How to Be Heard

5 ways compliance officers can get noticed by the Board, other executives, and their own team

Even in today’s high-paced environment, compliance departments are too often viewed as a necessity somewhere along the lines of an insurance policy. You have to have one, sure, but the details don’t really matter all that much – until they do.

This makes sense when we consider that as recently as 2000, many large, publically traded companies did not have compliance programs at all. Compliance audits, voluntary disclosures, due diligence hiring and monitoring, and hotlines were non-existent. Law Departments handled putting out any legal fires after business decisions had been made, not before.

Increasing Importance without Increasing Visibility 

After the Yates Memo most company leaders have become acutely aware that they can be held personally liable for compliance breaches. This has upped the visibility of compliance departments and brought them back into the news. It’s worth noting that in many companies the compliance department is not only the first line of legal defense, it’s the only line.

And yet in our many roundtables with compliance executives, the one thing we hear again and again is that most corporate environments don’t have a ready ear for their compliance chief’s.

5 Ways Compliance Officers Can Get Heard

We’ve found that compliance officers can increase their visibility inside an organization by making sure they’re addressing these 5 issues.

1. Master the pre-meeting

Like all executives, you spend a good portion of your working day in meetings. Studies have shown that pre-and-post meeting banter and small talk are some of the best ways to forge personal relationships with other leaders that go deeper than just doing the job.

Taking the time to learn about the challenges and triumphs of your colleagues’ positions can go a long way to building rapport and cross-department loyalty. A simple guide here is that people will generally listen to you as thoughtfully as you do to them.

2. Tell the Story Behind the Data

Compliance officers are, almost by definition, awash in data. They know hotline numbers, cases resolved, hot spot departments, data outliers, policies being crafted, and past successful policy implementations (or they should!). But that’s the view from the trenches, the tactics of what you do.

What is the larger story of your compliance department, the story that can inspire your colleagues? What does all that data really show? While it’s easier to measure the success of C-level executives in other departments, your position is unique: your job is to keep your company out of the headlines.

Benchmarking your company against other, best in breed is one great way to establish that you are on top of your job, especially if things are running smoothly and quietly.

3. Demonstrate Proactive Compliance

You’re in the business of mitigating risk. But more than that, you can also be in the business of having a more nuanced hand in strategy by identifying data outliers that can prevent problems before they arise.

You could tell the Board you received 200 hotline calls in the last quarter.

Or you could tell them that you received 200 calls in the last quarter. 180 were about employees with less than two years’ tenure. 170 of these were because employees genuinely didn’t understand they were doing something wrong. As a result, you’ll be revisiting your new hire training, and report back on this with details.

Which one do you think will get the Board’s attention?  The second answer may require modernizing your compliance department, but in an increasingly risky global environment, that decision is becoming an obvious one.

4. Raise Unpopular Issues

No one wants to be the wet blanket at every meeting, and you don’t have to be. It’s your job to keep an eye out for potential risk, but your job is about much more than that. If you find a place of increased risk, bring it to the attention of your colleagues as quickly as possible.

But of course don’t stop there. By creating a solution that can face that risk head-on you demonstrate that while risk of part of your game, so is removing it as an obstacle as the company grows and expands into ever-more complex markets.

Raise the unpopular issues and be willing to do the extra work of finding a work-around that makes the company stronger and more resilient to liability.

5. Lead Your Team

Compliance teams are growing in many companies as the stakes for running afoul of the law have grown, both legally and reputationally. Cases like VW have only amplified the perception that compliance needs to be ahead of potential problems, not just cleaning up after them.

Yet moral in compliance can be a challenge, since they can be viewed as an Internal Affairs branch within a company, and face tremendous pressure from external regulatory agencies. Since many compliance executives don’t often get the positive feedback they deserve, their teams can also suffer from a lack of inspirational leadership.

Compliance leaders should take the same care inside of their departments that they advise be taken company-wide. They can provide positive feedback, let employees know how and why they’re doing their job well, and inspire their team by floating up individual contributions to the Board or CEO.

Perhaps most importantly, strong compliance leadership can ensure quality hires and retention in a department that can face tremendous internal and external pressures, long hours, and a lack of visible impact on the company’s well-being.

The Final Word

You don’t need to become someone else, suddenly become talkative, or change who you are in any way. But you can make yourself known inside of the expertise you hold, and let the company’s other leaders see that you are responsible for a vital and forward-looking department.

By demonstrating that your expertise isn’t just in avoiding pitfalls, you can show how compliance is a critical component in increasing company value, creating more stable growth, and implementing proactive business policy.

At the end of the day, you get heard because what you have to say is too important to ignore.

Want more information on how to be heard? 

Chris McClean, Vice President & Research Director at Forrester, will be leading a free, live and interactive webinar on Tuesday, October 20th at 10am PT (1pm ET).

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