This Summer, Risk Management Magazine Spoke with Patrick Ryan, the Chairman and CEO of Chicago-Based Insurance Broker Aon, about Whether Corporate America Needs New Leadership, His Response to September 11, the Key to Organizational Unity and Strength, the Role of Risk Management Today and Its Challenging Future Ahead. (Executive Perspective: Patrick Ryan Chairman & CEO Aon Corporation)

Article excerpt

RM: Is a leadership crisis looming?

Patrick Ryan: When we go through periods of dramatic change, like we have been, there are challenges, but I wouldn't say there's a leadership crisis.

RM: So you do not think leadership changes need to be made?

Ryan: I do think there are changes that need to be made. But look at whenever we have had great bull markets--the twenties, the late sixties, the late eighties--and look at the problems that developed out of those bull markets. There were lots of challenges in terms of ethical issues. And then we had another bull market in the nineties. So we have these excesses, but strong leadership and government agencies are responding to the challenges.

I don't see a need for tremendous change in terms of leadership. Everybody is extremely cautious of the ethical needs and issues in business. They don't want to be tarred by the actions of relatively few companies or people.

In fact, in the climate we're in today strong leadership will stand out. I would say that 9/11 had a dramatic impact on the need for effective and appropriate leadership because of the tremendous disruption and how people looked to leadership. This is unparalleled, at least in my thirty-nine years of business.

There's a lot of strong leadership in our corporations in the United States and around the world. I just think this is a shake-out period that strong leadership will deal with. Companies will come out stronger than they went in. They'll be cautious about dealing with the public need for effective communication, and making sure that throughout the company everybody is adhering to the same high standards.

RM: Do you have a central management concept, and has that changed over the years?

Ryan: Yes, I do. I've always believed that in order to build an organization--which we certainly have done--you have to surround yourself with really good people and give them authority or responsibility and hold them accountable.

In the early days of my career, when I was really just an entrepreneur, I tended to do a lot more on my own. But I realized that once we got to a certain scale, that attitude would choke the organization. I learned to rely on and trust my colleagues and delegate.

That's worked out extremely well for us. We have a culture that has spawned and rewarded entrepreneurs and we've grown into a company with fifty-three thousand employees. As a result, we need to have the discipline that comes from moving into that scale. So we continue to rely on our key management and to internally develop succeeding management.

Our style--my own personal style, as well as that of my colleagues--is to be very involved with clients and to be very much on the front lines of the business. We stay closely attuned to what's going on in the business, and that style has not changed over the years.

RM: How important is corporate culture? How do you maintain that culture with so many employees, and how does risk management fit into it?

Ryan: We have nothing without our culture. Fifty-three thousand people cannot be fifty-three thousand individuals; they have to become part of a common culture. I'm very proud of the fact that the Aon culture--although developed over time--expanded greatly in the last five years and was diversified through the globalization of our company.

The Aon culture is influenced by a set of core values and further developed by the professionalism that our people feel. We're a professional service organization that is directly involved in the management of risk on behalf of our clients. The management of risk is related to the human capital of our clients and requires that we then blend our various values, starting with integrity. This needs to include physical and intangible assets as well as human assets. So risk management is absolutely integral to our culture--it's what we do. It's how we live. …