Tone to the Top

By Adam Turteltaub

At the 2018 European Compliance and Ethics Institute, Garrett Reisman, former NASA astronaut and frequent SCCE/HCCA speaker gave a fascinating talk on the wonders and risks of space flight.

One of the space shuttle disasters, he explained, had some of its roots in a problem with the tone to the top:  messages got watered down, and people were too deferential.

It’s a good reminder that, as we think of the role of leadership, focusing on tone at the top is not enough.  If compliance professionals don’t set the right tone when talking to leadership, support for compliance and a willingness of leadership to take difficult actions are much harder to achieve.

Speaking truth to power, especially when it is bad news, is never easy.  People are naturally hesitant to tell those more powerful than them unpleasant truths, try to put a positive spin on things, and are sometimes too willing to go along with a leader’s decisions.

That, though, is not the job of compliance.  And just as we must watch for the right tone at the top, we must also set the right tone to the top, especially when the situation is not a good one.


  1. In order for me to succeed as a CEO I need to be able to create an environment where compliance staff understand that it is not only okay to tell it like it is but also that it is their duty. The audit and compliance team must feel free to bring issues to my attention that could adversely affect the organization.

    The only way to enable this to happen is by setting an example in the actions and responses I take to compliance and ethical issues that are brought my attention. It only takes one instance where staff see the CEO behaving badly for the whole compliance culture to be shattered.

    • David. Well said. You know what is important. I wish all leaders knew this. I feel bad for those who don’t. They are often getting bad advice about how to deal with a problem or not being told about the problem at all… Wells Fargo, MSU, VW, PSU, etc. I think if John Stumpf had the chance to do it all over again, he would hire the best Compliance and Ethics Officer he could find and tie that person to his hip. As CEO of the largest membership organization for compliance professionals in the world, I can tell you that there are a lot of compliance professionals out there who wish their leadership who knew what you know.

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