Photo Credits

Glacier Travel in the Tien Shan

Two rope teams move across a heavily crevassed glacier in the
Tien Shan range.

Image © Konstantin Savenkov :

5 Keys to Building a Risk Management Culture

In 1999, I was a part of a safety review at a Rocky Mountain backpacking program for high school students. A small team of us hiked in to review a group at a climbing site to get a hands-on feel for the program. As the final anchors were being set and the group briefing was taking place, I saw two things happen that formed a lasting impression of this program’s successful creation of a risk management culture. First, the junior instructor did not understand why a specific anchor had been chosen over other possible options, but rather than saying nothing and deferring to a senior staff member, he chose to ask why the anchor had been set in that particular way. Second, despite the break it caused in the hasty flow of final set-up, the senior instructor listened to his question, took the time to explain her decisions, and thanked her partner for bringing it up. This was simply a positive, intentional interaction between two professional outdoor educators. It was also the practical field application of a strong organizational culture of risk management and communication.

Instructors Set & Discuss Anchor

After nearly 25 years of working in and around the outdoor and experiential education fields, I can say with conviction that risk management is a challenging discipline and an art. It is also more than policies governing knot choices or ensuring properly executed release waivers, as important as those things are. As with many challenges and successes within organizations of all sizes, strong risk management begins with organizational culture, which lays the foundation for what I witnessed in the field.

Through my work with organizations, in the outdoors and elsewhere, I have identified five keys to building a robust risk management culture. Not surprisingly, these are also key to retaining talented staff, building educational relevance, fundraising, and creating a meaningful place to work and learn. Fortunately, these five points are also readily accessible and fairly straightforward to implement. They are not complicated, but neither are they easy.

1. Listen
. Risk management conversations often center around what we need to tell people. However, the act of listening and gaining information is as important to creating open dialogue as the information you impart. Organizational leaders who set a standard of listening will find a deeper level of information sharing and learning, and a greater commitment to detailed execution of policy. When staff feel heard and engaged, they feel like they are a part of something and take greater ownership for outcome.

Key Question: How well do leaders in your organization listen and what processes support the open exchange of information?

2. Empower. Help staff to understand that building a risk management culture is part of their job description. Rather than encouraging staff to ask questions or raise concerns, require it as a part of their overall job performance and as a condition of successful employment or partnership. When people feel they have a stake in the process, as well as when they feel heard and understood, their engagement increases and they feel empowered to take action.

Key Question: Where did the last game changing ideas in your organization come from?

Backcountry Skiers Communicating3. Communicate. At every step of a new process and at every existing opportunity, default to more communication and engagement with your staff and supporters. This does not mean that everyone is a part of everything, but it will require that new policies or important decisions see the light of day before being finalized. Developing a risk management culture includes bringing more people into the conversations that are most important to your organization.

Key Question:
How are decisions made in your organization and who is currently left out of the process?

4. Remove barriers. Organizations operate in particular ways because, consciously or not, choices have been made that led to current realities. This evolution can create barriers and calcified systems that are used because things have always been done that way. Often, the most significant barrier is an assumption by staff that their thoughts don’t matter or that raising an issue will result in shooting the messenger. Points 1-3, above, can help to address that assumption and open a dialogue that leads to better understanding of current organizational barriers.

Key Question: What are your current organizational barriers to open risk management communication and what would change if you removed the biggest ones?

5. Practice. At the end of the day, as people and as organizations, we become what we practice being. Developing an open culture of risk management and communication may be a radical change for many organizations, but that radical change comes about through small steps over time. Consider what changes are possible and needed, and then begin with what seems easiest or most important. Practice may not make perfect, but it can’t help making change.

Key Question: What daily practices do you currently have that create your organizational culture and what changes do you most need to make?

Risk management is only one component of a vibrant, open organizational culture. However, it is representative of the power of that culture to impact issues of foundational importance in the field and in the office. It is not only about creating a fun place to work. It is about being the best, safest organization you can be, by asking the most from your people and giving them the context and tools to help you. The first step, and perhaps the most significant one, is to declare a new intention and live it at every turn from then on.

Andy Leider

Guest Contributor Andrew Leider is a Principal with the organizational and human development consultancy Un|fenced and Senior Consultant at Potrero Group, a strategic business planning company. He is the founding Executive Director of Montana Yellowstone Expeditions (now REACH) and past program manager with the Voyageur Outward Bound School and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. Andrew is also an active freelance writer, though he spends most of his time introducing his two year old daughter to the wonders of the outdoors.


The opinions of  contributing writers may not be the the same as the opinions of OSI.

Posted by

Andrew Leider

on 1/21/15
Program ManagementResource


Thank you for the article and making it an open session for all of us who work with folks in the outdoors. I practice the engagement of communicating with staff and participants as a part of my program. My only question is why you listed listening and communicating as two seperate steps and not as one. Active listening is, in my opinion, the most crucial part of communication. I am the outdoor education and leadership director at Charleston Collegiate School in Charleston, SC. I teach kids from the age of three through the age of 80, and I find the more I learn, the more questions I have. Happy to see so many folks teaching what is applicable across the board…..Life Skills.

By Brooke Haynie on 01/24/2015 at 10:00 PM

These are extremely important to a successful and effective group. But as was stated sometimes difficult to implement but non the less must be. If all tower crews did this and became proficient in more than 3 knots there would be less deaths and near miss accidents and alot more production.

By Adam T Lewis on 01/25/2015 at 08:24 AM

Hi Brooke,
Great comments. Thanks for taking the time to jot them. I completely agree with you that listening is a central component to communicating. I separated them in the post to highlight what I view as the central missed opportunity for learning from your staff and team—active, intentional listening. In the communicate section, I was considering dialogue, but also other forms of communication (intranet, handbooks, policies, surveys, trainings, etc). I find that listening, while essential to communication, is often overlooked and wanted to highlight it overtly.
Best of luck in your work. Thanks for making a difference.

By Andrew Leider on 01/25/2015 at 02:47 PM

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