One of the great joys of consulting is being able to see so many companies from the inside out.  This week Spark Compliance Consulting reached its fifth anniversary (!).  That milestone had me thinking about what I’ve learned from watching how hundreds of compliance programs work.  I’ve learned what works – and what doesn’t work.  I’ve also learned to spot who works well, and who doesn’t. 

Tony Robbins famously said that success leaves clues.  There are commonalities present in those who become wildly successful in their compliance officer jobs.  The titans of our industry and the rising stars have similar traits – those that predispose these people to greatness and, when honed, create singularly great compliance officers.  These are the top five traits that they share and how you can nurture them in yourself.

Trait One:  Curiosity

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines curiosity as “inquisitive interest in others’ concerns,” and “interest leading to inquiry.”  A person with an inquisitive nature gives others a great gift – that of attention.  In our frenzied modern era, one of the most craved-for things is the undivided attention of others. 

A curious person uses their inquisitive interest in others’ concerns to drive them to understand how and why things happen in the company and the lives of their co-workers.  This knowledge aggregates, culminating in a unique vantage point from which to make decisions.  The more knowledgeable the compliance officer is about the company’s operations, the more able they are to tailor the program to its needs.  But perhaps more so, the more information the compliance officer has about the people in the company, the better the program can be structured to meet the employees’ needs.

To nurture curiosity in yourself, begin with the question, “I wonder why that is?”  When someone has a vastly different opinion than you do, or they do things in ways that don’t make sense to you, instead of judging, choose to be curious about their thought process.  Ask questions.  Pay attention.  Act like a scientist or observer.  Your attention will draw out others to tell you about why and how they do what they do, making you more effective in your response.

Trait Two: Tenacity

When I was 18, I worked as a temp in an office for the summer.  One day, the Word document I was working in become corrupted, and it took me hours to fix it.  The manager of the office walked by and said I was “tenacious.”  I had to look up the meaning of the word.  It refers to a person who doesn’t give up easily and commits to overcoming obstacles to achieve their goals. I instantly fell in love with the idea of tenacity.  It’s still my favorite word.

Great compliance officers exhibit tenacity.  In the face of opposition, limited budgets, low morale, and disappointments, they regroup and see the bigger picture.  Small minds and snide comments don’t deter them.  They commit to their course of action and work hard to see it through. 

To develop your tenacity, create a clear vision of where you’d like your program to be three years from now.  Commit to moving toward that vision every day, even when it gets hard.  Exercising tenacity becomes easier with practice. If you see yourself as tenacious, you’ll begin to act in ways that reinforce that belief.

Trait Three: Being a Voracious Learner

“I already know that” has been described as the most dangerous phrase in the English language.  When someone feels they already know everything they need to know, they shut down to new information and become stuck in their ways.  The antidote to knowing everything is to continue learning.

Great compliance officers tend to be voracious learners.  Whether it’s attending conferences (virtual or otherwise) to hear the latest best practices or reading guidance from regulators, they’re always learning.  Great compliance officers tend to focus on learning both about the compliance industry and about more general business topics.  The very best tend to add learning about soft skills – influence, productivity, leadership, and motivation – to their lists as well. 

There are so many resources for compliance officers.  Podcasts, newsletters, conferences, online videos, blogs, symposiums, and local networking groups all create opportunities to learn.  Commit to learning every week.  If you read one book per month, by the end of the year, you’ll have read 12.  By the end of a decade, you’ll have read 120.  Think about how much more knowledge you’ll have and how much more effective you will be in ten years if you make the commitment to learning today.

Trait Four: Knowing their “Why”

The job of a compliance officer can be painful.  It is often lonely and filled with stress.  When the best compliance officers face hard times, they can turn to their “why” to get them through.  The “why” is the answer to this question: “why am I doing this?”  The answer may include things like needing to pay your mortgage or save for retirement, but the very best compliance officers include a sense of mission in their “why.” 

Jobs become meaningful when they give the person a sense of purpose.  Interior designers may be driven to make homes more beautiful and serene.  City planners may want to make urban conurbations operate more efficiently so people enjoy their lives more.  The best compliance are driven by a purpose to make businesses more ethical.  They want to make their coworkers feel safe to do their best work in a company that will support them in doing the right thing.  They want to affect how other businesses are run because theirs is run properly.

To strengthen your why, think about your work in the greater global context.  Think about how your day-to-day management of investigations and policies contributes to the aggregate. Your work combines with others to defeat bribery, modern slavery, and money laundering.  If you zoom out, you can recognize how important your contribution is to the world.  This vantage point can make your why can become clearer, which will help you through your hard days.  

Trait Five: Connectivity

The best compliance officers are connected.  They’re connected to the business, to their networks, and themselves.  A true connection is formed and nourished when it is continually cared for.  Great compliance officers forge relationships with allies and business leaders, then keep the communication lines open both formally and informally.  Those relationships are the ground upon which the business’ ethical culture is built.

Great compliance officers also take the time to connect with other compliance officers and the industry as a whole.  They can be seen in exhibit halls talking to the vendors so they’re up-to-date with the latest technology offerings.  They can be seen proactively putting together panel discussions to present at virtual conferences.  They can be seen emailing the author of an article they read to thank the person for writing it. 

Make no mistake, being connected and staying connected is work.  Choosing to commit to fostering relationships within the business and with others in the compliance community will take time away from other activities, but the rewards are worth it.

I’m frequently asked for advice on how to hire a great compliance officer.  These five traits: curiosity, tenacity, the choice to be a voracious learner, knowing the “why,” and being connected are easy to say but harder to be.  By choosing each day to develop these traits within yourself, over time you’ll be better and better, and eventually, truly great.