Attorney and podcaster Tom Fox shares his insights about what skills today’s chief compliance officer needs — and what might be on the horizon for CCOs.
What skills will be needed for the mid-century chief compliance officer? Yes, we are still a few more years to 2030 and what could be considered mid-century. But we know already that moving into the CCO chair today requires far more than compliance expertise and legal knowledge. What CCOs need even more as we move into 2030 and beyond are strong social skills.
Compliance is becoming more complex and tech-centered; workforce diversity is growing; and firms face greater public scrutiny than ever before. These requirements are far beyond a law school course on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) or compliance.
Going forward, CCOs will need to be adept communicators, relationship builders and people-oriented problem solvers. To succeed in the future, companies will need to focus on those skills when they evaluate CCO candidates and develop in-house talent in their compliance function. In a recent Harvard Business Review article titled “The C-Suite Skills That Matter Most,” authors Raffaella Sadun, Joseph Fuller, Stephen Hansen and P.J. Neal looked at this issue in the context of the CEO position. Here, I’ll explore how their work could apply to the CCO role.
Times have changed
In years past, companies could look for good technical skills in a CCO. But today, they need to seek out and hire CCOs “who are able to motivate diverse, technologically savvy and global workforces; who can play the role of corporate statesperson, dealing effectively with constituents ranging from sovereign governments to influential NGOs; and who can rapidly and effectively apply their skills in a new company, in what may be an unfamiliar industry, and often with other colleagues in the C-suite whom they didn’t previously know.”
Getting it wrong can be a disaster for the company. Witness the trainwreck involving the Activision Blizzard CCO when that company’s scandal broke.
Previously, the CCO had to use influence to get compliance accomplished in an organization. In the early part of the past decade, Jenny O’Brien talked about techniques for a CCO to employ to help influence decision-making within an organization.
- Collaboration. Understand the products and services that your company offers but also the challenges that your business development team will face out in the world.
- Active listening. Work constantly at active listening, which is listening, thinking and then speaking.
- Relationships. Connections with other functions in an organization.
- Humility. The CCO does not need center stage.
- Negotiation. Make a win look like a win for everyone.
- The triple ‘C.’ Calm, cool and collected. Don’t let them see you sweat.
- Credibility. Know your stuff.
However, the authors demonstrate that these soft skills are no longer enough for a CCO, even one with high technical competence in compliance programs. A critical first step is to develop greater clarity about what it now takes for a CCO to succeed as the range of necessary skills appears to have expanded. This is more than the soft-skills approach articulated by O’Brien but more social skills, “including a high level of self-awareness, the ability to listen and communicate well, a facility for working with different types of people and groups, and what psychologists call ‘theory of mind’—the capacity to infer how others are thinking and feeling.”
Social skills, data analytics and networking all in high demand
The focus on social skills is especially evident in large companies. This is even more true “at publicly listed multinational enterprises and those that are involved in mergers and acquisitions. These patterns are consistent with the view that in larger and more complex organizations, top managers are increasingly expected to coordinate disparate and specialized knowledge, match the organization’s problems with people who can solve them, and effectively orchestrate internal communication. For all those tasks, it helps to be able to interact well with others. It also reflects the web of critical relationships that leaders at such firms must cultivate and maintain with outside constituencies.”
This, of course, includes the five sets of stakeholders identified in Business Roundtable’s statement on the purpose of a corporation. Again this reality is even considered in the 2013 COSO Internal Control-Integrated Framework.
There is no bigger change to the skill set of the CCO than around information and information-technology systems, i.e., data and data analytics.
The authors cited Peter Drucker for the following, “The more we automate information-handling, the more we will have to create opportunities for effective communication.” This means the CCOs and corporate compliance programs which “rely significantly on information-processing technologies today also tend to be those that need leaders with especially strong social skills.”
In compliance, when companies automate routine compliance tasks, “their competitiveness hinges on capabilities that computer systems simply don’t have — things such as judgment, creativity and perception. In technologically intensive firms, where automation is widespread, leaders have to align a heterogeneous workforce, respond to unexpected events and manage conflict in the decision-making process, all of which are best done by managers with strong social skills.” The authors conclude, “as more tasks are entrusted to technology, [CCOs] with superior social skills will be in demand at all levels and will command a premium in the labor market.”
Another new area is in social media and networking technologies. As companies move away from shareholder primacy and focus more broadly on stakeholder capitalism, as outlined in the statement on the purpose of a corporation, CCOs will be expected to be public figures. They will meet and “interact with an increasingly broad range of internal and external constituencies but to do so personally and transparently and accountably.”
Moreover, CCOs, and other corporate officers, will be required to operate in “real time, thanks to the increasing prevalence of both social media (which can capture and publicize missteps nearly instantaneously) and network platforms such as Slack and Glassdoor (which allow employees to widely disseminate information and opinions about their colleagues and bosses).” CCOs will be required to “be constantly attuned to how their decisions are perceived by various audiences. Failing to achieve their intended purposes with even a handful of employees or other constituents can be damaging.”
CCOs need era-appropriate training
Training for new CCOs must change as well. No longer will a law school degree with one course in FCPA be sufficient as a basis for a CCO. They will need to systematically build social skills. This can certainly start in law or business school, but companies need to consider this role in their internal development for CCO candidates and indeed their entire corporate compliance function.
This means going beyond simply preparing up and grooming compliance professionals to become a CCO through developing a “deep competence in a variety of administrative and operational roles.” This is because the mid-century CCO will need to “form constructive relationships with colleagues, customers, regulators, and suppliers” to fulfill the obligations of a corporate compliance function going forward.
As I noted in “Death of Dos Santos and Leadership at the Top,” the background due diligence process around CEOs is becoming more important. But more than computer-assisted research for background checks, the authors believe that “getting references is also problematic.” Most CCO searches are conducted with a high degree of confidentiality. However, the people conducting CCO interviews and those providing references are likely to be part of the “same small, homogeneous networks as most of the candidates, which significantly heightens the risk of bias in the decision-making process. They might mistakenly assume that those individuals possess broadly applicable social skills simply because they connected easily with them in interviews.”
In their executive development programs, companies today need a systematic approach to building and evaluating social skills for all executives, including compliance professionals and, specifically, CCOs. The authors believe such skills “may even need to prioritize them over the ‘hard’ skills that managers presently favor because they’re so easy to assess. Companies should place high-potential leaders in positions that oblige them to interact with various employee populations and external constituencies and then closely monitor their performance in those roles.”
Firms must put premium on highly developed social skills
Beyond the assessment of social skills, companies need to highlight social skills development for the compliance function and potential CCO candidates. Interestingly, the authors believe that it is “inherently risky to put an outsider — even someone carefully vetted — in a senior role. Companies thus will benefit from a “grow your own” approach that allows internal up-and-comers to hone and demonstrate a range of interpersonal abilities.”
Moving forward, the authors believe that more often, companies are “on the lookout for people with highly developed social skills — especially if their organizations are large, complex, and technologically intensive.”
Employers likely to struggle finding the right mix
It is the final intensive technical requirement that many compliance professionals and CCO types are lacking, most particularly those with a legal education. Somewhat deflatingly, the authors report it is an “open question” as to whether companies will succeed in making hires with the requisite social skills going forward. They write, “The answer will depend in part on whether they can figure out how to effectively evaluate the social skills of job candidates, and whether they decide to make the cultivation of social skills an integral component of their talent-management strategies.”
But the business reality is that companies must do so to remain competitive. Talent acquisition and retention will be one of the most important keys for businesses to survive and thrive into the 2030s and beyond. Developing internal talent with these skills would clearly be the optimum approach for an organization to take. The authors also believe that companies should encourage law and business schools “to place more emphasis on social skills in their MBA and executive-level curricula, and they should challenge search firms and other intermediaries to devise innovative mechanisms for identifying and assessing candidates.”
But this is beyond simply internal development of the top candidates from law and business schools. When “recruiting and evaluating outside talent, they must prioritize social skills. The same is true when it comes to measuring the performance of current [CCOs] and setting their compensation. In addition, firms should make strong social skills a criterion for promotion, and they should task supervisors with nurturing such skills in high-potential subordinates.”
Business is changing; we must change with it
As much as the compliance profession has evolved over the past 10 years, this evolution will only continue with greater speed going forward. Simply consider how much business has changed forever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and you can begin to see why a CCO and compliance professional will need a much wider variety of social skills. Change in the way supply chain risk will be managed; how trade and economic sanctions will play a more strategic role in each organization, anti-corruption detection, prevention and enforcement has now become a national security issue of the U.S., cybersecurity and data privacy are on the front burner of every organization, and ESG will lead many corporate efforts going forward.
The bottom line is that the business world has changed and not only must CCOs change with it, but the manner in which companies acquire and retain compliance talent must change as well.