Boardroom presence–if you’re a CCO can you do without it?

“Do I have direct access to the board?” This is now a much-asked question about the role of the Chief Compliance Officer.

Even when the answer to this question is “yes”, another part of it should be: “ Do I have a strong boardroom presence?” How to achieve a strong impact at Board level challenges almost every CCO.

As a past master of making himself at home in such high level meetings, Rupert Murdoch of News Corp once explained how he made an unpleasant impact. He reviewed at least some of the papers for the meeting. Then he picked on an obscure item and read up on it. Those attending would probably not expect to be questioned or know detailed answers about it.

When he duly raised it in the meeting the issue seemed to come from nowhere. The effect was typically Murdoch, to unnerve those who fondly believed they’d prepared well.

Even without the attendance of someone intimidating like Murdoch, company Boards can be stressful places even for the experienced executive. Faced with one or more difficult Board members they may become flustered or unsure of themselves. 

Such inquisitors may be rather full of themselves. They seek to assert their status, or like Murdoch, confuse or catch normally confident executives off guard. Their attendance can turn an appearance at Board level from an opportunity into a miserable, stressful experience.

For a CCO diligently wanting to talk about risks, or the latest monitoring data on compliance,  reporting to a Board can become something to dread.

So how do you develop a powerful boardroom presence? Or does it all come down to having a gold standard charisma?

PresenceIs your status low compared to the rest of those attending? Here are seven ways to build your Boardroom presence:

Prepare, prepare, prepare

rehearsingThis is the equivalent of an actor who diligently invests in rehearsals. Instead of relying on a wing and a prayer, being well-prepared means careful practice at how to present the information.

You may have an impressive set of reports, spread sheets, or metrics. But just as important is knowing how to deliver them, by being persuasive, confident and direct.

Of course you’ll need to take with you into the arena the right support material. But that’s just the “what?” You are the “how”. How you prepare and present matters just as much as the available data. 

Avoid invention

Murdoch’s awkward question mentioned above, often revealed how those on the receiving end handled themselves in a stressful situation. As they struggled to respond to his unexpected enquiry Murdoch learned a great deal about them as people.

If you’re in a Boardroom situation don’t invent answers when you are unsure of yourself. Faking it might seem a way out in the heat of the moment. But if you’re facing smart people they’ll see right through you. It’s the fastest way to lose credibility.

Simply admit you don’t know the answer. Explain you’ll get back to them quickly with a proper response. Your questioner will respect your honesty. Just be sure to deliver on the reply.


Leaders and people of substance tend to be highly self-aware. That is, they’re always interested and curious about their impact on others.

Anyone can develop this ability. It may take a dose of objective, informed feedback, such as from friends, colleagues and perhaps a coach.

An unaware CCO who does not know his or her impact on others is at a serious disadvantage. There are at least four important aspects of being self-aware: psychology, physiology, character and chemistry:


A CCO interacting at a senior level will be expected to have a distinctive individuality, someone able to make a special contribution.  Through the minds of some Board members may be passing tricky questions–not so much about compliance as more personal ones:

What is this person’s point of view?
Do they stand for anything–what matters to them?
Does this person have clear values?
Can we trust this person, does he or she seem trustworthy?

Be sure to develop your answers to these, along with suitable behaviour.

Don’t defend

Defensive-ManWe all use a variety of defense mechanisms in our lives.  These protect us from potentially damaging or upsetting feelings and help reduce strain and discomfort. Yet coming across as defensive can be a sure way to undermine your personal presence

Just because you’re a knowledgeable, full of useful information about governance and compliance does not automatically entitle you to respect and approval. You must earn these the hard way.

So avoid becoming angry or hostile at what might seem stupid or pointless questions. Stay cool, remain calm and act as if you are in complete control.

Make the other person right

One of the best ways to build your Boardroom presence is to show respect for others. This does not mean adopting a cowed or obsequious attitude. That will merely annoy your listeners.

Instead, build on your audience’s questions or concerns. Rather than deprecating them, make the other person seem clever or important for asking something. Even when you find it trivial or plainly revealing remarkable ignorance. Typical responses include:

“That really a great question, I’m so glad you asked!”
“Great point. Here’s what the current data tell us.”
“Yes, that’s entirely relevant right now…”
“I can see you’ve given this a lot of thought.”

Turn the tables–ask questions

“World-class CCOs are more about starting conversations than shutting them down.”
Deloitte, The Chief Compliance Officer, 2012

Build your boardroom presence by being willing to pose questions, not just answer them.

Again, good preparation can lead you identify one or two for the entire Board to consider. If well-chosen, these can cause people to see you in a different light, as thoughtful and daring to challenge current thinking.

Be a reflective listener

reflective-listening2What someone in the Boardroom says may differ from how you interpret them. For example, you may hear certain words yet judge them wrongly.

Or you may detect some underlying communication that seems beyond the mere words being used.  For example, although some asks

“Is our hot line really effective”

you may realise they’re actually suggesting it’s useless or not paying its way. Rather than responding with current usage statistics, it may be more effective to suggest:

“Good question, do you have some particular concerns about our system?”

This is reflecting back what you think you’ve heard them say, not what they’ve actually said. By interpreting their question you not only show you’re listening, it conveys respect.

Changing demands for the CCO

There are significant changes in what companies and particularly financial bodies expect from a CCO. Rather than just reporting to a senior legal adviser or some other executive, such as Head of Risk, many CCOs now regularly attend Board meetings.

Many increasingly see their focus as driving culture, ethics and conduct. This is a shift from just managing the institution’s regulatory practices.

Maurice Gilbert“To be truly effective, a CCO’s skill set needs to include excellent interpersonal skills.  Credibility and gravitas…are essential to ensure compliance is taken seriously at the Board level…”
Maurice Gilbert founder Corporate Compliance Insights

A recent Deloitte’s paper highlights the demand for CCO’s to exercise judgement, not just be a technical adviser. Looking ahead, the role of the CCO and the compliance function will be “a focus on providing challenge to the firm’s board, asking new questions of the firm and its staff and demonstrating the firm’s prevailing culture.”

Had the Wells Fargo CCO for instance been able to do that and convince the board there really was a problem, much expensive damage to the bank would have been avoided.

Gaining a Board’s attention is less about numbers and statistics than in understanding the particular group’s priorities. For example, according to an earlier PWC study the top five Board issues include: strategic planning and risk Management. 

This all adds up to needing a real presence in the room. Where people listen to you and take your concerns seriously. Boardroom presence and how to acquire it, will therefore be a growing personal concern of every ambitious CCO.



The Chief Compliance Officer, The fourth ingredient in a world-class ethics and compliance program, Deloitte, 2015

Gilbert, Chief compliance officers are at risk, Corporate Compliance Insights, 24th March 2016

The Changing role of compliance, Deloitte, 2015

What it means to be a “chief” compliance officer: Today’s challenges, tomorrow’s opportunities, PWC 2015


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