After leaving his comfort zone of the West many years ago, Scott Burnett (pictured) has since gained extensive skills and experience in the Asia region.
Burnett is now Willis Towers Watson head of corporate risk and broking Asia and head of Asia. He believes his involvement in the risk management industry is a natural fit and an opportunity with familiarity within the company.
Corporare Risk and Insurance had a quick chat with Burnett to learn more about his risk management journey. In this Q&A, he talks about his opposing view of running Asian business like an “offshoot of a US operation as well as his strategy of running “Asia for Asia’s operations.” He also shares his insights on how risk professionals can address the rapidly changing risk environment.
Corporate Risk: Who or what has inspired you to be involved in the risk management and insurance broking industries?
Scott Burnett: I started out as a director of account management, responsible for driving sales and growing clients, in 1999 when the company was still under the Watson Wyatt Worldwide name. Before coming to Asia, I had worked with clients in consulting and client development across North America and Europe from multiple industry sectors in their expansion into Asian and Western markets such as British Airways, Johnson & Johnson, Ericsson, Southwest Airlines, AT&T, Exxon Mobil and J.C Penney.
In 2012, my role expanded to oversee Willis Towers Watson’s consulting operations and account management in South East Asia as the region’s managing director. In 2016, the Willis Group and Towers Watson merged to become Willis Towers Watson. With the expansion of the company’s portfolio to now encompass the management of risk, and both physical and human assets of clients, my role further expanded to lead the Corporate Risk and Broking (CRB) business for Asia in 2018, in addition to my role as head of Asia.
It was a natural fit and opportuitiy with familiarity within the company. Leveraging on my skills and experience in the Asia region, and what we can offer to clients in Asia under the unified Willis Towers Watson brand, I recognise a huge opportunitiy to deliver a new brand promise, to our clients and colleauges in Asia. Taking advantage on the global CRB business, we are committed to bringing the global lines of business and standards of excellence for sales and client service here.
CRI: Tell us briefly about your role at Willis Towers Watson, and in the industry as a whole.
SB: As Willis Towers Watson’s Head of Asia, I am responsible for directing the firm’s business growth and client relationships in the region. Based in Singapore, I am responsible for directing the firm’s business growth and client relationships in over 15 markets and locations in Asia.
I also oversee the overall operations of the Corporate Risk & Broking business in the region, working with clients, underwriters and key market partners to lead the innovation and transformation of the broking business, delivering solutions to protect and strengthen clients’ business across people, risk and capital.
CRI: When you look back at your career, what would you say are your proudest accomplishments?
SB: I’ve been fortunate to have travelled and experienced working and living across the globe. This experience has presented many challenges for me to lead diverse business and groups of people. In turn, it has allowed me to develop as a leader and hone a skillset for agility, valuing diversity and inclusion, and being able to grow challenging and complex businesses. Leaving the comfort zone of the West many years ago and making a decision to uproot myself and a young family, to come to Asia when I was offered opportunities by Willis Towers Watson, really continued as a journey which I started in my teens.
When I first came to Asia, many US global multinationals were keen to tap on the growth of the Asia region. However, many of these US multinationals still believed Asia should be run like an “offshoot” of a US operation. I held a different viewpoint. I advocated running an “Asia for Asia’s operations”. That strategy has now paid off with several new inroads opened and with the ability to effectively serve new clients with diverse and unique needs in Asia. Our own business is a testament to the success of supporting Asian businesses as they have expanded regionally and globally.
I’m also proud of my colleagues and teams who have fulfilled their potential and continue to grow and impact the future of our company. A personal commitment to build and mentor a leadership team made up of local Asian talents has been key to our success in the region. I strongly believed in the potential of having a team of ‘Asia for Asia’ leaders who are also now ready to be global leaders and take on a larger stage beyond Asia.
This mentoring and grooming of local leaders and the belief in their potential to impact the bigger stage has now enabled my team of leaders to become even more mobile and ‘outward-looking’. They are also able to collaborate and better equipped to operate in an even greater uncertain and complex environment, as well as to understand the complex needs of clients. It is gratifying to know that it is often our Asian teams leading on innovation, solving the most complex issues and confronting the possibilities for the future of our company and clients.
CRI: How is risk management evolving in the region?
SB: Geopolitical uncertainty is on the rise and will remain a source of significant risk, potentially impacting trade, financial markets and business confidence.
With new and disruptive technologies impacting traditional business models so quickly especially in the insurance sectors, risk management will also require a new approach - whether it is managing risks at a SME level or a large corporation managing large and complex risks.
Risk management will become a lot less focused on approaching clients on a single transaction. Conversation on a risk strategy will need to be on a continuum of end-to-end activities along a total value chain. It will be about bringing together the data and insights round the business.
In the insurance and broking industry, clients are already demanding more than just insurance management. They are seeking an eco-system of partners and providers who can collaborate, and be risk advisors to help them build strong resilient organizational risk cultures across people, risk and capital.
CRI: How can risk professionals address the rapidly changing risk environment?
SB: A risk conversation now needs to elevate into the C-suite boardoom agenda. Organizational leaders and risk professionals need to have a fuller view of an organization’s overall risk position and be able to pull different ‘risk levers’ to maximize their competitive and operating positions.
The fundamental problem of risk management is that it is often managed by different departments and/or stakeholders, using various techniques and risk stances and accessing different arbitrage markets. Only when an organization’s risk professionals can bring all these risks together, then a true risk portfolio strategy can be adopted.
CRI: What are the other key issues facing risk managers today?
SB: Risk managers must be very adept to leverage new disruptive technology to cater to shifting and changing customer expectations, but at same time have the tools and know-how to preempt and manage emerging and unseen risks. Risk managers need to have the agility to navigate these changes, the intellectual know-how to make sense of them and the relational and communication acumen to explain them to others. This is no small feat in a rapidly evolving workplace.
CRI: What advice can you give to those wanting to join the risk management industry?
SB: Go beyond specialism, industry, technical expertise and competencies required as a risk manager. The workplace of the future is an organization of the digital era, that demands to a high degree the ability to be adaptive, emphathetic, flexible; and creative talent and leaders, who aim beyond ‘traditional and technical skills’ of work competencies, and invest in acquiring analytical and continuous learning skills.
The next generation of risk managers must be able to work in “reinvented workflows” and in a highly digital workplace. Having the ability to have a continuous learning mindset of constant re-tooling and continuous learning, i.e. from ‘learn, do, retire’ to ‘learn, do, learn, do…learn, repeat’ will be a critical skill set to thrive and survive.
CRI: Outside the risk management business, what do you enjoy doing?
SB: I’ve spent a lot of time building organizations and investing in the careers of others. My family have supported this and in turn spending time with them and sharing moments together is important. When I am not with my family, I’m an avid golfer, I love the beach and I practice yoga. I strive to live with limited internet access to email, my work mail or mobile.
CRI: Complete this sentence: If I wasn’t in corporate risk and broking, I would be…
SB: A teacher or coach. Why? Acquring any skill or behavior requires tremendous mental discipline beyond physical stamina. Extraordinary drive and determination with the need to think clearly and the ability to plan.
If you’ve ever taught anyone anything, you know what a key attribute this is. Teaching and learning takes more patience than any other practice I’ve ever known. It also requires great empathy, i.e. putting yourself in your students’ shoes. Tell them how you’ve been where they’ve been. The most important thing as a coach is to understand your students, including their potential, and the worst thing you can do is to force your idea or preferences on them.
By making them comfortable, and showing that you do care about their goals, it is easier for them to improve.Believe me, there’s nothing more satisfying for a coach than seeing a striving student improve. I’m a trained psychologist and I have always felt that one day I’d go back to this in a more ‘pure’ way and be truly 100% invested in the welfare and well-being of others