Be Relevant: How a Compliance Professional Can Influence Corporate Decision Making

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This article was reprinted with permission from Tom Fox’s FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog.

So how do you influence decision making as a compliance professional? That topic was explored in a session at this year’s Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) annual Compliance and Ethics Institute by presenters Jennifer O’Brien, Chief Medicare Compliance Officer for UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement and Shawn DeGroot, Associate Director for Navigant. They, together with a very participative audience, had some insightful thoughts for the compliance practitioner on “how to get to effective.”

The single best piece of advice O’Brien said that she had ever received came from the recently retired Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) of Microsoft, Odell Guyton. It was to “be relevant.” Although Guyton used that term in the context of senior management meetings, O’Brien thought it so profound that she applied it to all of her work as a compliance professional. In meetings, you have to know both when to speak up at the relevant times and when to keep quiet.

Both O’Brien and DeGroot felt the single most important action a compliance professional could take is to build relationships with others in the organization. This means that you have to get out of your office and meet people. It can certainly be corporate executives in the C-Suite, but you need to get out into the field and be seen by others, as well. Training was mentioned as one of the opportunities for you to get out of the office and into the field. By doing such training, you do more than simply put a face to the name of the company’s compliance officer.  The key is to build trust; you need to have employees trust that they can bring issues to you to report. They are much more likely to bring an issue to you if they have met you and have that personal connection.

O’Brien had some other thoughts about building relationships that I found interesting. Although she is an attorney by professional training and spent a good part of her early in-house career in a corporate legal setting, she emphasized that corporate compliance is very different than corporate legal. You have to answer the phone and be responsive to inquiries. I once worked in a corporate legal department where the standing joke was call us and we might answer the phone. That type of attitude cannot work in a compliance department.

She also suggested that it is helpful for a compliance practitioner to explain the “why” of a decision and not simply be told what they can or cannot do. She said this helps alleviate the perception that compliance is simply the “Land of No” that many folks in operations or business development feel is the compliance department’s sole raison d’être, or reason for existence. Contrasting this attitude, once again, with some legal departments – some of which feel that they are the last bastions against the business folks, who are seemingly “giving it away” in contract negotiations – compliance should be properly seen as a unified partner or system in business development or operations.

O’Brien has some good ideas to get in front of senior management. She said that she tries to target one person a month to meet or reconnect with in some fashion. But before you get in front of a senior executive, you should develop a strategic compliance work plan and use that information as an entrée into that executive. You can seek the executive’s buy-in to the issue or issues that you raise in the meeting. She cautioned that if it is the first time you are meeting with such a senior executive, you should do your homework and learn as much about them as you can. If you can talk about their family or their interests, it will be a good way to make that initial connection.

DeGroot had an interesting phrase to add to the mix. It was “let the other person have my way.” By this, she intended for other corporate stakeholders to move the compliance regime forward. She said to do so, it was important to understand both who are your advocates and your opposition in the C-Suite. While sometimes it is more difficult, you should listen more closely to those who are in opposition to your ideas and plans because it may be that those persons have a more insightful critique which you will need to overcome. Also, if you can convince those initially in opposition to you to support you, she believes that you can develop quite the powerful ally. She suggested that you try to determine the outcomes desired by both your advocates and your opposition; she believes that often, in the corporate setting, the same outcome is desired, the difference is only in how to arrive at the outcome.

O’Brien concluded her portion of the session with some of her thoughts about the skill set she now looks for when she is hiring a compliance professional for her team. I found her list quite interesting and constructive. Several of these traits will follow the discussion above, but she added some additional key elements. She outlined what she looks for during the interview process:

  • Visibility – A compliance professional needs to be comfortable getting out of the office and meeting others in the company, from the boardroom to the shop floor.
  • Rapport – You have to develop a rapport with those who value and support you and those who might oppose you.
  • Transparency – You cannot not answer the phone or hide or never answer questions. You must be responsive.
  • Impose rigor – Sometimes you have to put your foot down and say no, but more often this means requiring company personnel to follow company processes and procedures.
  • Be patient – You do not have to speak at every turn.  Sometimes the things left unsaid are more important.
  • Be a role model – Compliance personnel must be seen to be doing things better and doing things right. You have to model your ethics to have credibility.
  • Don’t overstep your role – Compliance does not have to answer every question. If others will not respond regarding their areas, do not get drawn in.
  • Be an active listener – You have to work to be a good listener.
  • Have a poker face – Even if you hear the worst story, you have to maintain a calm demeanor and work through the process.

O’Brien and DeGroot ended their joint presentation by agreeing that the most powerful influence that a compliance officer can have is in his or her example. Lead by example and that will make management and the rest of the company sit up and take notice.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business advice, legal advice or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The author gives his permission to link, post, distribute or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at

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About the Author

Thomas Fox

Tom Fox headshot updated - CopyThomas Fox has practiced law in Houston for 25 years. He is now assisting companies with FCPA compliance, risk management and international transactions. He was most recently the General Counsel at Drilling Controls, Inc., a worldwide oilfield manufacturing and service company. He was previously Division Counsel with Halliburton Energy Services, Inc. where he supported Halliburton’s software division and its downhole division, which included the logging, directional drilling and drill bit business units. Tom attended undergraduate school at the University of Texas, graduate school at Michigan State University and law school at the University of Michigan. Tom writes and speaks nationally and internationally on a wide variety of topics, ranging from FCPA compliance, indemnities and other forms of risk management for a worldwide energy practice, tax issues faced by multi-national US companies, insurance coverage issues and protection of trade secrets. Thomas Fox can be contacted via email at or through his website Follow this link to see all of his articles.