Silly Putty and Compliance: Remember It’s Not Always About You

Not many compliance practitioners will think of Silly Putty as an aid to their compliance programs. This is particular in companies where the hierarchy is very military in discipline. Orders were pronounced from on high and they were expected to be followed. Military models tend to work in the military but they often do not work so well in the business world. In these types of organizations, creative thinking is usually not rewarded or even appreciated. I have certainly worked for such organizations. I was reminded of this example when reading this week's Corner Office in the Sunday New York Times (NYT) Business section, entitled "Tell Me Your Idea (and Don't Mind the Silly Putty)", in which reporter Adam Bryant wrote about an interview with Laurel J. Richie, the President of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA).

Prior to her assuming the Presidency of the WNBA, Richie was a Vice President of Ogilvy & Mather, an international advertising, marketing and public relations agency. After returning to work from a vacation, she found that her entire team had gone to Human Resources (HR) and said "We can't do it anymore. It's a great account, but we don't like working for Laurel because working for her feels like it's all about her and not about us. So we want to work on another piece of business." In the more military based organizations where I work, the employer would have simply fired all the employees who dared to go to HR. However, such was not the case at Ogilvy & Mather where Richie used this opportunity to learn a insightful lesson, which she said was "I learned very profoundly in that moment that if there is not shared ownership of the work, both our successes and our failures, people aren't going to have a satisfying experience."

Recognizing that she need to make a significant change, Richie redefined her job as a leader to "to create an environment where good things happen, and where people feel good about their role on the team, and they feel acknowledged, they feel empowered, and they feel visible." To help facilitate and accomplish this goal, Richie said to her team "I got the feedback. Thank you for doing that. I had no idea. Can I have another chance and can we work together on this?" She then initiated a program where she sought from the team the things they wanted to be involved in. More importantly, she asked them to identify situations where they felt that their input had been marginalized by her and she then asked them "to talk to me in the moment when I was heading down that path again."

The next thing she did was to bring out Silly Putty. It was not to copy the Sunday Comics and then reprint the image somewhere else, nor was it for her team members. Richie brought out the "little pink egg" to play with while her team members were talking to remind her that she needed to let her team members present their "points of view or share work that may have been not exactly the way I would have done it." From this exercise she learned that there can be "many ways to get to the end point."

I found Richie's leadership lesson to be applicable to the compliance arena. I came into compliance from the corporate legal department, where things were not only top down in terms of a command structure but where pronouncements where made from the law department on high: Do it this way. This is not the problem where the legal department or compliance department is viewed as the Land of No, inhabited by only Dr. No. It is, instead, the perception that legal or compliance simply institutes requirements without even talking to the people they affect the most, the business unit employees.

This is certainly the tradition that I have observed where an outside law firm drafts an initial compliance program which is written by lawyers for lawyers, with little to no relevance about how business is actually accomplished by the company. This leads to great frustration by business unit folks who are trying to do the right thing but probably cannot get through the legalese in which the compliance program is written. A company will then have to bring in someone like me to actually rewrite the compliance program, policy and procedures, translating legalese into plain English.

Richie's experience in leadership re-emphasized to me the collaborative nature of compliance. If you involve the business unit in developing your policies and procedures and explain the reasons behind them, you will have a much better chance at success. Bryant ended his piece on the leadership lessons learned by Richie saying "There's a culture in every organization of how things get done and how people communicate, and you have to truly understand that in order to be effective. You have to be aware of it." So remember sometimes you need to bring out the Silly Putty to make YOU remember that it's not always all about YOU.

 Visit the FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog, hosted by Thomas Fox, for more commentary on FCPA compliance, indemnities and other forms of risk management for a worldwide energy practice, tax issues faced by multi-national US companies, insurance coverage issues and protection of trade secrets.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2012

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