Be Relevant: How A Compliance Professional Can Influence Corporate Decision Making

by Thomas Fox

So how do you influence decision making as a compliance professional? That topic was explored in a session at the Society of Corporate and Compliance (SCCE), 2013 national Compliance and Ethics Institute by presenters Jennifer O’Brien, Chief Medicare Compliance Officer, UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement, and Shawn DeGroot, Associate Director, Navigant. They, together with a very participative audience, had some insightful thoughts for the compliance practitioner on “how to get to effective”.

The single best piece of advice O’Brien said that she had ever received came from the recently retired Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) of Microsoft, Odell Guyton. It was to “Be Relevant”. Although Guyton used that term in the context of senior management meetings, O’Brien thought it so profound that she applied it to all of her work as a compliance professional. In meetings, you have to know when to both speak up at the relevant times and then when to keep quiet.

Both O’Brien and DeGroot felt the single most important trait that a compliance professional could engage is to build relationships with others in your organization. This means that you have to get out of your office and meet people. It can certainly be corporate executives in the C-Suite but you need to get out into the field and be seen. Training was mentioned as one of the opportunities for you to get out of the office and into the field. By doing such training you do more than simply put a name on a face of the company’s compliance officer as the key is to build trust. You need to have employees trust that they can bring issues to you to report. They are much more likely to bring an issue to you if they have met you and have that personal connection.

O’Brien had some other thoughts about building relationships which I found interesting. Although she is an attorney by professional training and spent a good part of her early in-house career in a corporate legal setting, she emphasized that corporate compliance is very different than corporate legal. You have to answer the phone and be responsive to inquiries. I once worked in a corporate legal department where the standing joke was, call us and we might answer the phone. That type of attitude cannot work in a compliance department.

She also suggested that it is helpful for a compliance practitioner to explain the “why” of a decision and not simply be told what they can or cannot do. She said this helps alleviate the perception that compliance is simply the “Land of No” that many folks in operations or business development feel is the sole raison d’etre for the existance of a compliance department. Contrasting this attitude, once again, with some legal departments, which feel that they are the last bastions against the business folks in the company who seemingly giving it away in contract negotiations, compliance should be properly seen as a unified partner or system in business development (BD) or operations.

O’Brien has some good ideas to get in front of senior management. She said that she targets one person a month to try and meet or reconnect with in some fashion. But before you get in front of a senior executive, you should develop a strategic compliance work plan and use that information as an entrée into that executive. You can seek the executives buy-in to the issue or issues that you raise in the meeting. She cautioned that if it is the first time you are meeting with such a senior executive, you should do your homework and learn as much about them as you can. If you can talk about their family or their interests, it will be a good way to make that initial connection.

DeGroot had an interesting phrase which she added to the mix. It was “let the other person have my way”. By this she intended for other corporate stakeholders to move the compliance regime forward. She said to do so it was important to understand who were both your advocates and your opposition in the C-Suite. While sometimes it is more difficult, you should listen more closely to those who are in opposition to your ideas and plans because in may be that those persons have a more insightful critique which you will need to overcome. Also if you can convince those in opposition to you initially to support you, she believes that you can develop quite the powerful ally. She suggested that you try to determine the outcome desired by both your advocates and your opposition as she believes that often, in the corporate setting, the same outcome is desired, the difference is how to arrive there.

O’Brien concluded her portion of the session with some of her thoughts about the skill set she now looks for when she is hiring a compliance professional for her team. I found her list quite interesting and constructive. Several of these traits will follow the discussion above but she added some additional key elements. She enumerated what she looks for during the interview process.

  • Visibility – A compliance professional needs to be comfortable getting out of the office and meeting others in the company, from the Board Room to the Shop Floor.
  • Rapport – You have to develop a rapport with those who value and support you and those who might oppose you.
  • Transparency – You cannot not answer the phone or hide or not ever answer questions. You must be responsive.
  • Impose rigor – Sometimes you have to put your foot down and say no but more often it is requiring company personnel to follow company process and procedures.
  • Be patient – You do not have to speak at every turn, sometimes the thing unsaid is more important.
  • Be a role model – Compliance personnel must be seen to be doing things better and doing things right. You have to model your ethics to have credibility.
  • Don’t overstep your role – Compliance does not have to answer every question. If others will not and it is their area do not get drawn in.
  • Be an active listener – You have to work to be a good listener.
  • Have a poker face – Even if you hear the worst story you have to maintain a calm demeanor and work through the process.

Both O’Brien and DeGroot ended their joint presentation by agreeing that the most powerful influence that a compliance officer can have is example. Lead by example and that will make management and the rest of the company sit up and take notice.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Thomas Fox, Compliance Evangelist | Attorney Advertising

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Thomas Fox

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