Visibly holding back tears, the man approached me.  I’d just completed the keynote at the American Bankers’ Association Compliance Conference, which I’d closed by showing a video about how compliance officers are changing the world for the better.

“I finally get it!” he said.  “All this time I’ve thought I was pushing around paperwork. But I’m not.  I have three daughters.  I love our home.  In my job, I make sure mortgage paperwork is compliant with the law.  But that’s not what I do- what I really do is ensure people like me get to keep their homes.  I never realized that I have a calling.”  I was overwhelmed with his emotion and the excitement I had for the new understanding he had about why his job mattered so much.

In his Tedx talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, Simon Sinek says that great leaders always start with the “why.”  Mediocre leaders start with the “what” or the “how.”  The “what” is the product or the thing company produces, the “how” is the process of making the thing.  Most importantly, the “why” is the reason behind what we do.

Take an example of an ice cream producer.  The company’s “what” is making ice cream.  The “how” is using organic milk from a nearby dairy.  The “why” may be to make children happy, or to provide families with great memories.  Perhaps it is to provide people with a delicious treat to celebrate special occasions.  When workers remember the “why,” they are much more likely to be invested in the “what” and “how.”  Without the “why,” the “what” and “how” don’t matter very much.

Think about how this relates to compliance.  The “what” is easy: you are delivering a compliance program.  The “how” is pretty standard: through training, policies, communications, and due diligence.  But what is your “why?” 

I polled some of my most passionate compliance friends and one answered, “to protect my co-workers and to build a company about which I’m proud.”  Another said, “to be a part of the corporate movement eradicating modern slavery and human trafficking.”  A third said, “because I fundamentally believe in fairness, and my job contributes to a fairer world.”

As for the man at the conference, I’m certain he’ll go back to his job re-energized and renewed focus.  When you see the “why,” the “what” and “how” fall easily into place.