10 Top Ways to Be a Wildly Effective Compliance Officer

It is no longer enough in today’s complicated regulatory environment to simply be adequate. 

As the world’s regulators penalize companies with higher and higher fines for corporate misconduct, compliance officers are becoming critical lynchpins to protect the company, stop executives from going to jail and prevent unethical conduct in the first place.  However, with greater visibility comes the need for a greater skillset.  It’s clear that the most effective people in the compliance profession have shifted from the mentality of merely being a qualified compliance professional into one who is seen as an asset to the business.  It is no longer enough in today’s complicated regulatory environment to simply be adequate.  Instead, businesses need wildly effective compliance officers who can persuade and motivate the business to do the right thing and to be truly emotionally invested in the aims of the compliance program. 

But how does a compliance professional move from being in a functional role to being a sought-out advisor?  Try these 10 ways.

1. Humanize Yourself with the Business

Sometimes compliance professionals get so busy doing their job that they forget to connect to the business on a human level.  Simple things like talking about your pets, children, hobbies or the weather can go a long way to helping people to relate to you.  People tend to like those they perceive to be similar to themselves.  Compliance can seem diametrically opposed to sales or strategy, so the more able you are to align yourself with the sales team or strategy leaders by showing places where you have commonality, the more likely people are to begin to like and respect you.  Showing vulnerability and smiling can also make people more likely to talk to you socially.  The more you connect to people on a human level, the more likely they are to seek your advice and to trust you. 

2. Decide that Your Job is to Protect the Business in Five Years

compliance’s job is to protect the reputation and value of the business further down the line by ensuring the business does the right thing today and always

One of my favorite descriptions of the compliance role is the protector of the business five years from now.  The sales managers and C-suite tend to be focused on quarterly results, the latest product design, and the most current litigation against the company.  Our job in compliance is to see the bigger picture and to protect the value of the company in the future.  Short-term results may be more achievable if the business cuts corners, pay the bribe, skimps on health and safety, colludes with competitors or violates trade sanctions.  However, compliance’s job is to protect the reputation and value of the business further down the line by ensuring the business does the right thing today and always.  The goal of nearly every company is growth.  Wildly effective compliance officers see their job as the facilitators of growth achieved in an ethical and legal way.

Case Study: Bumble Bee Seafoods Shores Up Ethical Culture with NAVEX Global’s Software Ecosystem

3. Look for the Motivation of the Business

When you’re asked for approval or advice on a project, do you look at the request on the paper, or do you try to see where the project fits in the greater context of the company’s plans?  Wildly effective compliance officers always try to understand the business and to see where the project and problems fit in.  When you understand the motivation of the business, you will be better placed to give more fulsome advice.  You will also be able to anticipate the secondary and tertiary requests which will be coming once you’ve given approval or denial for the project, so you can streamline the request process by anticipating the next question and answering it where appropriate.  The more you understand the business and understand the motivation behind the request, the more effectively you can answer queries.

4. Do Your Best to Facilitate a Yes

Whenever possible, say yes to the business.  If the business has requested a process or procedure that you cannot approve, see if you can find another way to get to the business’ desired outcome.  For instance, the sales staff at a company I consulted for wanted to work with a competitor to share information to provide a new service to the market.  The way that they wanted to do this would clearly violate competition law, so I knew I would have to say no.  Instead of saying no, I asked them for details about the outcome they wanted to create.  The business told me that the other competitor had a new service that would pair brilliantly with the offering of the company for which I was consulting.  We figured out a way to bundle the product and service together in a joint offering via a third-party.  That worked to create the market opportunity the company wanted while protecting the company’s reputation and eliminating the risk of a regulatory investigation.  Whenever you can facilitate a “yes,” do so.

Benchmark Report: Third-Party Risk Management Benchmark Report 

5. Say No Effectively When You Must

We’ve all had the experience of reviewing a request and knowing there was no way we could say yes.  When this happens, tell the business as quickly as possible.  When you must say no, try to do so with empathy.  Say something like, “I know how much this means to the business, and I wish were able to approve this.”  Be sure to explain yourself, as people are much more likely to accept the denial if they understand the law or risks involved which lead you to your decision. 

Becoming a wildly effective compliance officer is all about using influence, persuasion and motivation to connect to the business on an emotional level.

Becoming a wildly effective compliance officer is all about using influence, persuasion and motivation to connect to the business on an emotional level.  When you’re able to connect emotionally, you become an in-demand business asset who is able to move the company and the compliance program to a whole new level.

6. Leverage Compliance Believers and Champions

As a single individual or small team, you can only do so much.  People within the business are likely to spend much more time with their line managers, co-workers and other functions than with the compliance officers.  Therefore, it is critical to leverage the people you meet in the business who can encourage, influence and evangelize the compliance message to the people around them. 

When I was a Chief Compliance Officer, I would look for middle managers who believed in the compliance agenda.  When I found one, I would ask them if they would please publicly thank one or more of their rank and file employees who had done something that supported or promoted the compliance program.  By asking them to publicly acknowledge their employees for compliant actions, the employees learn that (1) they can win points with the boss for supporting compliance and (2) the boss thinks compliance is important.  Creating a culture of compliance is easier when leaders use praise to encourage the compliance message.

7. Make Time for Small Talk

Because of the proliferation of regulations and expanding areas of responsibility, most compliance officers find it hard to get everything done within the working day.  You may be tempted to skip chatting by the water cooler or joining in a coffee break with co-workers so you can get your work done.  Don’t do that.  Making time for small talk allows you to be seen as one of the team.  You’ll hear the local gossip and learn what is really going on when people are used to seeing you in the halls or in the breakroom.  It’s hard to be effective unless you know what’s really happening rather than the party line.  People are much more likely to talk to you when things are hard if they’re used to talking to you when things are easy.

eBook: 25 Simple Yet Overlooked Ways to Boost Your Ethics and Compliance Program

8. Listen 70% of the time, and Talk 30%

David Sandler, the great teacher of sales techniques, advised his pupils to listen 70% of the time, and to talk 30% of the time.  By listening, you invest in the other person, so that they are more interested in hearing your response when they’ve fully talked through their problem.  Many times people don’t really know what is bothering them until they have the opportunity to talk it out.  If you listen carefully, you’ll be seen as a strategic ally who is genuinely interested in solving the problem.  Make active listening a habit and you’ll immediately win friends in the business.

9. Proactively Work with Other Business Functions

The more the business functions can work together, the more effective compliance will be.

To be wildly effective, compliance officers should have a positive working relationship with the other functions in the business, especially Legal, Audit and Human Resources.  In some companies, Information Security, Information Technology, Health and Safety, or Finance may be critical allies.  Rather than engage in turf wars, try to strategically and pro-actively work with the heads of each of the other functions.  See if there is anything the compliance department can do to support the mission of the other functions.  Educate the other functions on how they can help compliance, and ask where you can work together.  The more the business functions can work together, the more effective compliance will be.

10. Remember Your Mission

It’s easy to get discouraged when resources are taken away or it appears that no one cares about the compliance program.  When this happens, remember that you are part of a greater community that is changing the world for the better.  Compliance officers ensure that bribes aren’t paid, that employees don’t get in trouble with law enforcement, and that the company doesn’t have to pay fines which could jeopardize jobs and family stability.  Our mission is important, and, when things are hard, we need to take a step back and remember that we have an amazing opportunity to help to make the world a better place.

Kristy Grant-Hart the author of the book “How to be a Wildly Effective Compliance Officer.”  She is CEO of Spark Compliance Consulting. She is a former CCO, and adjunct professor at Delaware Law School, Widener University.  She can be found at, @KristyGrantHart and emailed at   

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