Compliance is a Smoothie Challenge – Here´s How to Win It


Post By: Ursula Schmidt, PhD, CCEP-I

As a compliance professional one of the first things one must learn to accept is that most of the emails, reports or presentations that you are constantly feeding your Board, management and colleagues with, are not expected to be something cool. On the contrary. Regardless of how well respected the Compliance team may be, when messages come from Compliance, people tend to expect something nasty. Or something scary. Or at the very least something boring. In the fight for management attention this perception is a competitive disadvantage when comparing yourself with, say, strategy or sales. Everyone expects strategy to come up with the next big thing, and everyone hopes to hear great numbers from sales. Not so when Compliance knocks on the door. This can be pretty daunting – especially when being new in the field.

For most people it´s hard to imagine how anything good could come out of Compliance messages. Most topics brought up by Compliance tend to be perceived as pain points by nature, some prominent examples being:

  • Compliance is the bringer of bad news – and who needs bad news?
  • Compliance is the devil´s advocate – who would ask the devil to join the discussion in the first place?
  • Compliance creates more work and steals everyone´s time – be it risk assessment, new policies, training, or monitoring audits.
  • Compliance is a fun spoiler – sadly, the compliance base line sometimes simply is “sorry, we can´t do this”.

Over the time I have found that the analogy that best fits to this problem is a smoothie challenge. You put together lots of weird looking, strange smelling stuff, and you hope that the outcome is at least ok. If you are really good at it, though, there´s a chance that you win the challenge because the most absurd ingredients may turn out to taste fantastic. Compliance is facing a very similar challenge: how can you build something amazing out of something perceived as pain by everybody else?

Here are a few strategies I developed over time that work for me:

De-Mystifying the Nasty Stuff

Once people find out that it´s actually possible to talk without blushing about fraud or similar hurtful topics, they start to go easier with Compliance – when they have something nasty to share, but also when listening to you. It widely opens the door for the Compliance professional to receive lots of critical information from the business.

Having Great Stories to Share

Everyone loves a good story, but what people tend to love most is to hear stories about where someone else messed up. Sharing what is shareable is not only a great learning experience for everyone, it´s also great fun to share stories!

Demonstrating a Problem-Solving Mentality

If bad things happen in an organization, Compliance tends to be at the front line. Depending on the severity of the incident, there may be panic, chaos, paralysis, or worse. By keeping a cool head while helping to steer the organization out of the mess, and with a clear attitude of “we are in this together, and we will get out of this together”, Compliance positions itself as a reliable problem-solver.  It greatly helps to build reputation and trust.

Staying Clear of the Blame Game

Nothing is easier than blaming others when things go wrong – be it to divert attention from oneself, or simply because it´s too hurtful to address the real issues. Compliance has a clear role in the blame game: stay out, stay independent, stay objective. Organizations learn quickly whom to rely on when things get difficult. A Compliance team that builds a reputation of being unjudgmental, unbiased, and fair, will – again – be trusted.

Being Business-Minded

New markets, new regulations, new technology, new everything… it´s easy to get lost in the variety of topics that land on your daily plate as a Compliance professional – obviously next to your day-to-day tasks. Not losing sight of what´s the actual purpose of the company, why we do what we do, what are the main challenges, is key to position oneself as a real sounding board for the business for emerging risks and new business. Sharing a common language on business risks makes a discussion with the Compliance team much less painful and improves the fun spoiler image.

Making the Compliance Core Business Cool

Let´s face it. Policies, procedures and training are difficult to swallow by most people. It´s one of the hardest sells for a Compliance team. There are however a few basics to observe that at least make the pain more bearable. Putting it simply, there should be no new policy if there is no good storyline behind, if the “why” is not perfectly clearly explainable to everyone, if there is no clear USP for those directly concerned by the policy, if it´s not written with the business user in mind, and if related training material doesn´t contain at least one small fun fact.

I am curious to hear about your strategies to win your smoothie challenge as a compliance professional!