Four Keys To Compliance Leadership

by Thomas Fox

One of the most divisive moments in American history occurred on this date in 1868. On this day the US Senate voted against impeaching President Andrew Johnson thereby acquitting him of having committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” as required under the US Constitution. After all the arguments had been presented for and against him, Johnson waited for his fate, which hung on one swing vote, as there is a Constitutional requirement that requires a vote of 2/3rds of the Senate for impeachment. The vote was one short, at 35-19. Johnson was acquitted and finished out his term. If Johnson had been impeached, it surely would have led to a very different political development in the US, where not liking the sitting President could have become a constitutional basis for impeachment.

The Radical Republicans who ran the Congress immediately after the conclusion of the Civil War certainly did not think much of President Johnson’s leadership style. So what about you as a compliance officer? Certainly part of your leadership is implementing and enhancing policies and procedures? In many ways it is the human element, which President Johnson sorely lacked, that you may well need to devote most of your time focusing on. I recently read an excellent article it the Corner Office section of the New York Times (NYT), entitled “We’re Family Yes, but We’re Still Accountable”, in which Adam Bryant reported on his interview with Brooke Denihan Barrett, the co-Chief Executive Officer (co-CEO) of the Denihan Hospitality Group (Denihan), a 50-year old family business which focuses on the hospitality business.


One of the things that Barrett has learned is how to train people. She explained that “I thought the way you got things done was by telling people what to do. That’s where I learned what not to do. I spent a good portion of my time telling people what they did wrong instead of really encouraging them about what they did right.” She came to realize that was perhaps not the best way to manage people and “learned to cut people some slack.” She said that she found “that you get a lot more with the carrot routine than the stick routine. I also realized that you really needed to explain the “why” of things. You need to give people a little bit of space to come around, and say, “Yeah, that makes sense,” before you really engage them in what needed to be done.”

I found that her final point may be critical for compliance training. By explaining the why of compliance, employees can better understand what the company is trying to accomplish. So if your goal is to do business in an ethical manner, then explain this and how the company’s compliance program will help to accomplish this goal through its policies and procedures.


One of the things that Barrett emphasized was the erroneous perception that because her company was a family business there was no accountability. She made clear that “You have to set certain standards that you want people to live up to. And if people need help, then we want to help them along the way.” However, accountability is a two-way street. Just as the employee must be held accountable, so must the company in terms of providing support to allow employees who want to do the right thing and to do their job well. Barrett said, “Sometimes organizations can fall down if they don’t also ask: How do you give people the tools they need to be successful? How do you get that person to understand what change needs to happen, and how do you help them along the way? Because people can’t always figure it out on their own, and nor should you expect them to.”


Many of the CEOs that Bryant interviews for his Corner Office section speak about the need for listening skills. Barrett was no exception. But as CEO she found that employees were sometimes reluctant to speak openly and candidly with her. So she began to meet with employees in small groups of 10 to 12 people. At Denihan they call them ‘Roundtables’. Barrett said that she will say to them ““Tell me something I don’t know.” And I’ll get comments like: “Oh, but you know everything. You’re the C.E.O.” It’s just a reminder of the perceptions that people have of the head of the company. But every time I ask that question, I learn something new.” Imagine as a compliance officer if you were to ask that question in a roundtable, what do you think you might hear back from your company’s employees?

Barrett also spoke about how to have a ‘difficult conversation’. She said that if there is a mistake made she views it as an opportunity for learning and professional growth. At Denihan, they call them ‘lessons learned conversations’ and they may occur with a group where a problem has arisen. Barrett related, “we might bring people together in a room who were involved in a project and ask: What were the things that worked? What were the things that didn’t? What could we have done differently? And we’ve had some very spirited and cathartic conversations. You have to be able to let people put something on the table without actually pointing the finger. It allows things to come out in more of a non-accusatory manner.”

Hiring and Promotion

These are two key areas in compliance that are finally beginning to receive the attention that they deserve. Barrett’s thoughts on how she views these in the context of her interviewing are instructive. She acknowledged that by the “time somebody meets me, you can assume that the skills are there. So what I interview for is fit. And I’m always very curious to know, what is it about our company that appeals to that person?” She asks specifically about culture, requesting the candidate define it and how do you think that culture is special. She also asks candidates to talk about a failure and what lessons that they learned from the experience and how they dealt with the experience. I would suggest that both of those lines of inquiries should be used when evaluating a candidate for hire or promotion.

Barrett’s interview provided some interesting insights on leadership. Moreover, her experience in professional growth has shown there are different styles and techniques that you can successfully use in your company’s compliance program. Train people on the reasons why your company is doing compliance so that they will understand how to do it. Make them accountable but also provide them with the compliance tools and support to do business the right way. If there is a problem or issue, use it as a lesson learned so that employees can profit from the experience. Lastly, make a discussion of culture a cornerstone in your hiring interview or promotion interview process.

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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