ailed as the world’s first ever “Chief Risk Officer,” James C. Lam (’83) is a man of many talents. He runs a Boston-based consulting firm and serves on the board of directors of E*TRADE Financial. In recognition of his accomplishments, he was recently listed in the 2017 National Association of Corporate Directors’ Directorship 100 as one of the most influential directors in the boardroom community.
We recently spoke with Lam about his time at Baruch, his career, and what advice he would share with aspiring young professionals.
What made you want to attend Baruch?
Baruch was my first and only choice for college. I wanted to pursue a business degree and Baruch provided the best value for a quality education. Thank goodness I got in!
I was a GED student and in my first semester at Baruch I got four As and one B. I was ecstatic because after failing in school for many years, I felt that I could be a successful student. I also felt at home with other students with immigrant backgrounds who were trying to build a better future. I had great professors who remain friends to this day, and my education laid a solid foundation for the rest of my career.
You’ve been called the first ever “Chief Risk Officer.” Can you explain a bit how that term came to be and how you contributed to its creation?
I came up with the title chief risk officer, or CRO, in 1993 when I was working at GE Capital. I was tasked with setting up a new capital markets business with direct responsibilities for risk management and back-office operations. On my first day of work, I asked my boss what title I should put on my business cards. He simply said to come up with one that was appropriate. My inspiration came from the IT side. At that time, GE Capital and other companies were appointing chief information officers (CIOs) whose job was to integrate different technologies and also to elevate IT to the executive level. I thought, why not create a CRO position to integrate various risks, and at the same time elevate the risk management agenda to the executive level? I held the CRO title at GE Capital and subsequently at Fidelity Investments.
The role of the CRO is more important than the title. I was an early advocate of enterprise risk management (ERM), which is an integrated approach to the function. Prior to the 1990s, companies managed risks in separate silos, missing critical interdependencies. As business professionals, we should always step back and ask: What are we trying to accomplish? What is missing? How can we make things better?
What’s a typical day in the office like for you?
I get bored easily so I am happy to say there is no typical day. I wear many hats but all risk related: management consultant, public company director, board advisor, executive coach, college and professional program faculty, author, and speaker. These different roles allow me to address risk management from different perspectives. It keeps things interesting and dynamic.
These days I am learning, researching, and spending more time on cybersecurity issues. Overall, risk management has also been elevated from a middle management function to a C-suite and board-level issue. I love my work!
You’ve authored a number of best-selling books in your field, including, most recently, Implementing Enterprise Risk Management. What compelled you to become an author?
It has been said that everyone should have a child, plant a tree, and write a book. My interpretation of that is having a child would continue the family lineage; planting a tree would replenish the earth from which we take; and writing a book would influence others.
I had always wanted to write a book and my first, Enterprise Risk Management – From Incentives to Controls, was published in 2003. That book has ranked #1 best-selling among 25,000 risk management titles on Amazon. It has also been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indonesian. The second edition came out in 2014 and my latest book focused on ERM implementation was published earlier this year.
Writing a book can be solitary at times, but I enjoyed working with a team of researchers and interns. It is a creative process that keeps you on the forefront of the field.
Can you describe your role at E*TRADE?
In November 2012, I joined the Board of Directors of E*TRADE Financial as an independent director, risk committee chair, and audit committee member. It has been one of the best professional experiences of my career. Boards take on the most critical challenges facing the company.
Our risk committee is responsible for providing board governance and independent oversight of the company’s risk and compliance programs. It is management’s job to implement those programs and manage day-to-day risks. The board must respect that and not micro-manage or be too prescriptive. However, we also need to be engaged and challenge management to ensure that robust risk and compliance programs are in place.
We also focus on the risk culture to make sure that all of our associates understand their role in risk management. After all, risk management is everyone’s job.
Finally: what is your advice to students or alumni who aspire to become successful professionals?
If I could speak to myself as a 21-year old Baruch BBA graduate, I would recommend five key things: (1) set clear, tangible, and audacious goals for your life and professional career; (2) develop a deep technical competence, a general management and leadership skillset, and a strong personal brand; (3) develop strong communication skills including effective writing and speaking; (4) learn to play the corporate game in terms of how to win in your role and work environment given the organizational culture and individual dynamics; and (5) add value to your clients whether they are internal or external stakeholders.
It is also very important to keep things in perspective. Young professionals tend to focus too much on their careers. I think they should always keep that in balance with other drivers of happiness, such as relationships with family and friends, health and fitness, and personal and spiritual growth. A balanced life is a happy life!