Compliance, complexity and communicating with impact

Maynard Leigh Associates once employed a marketing manager who was brilliant at concepts.

Give him any problem and he’d devise a graphic to describe the issue, with steps showing how to resolve it.

This marketing “expert” though, proved hopeless at making anything happen in real life. His feet never seemed on the ground. Practical actions to convert concepts and insights into day-to-day actions were beyond him.

At first he seemed persuasive, but in the end had to go.

That experience re-surfaces when admiring some infographics from OCEG (Open Compliance and Ethics Group). Its revamped web site offers many useful visual messages.

This source of original drawings proves something of a tour de force. They’re replete with imaginative ideas, astute messages and the details of the issues. See for example below the business case for integrating governance, risk and compliance.


But how persuasive would this picture be with business leaders? What sort of impact might it make when presented to company power brokers?

First, there’s the messy situation shown on the left—a chaotic example of make do and somehow manage. This accurately portrays the way many company compliance systems operate.

The right side of the picture shows a rational solution—an ordered, integrated approach. All the elements mesh neatly together. It would surely appeal to tidy-minded managers.

A visual like this can make the task of compliance appear more rational than it really is.  Unrelenting tidiness may encourage the inexperienced viewer to feel it’s a straight step to move from one to the other, from chaos to orderliness.

Such neatness is deceptive. It makes the complex task of compliance appear more accessible than it is in practice. As with the Maynard Leigh marketing manager though, what counts is combining all the concepts and different elements into practical day-to-day action.

This is harder, since compliance is neither simple nor straightforward. There are  confusing, interwoven layers of complexity.  Yet these can be critical for attaining compliance success. For example, there are the the new EU privacy requirements from next May. One compliance specialist considering these decided:

“…whatever we created had to be simple. That meant no complicated, multidimensional matrices or giant reference architecture charts no one could understand. In the end, we agreed there would be no lists of what to do or what to buy to become GDPR-ready, because no one product could possibly do that.”
C,. Compert, How We Developed the IBM Security GDPR Framework, Security Intelligence, October 2, 2017 

Then there are demands of operational and financial compliance. Next there is contractual compliance, and finally there’s ethics. A busy senior business leader might reasonably conclude that compliance and all its many offshoots must be beyond them:

“Best step aside and leave it to the experts.”

To cynics, that’s exactly what such bravura drawings such as those from OCEG achieve. They’re more like the “giant reference architecture charts no one could understand.”  Clever though these drawing are, on closer inspection they’re hard to follow and to the unwary can suggest:

“This is a really complex area you’re trying to understand. So don’t get in the way!”

letters saying complexity

A second, rather healthier leader reaction might be to trigger a personal determination to master the detail. This might be through attending a course, participating in a seminar, calling in the experts or consultants. Or by going further and perhaps qualifying in the subject and becoming an expert too. That too is what the drawings imply. 

Yet a third leader reaction might be to assume the whole territory demands a rethink:

“Give the experts the resources they need to re-organize us. We’ll be more likely to stick within the law.”

Another design triumph of graphic messaging. 

Back in the real world of course, things are different and far messier. No matter how well-resourced a company, infographics offer only descriptions, no certainty or timetable of practical steps to protect reputations.

For example, Wells Fargo, VW, Fox, Axis Bank–India’s third largest private lender, Panama Papers hacked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, Bell Pottinger PR, and many others were seldom short of the resources needed to bring the OCEG charts to life. Yet all defied the logic of the charts.

Similarly, failures at large, multifaceted organizations such as Lehman Brothers, the Irish banks and AIG stemmed not from inadequate compliance resources, but internal weaknesses arising from human failings.

Being persuasive

Compliance is indeed complex. Those doing it for a living must become adept at being both persuasive and powerful communicators.

Affecting top management thinking demands not clever charts, but the ability to present the core message in human terms that makes a strong personal impact.  

Business leaders initially conceded a seat at the top table to the compliance experts. Just as they once did with finance and later IT. But expertise is seldom a permanent pass to attend board meetings. For example, the number of financial institutions whose compliance function reports directly to the CEO fell by nearly one-quarter over two years. From 40 percent of financial institutions in 2014 to 31 percent in 2016.

The more complex compliance and risk management becomes, the more business leaders need experts with high level communication skills. Sometimes that means clever charts and infographics. More often it requires the basics of how to make a strong, and memorable personal impact.

Facts, charts and numbers are no substitute for personal presence, status, appearance, rapport, smiling, body language, taking center stage and conveying gravitas. All these play a vital part in gaining attention of those in power.

Coaching and bespoke learning opportunities may also be helpful.. There is also no shortage of tools to supplement messages. For the compliance professional though, the fundamental question remains:

“How can I personally be persuasive, establish a strong presence, win influence and make an impact?”

For those interested in pursuing these important issues it may be worth spending some time with these:



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