease in Haight-Ashbury, and he was looking forward to exploring that neighbourhood. He was also eager to acquire a larger, more comfortable rental once he knew San Francisco a little better. If he stayed long enough, a house purchase wasn’t out of the question, either. He needed to save up for a down payment first, though. Still, he was grateful for the place his assistant came up with given the short notice of his arrival.


Something else he was keenly anticipating was revisiting some of the places he’d enjoyed in the city on previous trips as well as reacquainting himself with Big Sur, Yosemite, Point Reyes, and Carmel-by-the-Sea. He was hoping friends would visit and join him in some adventures. Samuel really didn’t like travelling or exploring alone. However, he’d skip Alcatraz and Sausalito; once was enough for those two, at least for him. Besides, he’d visited Sausalito with his ex-wife, and she’d loved it, though why was a mystery to him. Still, given his nature and the new job, it was unlikely he’d find time for leisure excursions for quite a while.


The interview process had involved meetings with the human resources representative, some of the existing executive, including the president and chief executive officer, the chair of the board of directors, and the chair of the board’s Risk Committee. Their assessment of him had obviously been positive, since they’d offered him his new position. His take on them was less kind.


Samuel had noted some tension around the interview table between two executives, and he was unimpressed with a third. It was clear the organizational maturity was low and that these executives weren’t as skilled, experienced, or capable as those he’d worked with previously. But all in all, he was excited to join Flight given the alternative of continued joblessness.

Unfortunately, he still struggled with the feeling he’d taken a major step backward. Flight was a small digital bank with simple offerings and scant market presence, and given the current offerings and operations, very limited risk-taking. There didn’t seem to be a strong, aggressive growth strategy to build the bank into a sustainable player in the industry. The declared strategy was to attract young professionals, the same target market every other bank pursued. He hoped he was merely missing something and that this opportunity would be a tremendous one for personal growth that helped develop the next generation of risk experts and organizational leaders.


Charmaine had already quizzed him electronically on his computer preferences and office supply requirements. In turn, he had provided her with a list of items to have ready for him on day one. He knew his list was very long and wondered if everything would be loaded on his computer, provided on an external drive, or set up as a series of links to centrally stored documents. As a digital bank, Flight certainly shouldn’t rely on paper documents. Given Charmaine’s success in securing him a place to live, he felt confident she would have all he required waiting for him. He looked forward to meeting her in person and pictured a mature, confident professional with years of experience.


Snatching a look at his watch again, he saw it was finally time to go. It didn’t take him long to get to from his place in Haight-Ashbury to Flight’s offices on California Street in the Financial District, and when he arrived, the front receptionist, Mr. Happy, was exactly as he remembered him from his visits for previous interviews. The man’s name plaque even said Mr. Happy, though his actual name was Jimmy Miller.


“Good morning, Mr. Fredricks,” Jimmy called out as Samuel entered the foyer. “How are you on this bright and beautiful day?”


“Fine, thank you, Jimmy. And how are you?”


“I’m excellent and getting better, Mr. Fredricks!” Jimmy replied with a laugh and a smile as he quickly issued Samuel with a parking access fob, instructions on where to park, and a building pass, photograph included. “That’s everything you’ll need for the building, Mr. Fredricks,” the affable receptionist told him.


“Call me Samuel, Jimmy.”


Mr. Happy smiled and gently shook his head.


Obviously, Jimmy was going to stick to addressing him formally. Samuel wondered if that was due to respect or hierarchical expectations. He certainly hoped the cultural norm wouldn’t reflect such a hierarchy.


“Well, Mr. Fredricks, have a great d-day —” Jimmy stuttered his final word because he was nodding at someone behind Samuel. Turning, Samuel spotted an incredible beauty gliding toward him across the lobby.


“Good morning, Mr. Fredricks,” the woman approaching him said, beaming a pleasant but brief smile at him. “I’m your executive assistant, Charmaine Williamson.”


Samuel had to catch himself so he didn’t rock back on his heels. He’d expected a woman with extensive organizational and administrative experience given the high level of efficiency and expertise Charmaine had demonstrated so far. Frankly, someone older. He didn’t anticipate the vision before him now.


Noticing Charmaine hesitate to say anything else at first, he figured she, too, wasn’t fully expecting his physical presence. She had only met him through email and telephone calls. No doubt she’d seen the head shot he’d supplied for the Flight website, so she at least knew he was of average appearance with greying temples and slightly outdated glasses. However, as she peered up at him in appraisal, she clearly hadn’t expected him to tower over her so much. She recovered quickly, though, shot him a welcoming smile, and said, “I’m very pleased to finally meet you in person, Mr. Fredricks.”


Heat gathered in Samuel’s cheeks as he tried to compose something to say in reply. Finally, he managed, “Call … call me Samuel. We, uh, we, uh, don’t need to be so formal.”

Charmaine tossed him another smile, then without another word, turned smoothly and headed for the bank of elevators, indicating he should follow.


When they were in an elevator, Charmaine began what appeared to be a prepared speech. “Samuel, we’re all excited to have you here. Your predecessor was our first CRO but didn’t last long and never spent any time setting up his office. All that’s there right now is mismatched furniture from storage. Once you know what you want, I can get that ordered for you.”


Samuel was pleased. He was particular and hoped the allowed furniture could be configured to suit his needs. “Are there guidelines for furniture at Flight?”


“Yes, we do have guidelines, but they’re very generous for senior executives.”


They exited the elevator on the top floor and commenced the twisting, disorientating walk to the executive offices. The halls were bright reds and yellows with shifting hues and empowering posters evenly spaced between hallway offshoots and conference room doorways. As they entered the executive suite, Samuel felt a sense of relief as the space opened up. The centre of the big space was filled with cubicles. At each one, he glimpsed a head bent toward what he supposed was a phone or keyboard. There was a wide variety of hair colours and styles, including a rather vibrant pink-and-purple-striped mop of wild curls. The room was lit with skylights and desk lamps due to the offices that ringed the room claiming all the exterior windows.


Charmaine pointed out where the offices for the CEO and his executive colleagues were and where she sat, which was right outside Samuel’s office, the third one down on the west side of the building. “You’re next to Karen Armstrong, our senior vice-president of human resources, Samuel.”


At the sound of Charmaine’s voice, the heads in the cubicles popped up and turned to see the new arrival. Some smiled, while the woman with the vibrant hair tossed a rather flippant wave. Samuel quickly glanced away, feeling discomfort and awkwardness grow. He wondered if the wild-haired woman was being insolent. Most glances were cursory, however, as the employees swiftly returned their attention to their work. Samuel was amazed that so many junior staff were already in the offices while it seemed that no executives had arrived yet. His experience had always been the opposite.


Charmaine accompanied Samuel into his office, reiterating the furniture situation. Then she indicated the computer setup, explaining the start-up processes to gain access to his computer, the company network, and his mobile phone. Based on their conversations so far, Samuel was very impressed with Charmaine’s cool efficiency and professionalism, but he wondered if she had a sense of humour. From what he’d seen so far, he was fairly certain that if she did, she kept it well hidden at work.


Samuel knew he often came across as cold and intimidating when first meeting new people, so now he tried hard to be on his best behaviour with frequent smiles and friendly comments. He thought he was emulating Mr. Happy but felt that didn’t seem to be going over as well as he’d hoped.


*****


Charmaine narrowed her eyes at her new boss. She was determined to provide a strong first impression but found Samuel’s awkwardness off-putting. Charmaine knew she was expertly professional, highly skilled, and well regarded at Flight, but she also understood that the new chief risk officer could decide whether she kept her job. She wondered what would happen if he decided he wanted someone else, but then smiled at that thought because she knew she had better job security than most people at Flight.


During her electronic exchanges with Samuel, she’d found him terse but decisive. He seemed to know what he wanted and had answered each of her questions quickly and clearly. Now meeting him face to face, she found him serious, quite awkward, and grudgingly admitted to herself, even intimidating.


Charmaine wondered if Richard Bueller, Flight’s president and CEO, had expected someone of Samuel’s level of organization, drive, and decisiveness for his CRO, especially since the previous one had been fairly inexperienced and quite weak relative to the other executives. From Samuel’s earlier information requests, he seemed to have a deep background, experience, and standing in risk management. She realized that a strong risk culture and capability weren’t really what Richard was seeking. Charmaine also wondered if Samuel had a sense of humour. She doubted that he did and decided to keep her own sharp sense of humour in check for now.


Tomorrow night Charmaine knew she’d be quizzed by Richard on her impressions of Samuel and his actions as he settled into his new role.


*****


Samuel listened intently as Charmaine quickly moved from familiarizing him with the computer and information systems to the business of getting the day started. “Do you have those files I requested?” he asked her now.


“I’ve prepared a summary document listing each request, the file name with the information, including hyperlinks to each document, and a short summary description of the contents,” Charmaine replied.


Samuel nodded his understanding.


Charmaine quickly transitioned to Samuel’s calendar and outlined his meeting schedule for the week. As they continued, Charmaine’s appearance faded in Samuel’s awareness and his manner became increasingly forthright and terse. No more fumbling or stumbling.


“You’ll start with a face to face with the boss, Richard Bueller,” Charmaine told him. “Then you’ll have an introductory meeting with all the risk leaders so you can hear the key work initiatives underway and get a quick outline of staff — the good and the bad. A Risk Group staff meeting will come after that in the early afternoon. Then later this week I’ll set up one-on-one get-togethers for you with all the Risk Group leaders’ direct reports. Tomorrow has the morning Executive Leadership Team meeting followed by the members of the Executive Leadership Team individually. On Wednesday, you’ll meet with the chair of the board, Peter MacPherson, and the chair of the Risk Committee, Paul Gardner.”


Samuel had asked Charmaine to find time later in the week to allow him to walk around the office and meet all the Risk Group staff as individuals as they worked. She had blocked that time for Thursday and Friday. Samuel also hoped to stop for a quick chat with staff from as many different areas as possible. He knew he needed to get a sense of the culture and capabilities of staff within his group as well as across the organization. As CRO, he had to set up a number of formal and informal risk assessment tools and practices quickly and knew that people were a great source of information and one that many executives overlooked. All that was needed was an ability to evaluate the individuals as sources — their connections, reliability, and agendas. No one source would provide a complete picture. That was something he was good at and not something that relied on current risk approaches and practices. He would still have to catch up with the latest risk management ideas, but people came first.


“I see you’re lost in thought,” Charmaine suddenly said, breaking into his musings. “So I’ll let you familiarize yourself with your new surroundings. Let me know if you need anything else.”


Samuel looked up and nodded. “Thank you, Charmaine. This is helpful.”


“Till later then,” she said, and left his office.


Alone, Samuel sighed and settled into reviewing the mass of information Charmaine had organized for him. He’d also be meeting with Richard later this morning and wanted to make sure he reviewed his notes on his new boss once more before then.


[Remainder of Book Available once Published]


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