People risks and why managing them better pays dividends

31 Mar 2021

The hydra-headed impact of Covid-19 on pension schemes has placed strains on the people involved in running them. Many have coped well; it’s often been all hands to the pump. Demanding work all round.

Now ‘the urgent’ work has been dealt with and more time is being spent again on ‘the important’. Which brings us onto people risks, and with the lockdown hopefully easing, making sure we come out stronger.

What’s been your learning from the past year on your own people risks for the scheme? Is there still too much reliance on certain individuals? Issues ahead on succession? Role changes at the Company?

Facing onto an economic environment that’s likely to remain challenging, with the need to advance scheme strategies such as DB derisking and settlement, or an eventual transition to Master Trust for DC, the risks around the people involved with the scheme may increase.

They are also likely to become more obvious to the Trustee and to the Company.

This could be a double-edged sword: on the one hand impacting the capacity to smoothly manage corporate events, journey‑plan projects and workflow peaks whilst scheme ‘BAU’ demands continue to grow; on the other hand shining a spotlight on resource issues, capacity pinch points and the downsides of over-reliance on key individuals. Will they be available? Too conflicted? Able to share the workload?

Backup plans of some form are also needed in the trustee executive/ pensions and the administration teams, for your main adviser leads and other important service providers.

Viewing things through a ‘what if’ lens helps you talk about future scenarios that could be difficult to manage - enabling you to open up discussion about what you can do about it and take some action.

We find independently facilitating a scenario planning session for a client on this works well – it is non‑personalised and encourages people to be open about the challenges and find some solutions. An experienced facilitator can suggest contingencies, options and pitfalls based on experience elsewhere.

What about Trustee and Company role planning? It’s powerful to take a top-down view together. A scheme is typically a significant undertaking; financially and reputationally it is a source of risk to the Company. Good engagement on Trustee and Company role planning will help deliver the strategy. One of the best ways to mitigate strategic risk is to ensure the scheme is well led and resourced properly.

So Trustee skills and succession work needs to be a regular agenda item and a regular engagement item.

There are many levers for the trustee board itself to pull which we have seen work well for clients. For example, using terms of office, MNT selection panels, trustee roles as development earlier in a career, induction before appointment, wider ways to cast the net, bringing in other skills, diversity, technology and well‑placed communications.

Professional or skilled independent trustees, skilled deferred member trustees in portfolio careers, co‑opting for skills on a committee (maybe leading to a trustee role), rotating committee memberships; all are options we have seen can work well and flexibly to reduce risk and over-reliance.

This is part of a Trustee defence plan – like the Company may typically have – for key people and roles.

Doing this type of scenario thinking as a Trustee and discussion with the Company helps current ways of working to be documented and understood, to see where the main risks lie to then mitigate them. When change or the unexpected happens, the impact will be less. Which is a happier ending to Murphy’s law.

So we encourage you to talk about key person risk and plans. Try to spot when you are making assumptions and challenge the thinking. Build in contingency for roles: where someone leaving, not being available or being conflicted would be problematic. And plan ahead for important projects.

The aim is to underpin the Trustee’s ability to bring the scheme strategy through in a timely way. Give skills and succession planning the time it deserves in 2021 and it will pay you dividends when it matters most.