The Secret to a Long & Successful Career as a Compliance Officer

Kristy Grant-Hart was keynote speaker at NAVEX Global's 2017 Ethics & Compliance Virtual Conference. Listen here

What makes for a long-term successful career in compliance? Is it personality?  Certainly, being likeable is advantageous, but it isn’t critical. What about understanding the business? Absolutely, this is important, but it won’t necessarily make you effective. What makes a wildly successful compliance officer? One word: planning.

Average compliance officers spend their day fighting fires and moving from one crisis to the next. While crisis management is undoubtedly a critical skill, having a plan to reach your goals between crises is even more important. Here are three reasons that goal-setting and planning are the most important activities for a successful career as a compliance officer.

1. Management Assesses Performance Against Goals

Chances are good that every January you sit down with your manager and set goals for the year. Without fail, at the end of the year, you will be measured against your progress and accomplishment of the goals that you set. Even if you report to the board or the C-suite, you likely make your own goals which you present to get approval from the top level of management.

Without fail, at the end of the year, you will be measured against your progress and accomplishment of the goals that you set.

Once the new year has commenced and you’ve made your goals, it seems inevitable that by February, you’ll be immersed in responding to an unforeseen problem. Perhaps your company experiences a data breach. Maybe you’re surprised by a regulatory investigation. Maybe trade sanctions law or export control rules change overnight and you’re left scrambling to figure out how to run the business around the new regulations governing trade with Iran.

By the time December rolls around, no one will remember how much time it took to deal with the issues from the spring. Management will pull out the goals you articulated back in January, and you’ll be stuck explaining how you meant to get that new policy written, but it was impossible with all the other things you were dealing with. While that’s undoubtedly true, you’re still unlikely to get the benefit of the doubt.

Definitive Guide: Compliance Program Assessment

2. If You Don’t Set Expectations, Someone Else Will

Perhaps worse than not planning to reach your goals is a failure to set goals at all. If you don’t say up front what you expect to achieve with your program, your board, C-suite or management will decide for you. The trouble is, when someone else creates expectations for you, they don’t always tell you what those expectations are. More worryingly, if you don’t live up to those unspoken expectations, you’re likely to lose the trust of the management.

3. Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail

The old cliché is true: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Numerous studies have shown that people with written goals and a plan to achieve them outperform their peers. Unclear goals without timelines and defined milestones are unlikely to be reached. 

The famous study performed on MBA students at Harvard in 1979 proved that clear, written goals result in high levels of accomplishment. In the study, each graduating MBA student was asked whether he or she had clear, written goals and a plan to achieve them. Eighty-four percent had no specific goals, 13 percent had goals but they were not committed to paper, and only 3 percent had clear, written goals and a plan to accomplish them.

In 1989, the interviewers followed-up with the graduates of the class of 1979. The 13 percent of the class who had goals were earning, on average, twice as much as the 84 percent who had no goals. But the percent with written goals? They were, on average, earning ten times as much as the other 97 percent of their class put together.

Harnessing the Power of Goals and a Plan

Ask a compliance officer why he or she hasn’t created goals or a plan to achieve them, and the answer you’re likely to hear is, “I don’t have time!” But the truth is, without goals and a plan to achieve them, your likelihood of success is dramatically diminished. 

Written goals which are communicated to management with a plan for accomplishment create a momentum unto themselves. With goals and a plan, you can visualize the pathway you need to take. Even when crisis strikes, during downtime, you can keep the ball moving toward your goals. When you utilize the small bursts of time you have not dealing with an immediate issue, you maximize your effectiveness. These bursts of time, when aggregated, add up to the completion of the goal. Completion of the goal leads to happy managers. Happy managers are more likely to have faith in you and give you the benefit of the doubt - and frequently, more resources with which to perform your job. 

Personality, understanding the business, and commitment are all important, but planning and goal setting reign supreme in creating a long-term successful career in compliance. 

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

Listen: Kristy Grant-Hart's keynote address at NAVEX Global's 2017 Ethics & Compliance Virtual Conference

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