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Harry Cassin
Publisher and Editor

Andy Spalding
Senior Editor

Jessica Tillipman
Senior Editor

Bill Steinman
Senior Editor

Richard L. Cassin
Editor at Large

Elizabeth K. Spahn
Editor Emeritus

Cody Worthington
Contributing Editor

Julie DiMauro
Contributing Editor

Thomas Fox
Contributing Editor

Marc Alain Bohn
Contributing Editor

Bill Waite
Contributing Editor

Shruti J. Shah
Contributing Editor

Russell A. Stamets
Contributing Editor

Richard Bistrong
Contributing Editor

Eric Carlson
Contributing Editor

Richard Bistrong: Let’s have a really uncomfortable conversation

Having recently returned from three weeks of corporate engagements and conferences across nine time zones, I should be exhausted, but instead I’m exhilarated.

What I experienced over the course of those three weeks were multiple town-halls, workshops, and global corporate meetings, where compliance leaders, mixing with commercial, operational and support teams, rolled up their sleeves to address what could be best be called “organizational design.” And that’s not the same as “compliance design,” but rather, it’s about how an organization can best surface and mitigate what might be even normal and well-intended business processes that might create risk.

While the means for addressing those scenarios varied across organizations, what was similar was a practice whereby everyone leaned-in together and shared their respective objectives and challenges, in order to ensure and enhance the probability that what everyone wants to be happening, is actually happening.

During those forums, I observed and participated in a cascade of open and courageous discussions around numerous issues, where I did see some commonality, which I think demonstrates the evolution and advancement of our compliance community. Here are a few:

Identifying financial pressure. It’s starting to become clearer that there are inherent (even if unintended) tensions in any organization between compliance and performance. That’s not a bad or flawed dynamic, but sometimes the pressure to perform might conflict with the pressure to comply, especially in situations of declining markets and/or economic adversity. So, it’s all about how those tensions get unraveled.

I took matters into my own hands when I was in the field, and ended up in prison for what I’d done. I didn’t have to go it alone. There were other options. But in a globally dispersed organization, it’s hard to identify where those conflicts might arise or exist.

To get there, to surface that “unknown,” I observed business and compliance leaders bringing in their regional managers and direct reports on a global basis to talk about those challenges wherever they might arise and exist. I’ve heard, and facilitated, some very open and honest viewpoints about where financial pressure might bring on ethical weakness, and to make certain, through focused dialog and action-items, that those financial forces, spoken and unspoken, did not overwhelm the importance of ethical and compliant business conduct. 

Sparking uncomfortable conversations. It’s always nice when dispersed teams get together and meet either face-to-face or virtually. But what I found remarkable were compliance and business executives openly soliciting countervailing and challenging viewpoints from the field.

I once heard it called “servant leadership,” where a CEO who introduced me said, “This is a discussion about what we can do to help you succeed, not what you need to do to help me succeed.” And when those conversations got uncomfortable, which they often did, everyone agreed that was a good thing, because it’s not always easy or an exercise in civility to find out what you don’t know. 

A great example is the often-heard commercial complaint of, “You don’t know what I’m up against out here.” It’s not every leader who’s ready to respond with, “You’re right, no one understands risk as much as those who work in it. But I can’t help you unless you tell me, so let’s hear it. And if we have a problem, let’s fix it.”

When leaders issue that retort, I see workforces respond in-kind. Now that’s communication 

Mobilizing the front-lines. Compliance leaders can’t be everywhere. Resources are finite, and in some organizations, especially those growing on their own and though M&A, compliance organizations are often playing catch up with changes in the org chart.

Thus, the concept of “compliance ambassadors,” which I wrote about for the FCPA Blog last year, seems to be gaining traction. Commercial and operational leaders are taking on additional  responsibility (usually without remuneration) to embed and anchor compliance into the business through their own roles.

This isn’t about creating a new potential ‘hot-lines,’ it’s about making compliance visible to the business through these ethics and compliance champions. And that goes back to ‘organizational design,’ in making certain that ethics and compliance are embraced across functions. I worked with one organization where there was a wait-list to become a compliance ambassador. Inspiring!

Professor Eugene Soltes, in his wonderful book, Why They Do it, concludes with, “Appreciating our lack of invincibility- our inherent weakness and frailty — offers us the best chance of designing the appropriate mechanisms to help manage those limitations,” adding “if we humbly recognize that we might not always even notice the choices that will lead us astray, we are more likely to identify and control those decisions.”

That’s so well said, and hence, it’s a pleasure to share the practice of those organizations which seek to uncover where inherent weaknesses might present themselves. And it’s no coincidence that those organizations also encourage constructive and conflicting viewpoints and seek to anchor their solutions via a voluntary team of compliance champions in their own organizational design. 

I’m not sure you can measure it or put it in a data set. But when you walk into a room of rolled up sleeves and small teams mixing it up in breakout rooms, well, you can feel it.


Richard Bistrong, pictured above, is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog and CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC. In 2010 he pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to violate the FCPA and served fourteen-and-a-half months at a U.S. federal prison camp. He was named to Compliance Week’s list of Top Minds in 2017 and was one of Ethisphere’s 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics in 2015. 

His popular real-life compliance training video, Behind the Bribe, produced in cooperation with Mastercard, was released in June.

To request a demo of the full eleven-minute video or a licensing fee schedule, please click here.

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  1. Richard thanks for sharing a great experience. Pressures of all sorts act upon decision makers in organizations therefore affecting consciously or unconsciously the decision. The only way out I want to share is: how do we assure that sound ethical considerations are made in the decision process in all cases. The alternative , for me, is to introduce the " ethical deliberation" as a mandatory step of the decision making in companies. All decisions follow a model, be it formal or unconscious, then putting in the check list of decision making a mandatory step of ethical review might help to assure that we have considered this issue and avoid ethical blindness.

  2. Excellent insights Richard. I like Germano's idea too!
    Too often this kind of open exchange between operational managers and the compliance org is viewed as weakness at worst, undesirable vulnerability at best. In reality it's straight forward honesty, and its benefits go beyond mitigating risk to promoting a a healthy, open culture. Thank you for sharing the insights you harvested across so many time zones!

  3. Th so you've for your insights Richard, this is fully aligned to my experiences in pharma. I always like to set up networks of Compliance champions, it is an absolute terrific support and risk mitigation. Especially when there is also the opportunity to tap into the highest executive levels with the findings of these Compliance champions and have candid and constructive dialogues to plan for solutions.

  4. Dear Germano, Jeffrey, and Daike. Thank you for taking the time to share your own experiences and perspectives. Much of what you share falls back on the value of preparing for risk before teams are in the middle of it, and really thinking about how to engage with business and compliance resources which are necessary to align those forces to succeed and the forces to comply. As you well share, that doesn't happen on its own- it needs leadership across functions. Germano and Jeffrey, those 'ethical deliberations' are a wonderful way to get there, and you might want to look into the work of Mary Gentile, Giving Voices to Value, for more on how those conversations really give people an opportunity to unpack those dilemmas together, for everyone's benefit. Daike, thank you for sharing your own experience with compliance champions- they really are such a wonderful way to anchor and tap into existing talent to make sure that ethics and integrity are visible, not just as a compliance function, but as a part of how business gets done, even in the most challenging of environments. Again, my thanks and appreciation to you all for continuing the conversation. With best regards, Richard

  5. Richard,

    Great article. The insights and advice are well grounded and inspiring.

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