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Highly publicized data thefts, accelerating mortgage defaults, relentless competitive pressures and myriad other factors suggest that business risk is at an all-time high. And indeed, it’s no illusion. A recent Fortune magazine study of S&P 500 companies showed that overall risk levels (that is, threats to a company’s ability to achieve stablelong-term earnings growth) more than doubled between 1985 and 2006.In light of this, my next assertion may sound strange: I believe today’s business leaders have become too risk averse. That’s right. Many companies are not taking enough risk–at least not the right sorts of risk.Risk aversion may be a natural response to all the problems dogging companies today, but it is not a winning strategy for business success. Capitalism is predicated on taking calculated risk for reward, and companies that forget this fundamental precept may face sluggish growth, decreased shareholder value–and even a threat to their viability. This risk aversion reveals itself in various ways, including increasing levels of cash on corporate balance sheets, record-breaking stock repurchase activity and a widening share of M&A being done through private equity.Not to say that companies should plunge headlong into new and chancy endeavors. A poorly planned product launch, hasty expansion or ill-advised merger can wreak havoc on shareholder value (not to mention your job!). Rather, a “risk-intelligent” approach is needed.What is “risk intelligence?” Among other things, it is a risk management philosophy and approach that gives due consideration to risk taking for reward. Don’t get me wrong–plenty of companies deal competently with risk: finance addresses credit risk; corporate communications monitors reputational risk; facilities oversees physical risk; the IT department guards data security; and so on. Yet, none of these threats could be considered strategic. Rather, they simply involve the protection of existing assets.In our experience, far fewer companies apply their risk management savvy to strategic risk–those risks that could prevent the company from attaining its objectives in terms of offering first-class products or services, besting the competition, expanding into new markets and building shareholder value. A risk-intelligent company devotes an appropriate level of risk management resources to moving the company ahead, rather than just preventing the company from sliding back. Of course, the tricky part is defining appropriate. The proper resource allocation will vary by company, but in most cases an appropriate level will become synonymous with an increased level.We have found that organizations that are most effective in managing risks to existing assets–as well as future growth–will, in the long run, outperform those that are less so. Simply put, companies make money by taking intelligent risks and lose money by failing to manage risk intelligently.

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