VW’s Harris Spells Out Role of Communication in Risk Management

People can’t always understand what you’re saying.

That was the message from Bruce Harris, vice president and chief risk and strategy officer at Volkswagen Financial Services, to attendees at the 2013 Auto Finance Summit. In a nutshell, Harris said, effective communication is a critical component of risk management.

“We assume when we use a word, that everyone who sees that word, reads the word, or hears the word, understands the exact same spirit of communication and intent of communication and message of communication that we’re attempting to deliver,” he said.

Unlike most sessions at the Summit, Harris’s speech did not deal directly with auto finance. Rather, his talk focused on how to run an effective organization ― though Harris assured the audience that these strategies would ultimately lead to better risk management and a more successful company.

Harris, who has more than 30 years of leadership experience with the VW Group (www.vw.com), started by talking about the fact that words can have different meanings depending on how they are read. He presented an amusing anecdote about a math student who read the direction to “Find x” ― the hypotenuse of a triangle, labeled “x” ― on a test. Instead of calculating the measurement, the student simply circled the letter “x” on the page.

In a business, Harris said, ensuring that all employees know their role and how to accomplish it is crucial to achieving success. “Most people want to succeed,” he said. “They want to do their best, they don’t want to fail, and they don’t want to be held up for ridicule as someone that has caused failure.”

That said, Harris noted that he’s worked with plenty of folks that have failed at their tasks. “I’ve learned it’s not because they wanted to fail, it’s because they didn’t know what they were supposed to do,” he said. “And when men and women don’t know what they’re supposed to do, they just keep doing what they’re doing thinking it’s right, because if it’s not, someone would tell them.”

In the question-and-answer session after his speech, Harris talked about another key communication point for companies: Who is responsible for ensuring proper communication. He described a situation where he talked to various levels of leaders in a company about just how to communicate with employees. “The first question they asked was, ‘When are we going to have a meeting so that you can explain to everybody what this is about?’” he said. “And in those meetings with those various levels of leaders, I’d say, ‘No, you have it backwards. You have to sit down and explain to them where this company’s going, how it’s going to get there, and what their role is.’”

Those three ideas about corporate success ― a company’s direction, its plan for getting there, and each employee’s individual role ― came up repeatedly in Harris’ speech, and for good reason. “I’ve convinced myself that for any company to succeed, those are the three questions that have to be answered for every man and women in in the entire organization,” he said.

Ultimately, a company’s risk strategy “has to be understood by every person that pulls into the parking lot every single day,” he added.

―Ben Geier

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