2018 Risk All Star: James Curbeam

One Las Vegas Risk Manager Eliminated Silos, Redefining Risk Management’s Role

James Curbeam, one of the 2018 Risk All Star winners, knew the only way to achieve true ERM was by making every department aware of how their risks intertwined.
By: | September 14, 2018

Relationships are James Curbeam’s thing.

When the Las Vegas Valley Water District hired Curbeam in 2016, he saw the need for a lot of changes, starting with redefining risk management’s role.

James Curbeam, risk manager, Las Vegas Valley Water District

Traditionally, its sole purpose had been to purchase insurance, and it operated in isolation. He conducted 181 interviews with every supervisor and above, asking them what keeps them up at night.

Mostly, he listened: “I needed to understand their challenges. That’s huge to getting buy-in,” he said. In a change-resistant organization, buy-in from the top was essential to implementing his plans.

He swears by face-to-face meetings. “Meetings build trust,” he said, which is essential to a profession that must persuade its clients it has their best interests at heart. “Things get misinterpreted in emails. In a face-to-face conversation, you can work through issues.”

“He was methodical,” said Jennifer George, risk management analyst, Las Vegas Valley Water District. After the meetings with department heads, he met with supervisors and managers, then supervisors and employees. If they cancelled, he rescheduled. “Everyone met him.”

“Make sure you have support from someone who has access to the top,” he advised — essential when someone declines a meeting. “They don’t think it’s important. Then you establish what’s in it for them.”

In an organization with limited interaction between departments, he met some resistance. When he felt resistance, he took the skeptic out to lunch.

“The biggest impediment to ERM is silos,” he said. “We need everyone’s vision and support.”

Because ERM is a holistic view of entwined risk, he said, what’s in it for them is essential to the entire company. “A company is a house, and everyone has a room. Nobody cares what you do in your room until there’s a fire.” Then the room is a danger to the house.

Meeting by meeting, he broke down the silos that were inhibiting collaboration, perpetuating purchasing inefficiencies and obstructing effective management of the organization’s risks.

He used the same technique — meet, listen, plan and persuade — to create a District Workers’ Compensation PPO Network, establishing flat-rate fees for services that saved, among other things, 58 percent over the life of the five-year contract for claims administration fees.

“The biggest impediment to ERM is silos. We need everyone’s vision and support.” — James Curbeam, risk manager, Las Vegas Valley Water District

He negotiated a new first-fill prescription program with the TPA that maximizes district discounts and allows employees to fill prescriptions without any out-of-pocket costs.

He met face-to-face with providers and TPAs, too. “If they know and trust you, they’re more likely to talk to you about a problem instead of shooting off an angry email to your boss,” he said.

And he worked with IT to move recordkeeping to a new, common cloud-based Risk Management Information System, which will be key to developing a total cost of risk for the organization.

“Next year, he’ll start the whole process again,” said George, since risk management is never finished. &


Risk All Stars stand out from their peers by overcoming challenges through exceptional problem solving, creativity, clarity of vision and passion.

See the complete list of 2018 Risk All Stars.

Susannah Levine writes about health care, education and technology. She can be reached at [email protected].

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