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Advisory Council President Spotlight: John Barrett, Executive VP, Aon

Advisory Council President Spotlight: John Barrett, Executive VP, Aon

A frank discussion with one of the original architects of the USC risk management program.

01.09.24
Color photo of John P. Barrett standing with his wife

John Barrett pictured (left) with his wife, Sandi Barrett, and son, J.P. Barrett.
[Photo courtesy of Barrett Family]

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After eight years as president of the PETER ARKLEY INSTITUTE FOR RISK MANAGEMENT's advisory board, John Barrett is stepping down. Reflecting back on his involvement, Barrett answered a few questions, providing a glimpse into the institute’s founding and its most significant challenges, while also providing a little advice for USC’s risk management students.

In 2014, Disney Senior Vice President Steve Wilder reached out to you about establishing a risk management program at a university. Ten years later, there is now the Peter Arkley Institute for Risk Management committed to educating the next generation of risk management professionals. What was the most significant challenge you faced in building support for the risk management program at USC?

Wow! I can’t believe it’s been 10 years. Steve Wilder and I faced two significant challenges in building support for the program at USC. Simply put, we were addressing the “how” and the “why.” “How can we draw enough interest from the insurance community to support a program?” We didn’t have a major donor identified initially to fund the program so it would depend on a grassroots effort from local insurance professionals (i.e., risk managers, brokers, insurers, consultants) to rally together and start a program. The “why” was convincing USC: “Why is a risk management program needed in the industry and why is USC the perfect university to build such a program?”

It takes both the academic world and the insurance community working together to produce a successful program. You can’t have one and not the other.

— John Barrett

Executive Vice President, Aon

The Arkley Institute is a relatively young risk management program compared to some of its counterparts on the East Coast, Southeast, and Midwest. What do you think makes the risk management program at USC distinct from risk management programs at other universities?

Great question. In studying the other risk management programs, Steve and I understood that for the program to be a success we needed to challenge the status quo on how insurance and risk management are taught at other schools. Our goal was to deliver a curriculum that blended textbook education with experiential learning through real-life interaction with professionals in the insurance community. 

The Arkley Institute is distinct from other risk management programs around the country because of what we ask and the support we receive from our advisory council members. This includes (1) assigned mentors for every risk management minor or emphasizer, (2) “Professor for a Day” in the classroom, (3) summer internship opportunities, and (4) proactive hiring by the insurance community of USC risk management students. No other risk management program in the country demands as much commitment as the Arkley Institute asks of its advisory council members.

When you review the Arkley Institute’s activities — the mentorship program, the Emerging Leaders Program, the Gamma Iota Sigma chapter, the Meet the Risk Management Professionals event, risk management courses, engagement with advisory council members, the Trailblazers Council for young alumni — of what are you most proud?

I can’t really pick one activity that makes me most proud. Your question highlights how our program touches all experience levels — from students participating in the Gamma Iota Sigma chapter on campus all the way to the professional mentorship delivered by our advisory council members. This is what makes the Arkley Institute so special. Building a program that touches all of the areas you have listed above better prepares students for a wonderful career in insurance and addresses the talent pipeline shortfall the industry is facing in the future.

What has most surprised you about the Arkley Institute?

The simple answer is that when Steve Wilder and I made the decision to move forward in creating the program we never contemplated where the program finds itself today. Could we get enough interest from the students? Remember, our first risk management class at USC had only nine students enrolled. We knew just the word “insurance” can bring an “uninspiring” perception to students. A major hurdle to overcome would be to market the program effectively as an area worthy of academic study for students to consider.

In fall 2018, you gave the book, “The Defining Decade” by Meg Jay to all 19 students in Professor Kristen Jaconi’s Introduction to Enterprise Risk Management class. Since then, the Arkley Institute has provided this book to risk management students upon their graduation. What is the significance of this book and why did you give this book to the students?

In today’s very competitive world, I’ve witnessed the pressures on students and young people to excel. This pressure, from the outside as well as self-generated, is driven with the thought that they need to be successful right away — the expectation that they find the right job or career immediately after graduation or otherwise they’ll fall way behind their peers. Meg Jay, in her book “The Defining Decade,” does an excellent job describing the steps young people need to focus on in making the most of their twenties. The twenties should be a time to take risks, to fully exhaust your potential. I really like the chapter devoted to the importance of creating “loose ties” and building relationships outside your personal circle. It explores how the decisions we make in this critical period shape our future. Jay does a masterful job identifying those actions that young people need to focus on while in their twenties so that when they turn thirty they are well-positioned to strive and attain the success they want in the future.

The business etiquette session you deliver with your Aon colleague and USC alumna Janice Lum is the highlight of our student-related events each year. Why do you think students are so eager to learn business etiquette?

The business world to many students is the scary “unknown.” Students effectively manage their structured life on campus well, but it’s that next step into the business world (and how they will be expected to conduct themselves) that can present some challenges. The business etiquette class was created to offer a safe environment where they can express their concerns. The class addresses how important it is in developing your personal brand as well as the dos and don’ts of working in corporate America.

You received the inaugural John P. Barrett Award for Extraordinary Dedication and Service. Your dedication to building out the USC Risk Management Program has been remarkable. You have spent countless hours encouraging other industry professionals to join the advisory council, sending thousands of emails, and participating in a few hundred meetings over the past five and a half years. Even your son, a USC alumnus and Trailblazers Council member, has expressed surprise at your enduring commitment. What has driven this extraordinary dedication?

Since you mentioned my son, J.P., I reached out to him for his feedback and I thought I’d share his response as he’s captured my commitment to the program very well:

“Haha wow, quite the question. You’ve said before that this industry has provided you great opportunities and successes in the past, and the risk management program was one way of giving back to the industry and leaving a legacy going forward. I think you have definitely accomplished this by providing mentorship, leadership, and opportunities for not only the students of the program but also everyone else that has contributed to the program. The risk management program is not just a curriculum that students can join and use as a springboard into the insurance industry post-college. It is an organization that has value for people of all ages and experience. That’s where I think your dedication has come in. You have always been someone who wants to include everyone with a ‘the more the merrier’ type of attitude, and that has been the catalyst to making this program what it is today.”

What is one piece of advice you would give to risk management and insurance industry professionals who want to start risk management programs at their alma maters or local universities?

That’s a tough question. I guess my answer would be that it takes both the academic world and the insurance community working together to produce a successful program. You can’t have one and not the other.