SwordfishI continue my exploration of the Marx Brothers this week by looking at their most successful commercial film made for Paramount, Horse Feathers. While Duck Soup is and always will be my favorite film due to its overall and complete anarchy, Horse Feathers comes in a close second. The movie takes place on a college campus and generally revolves around Huxley College’s attempt to win ‘the big game’ against Darwin College and payments to college football players (does that sound familiar?). I remember after the first time I saw it and told my father about it, he was still able, some 40 years after he first viewed it, to quote the famous password scene involving all manners of puns on the word ‘swordfish’. I quote the entire scene, where Professor Wagstaff (Groucho) attempts to gain access to a Speakeasy guarded by Baravelli (Chico).

Baravelli: …you can’t come in unless you give the password.

Professor Wagstaff: Well, what is the password?

Baravelli: Aw, no. You gotta tell me. Hey, I tell what I do. I give you three guesses. It’s the name of a fish.

Professor Wagstaff: Is it “Mary?”

Baravelli: [laughing] ‘At’s-a no fish!

Professor Wagstaff: She isn’t? Well, she drinks like one! …Let me see… Is it “Sturgeon”?

Baravelli: Aw, you-a craze. A “sturgeon”, he’s a doctor cuts you open when-a you sick. Now I give you one more chance.

Wagstaff: I got it! “Haddock”.

Baravelli: ‘At’s a-funny, I got a “haddock” too.

Wagstaff: What do you take for a “haddock”?

Baravelli: Sometimes I take an aspirin, sometimes I take a calomel.

Wagstaff: Y’know, I’d walk a mile for a calomel.

Baravelli: You mean chocolate calomel? I like-a that too, but you no guess it. [Slams door. Wagstaff knocks again. Baravelli opens peephole again.] Hey, what’s-a matter, you no understand English? You can’t come in here unless you say, “Swordfish.” Now I’ll give you one more guess.

Professor Wagstaff: …swordfish, swordfish… I think I got it. Is it “swordfish”?

Baravelli: Hah. That’s-a it. You guess it.

Professor Wagstaff: Pretty good, eh?

Harpo (“Pinky”) takes the perhaps more direct approach. When Baravelli challenges him for the password, he gets into the speakeasy by pulling a sword and a fish out of his trench coat, putting the sword down the throat of the dead fish and presenting the combined sword and fish the doorman. While I still guffaw when reading all of this, I would urge you to click through to the YouTube video I have linked to at the end of this blog post.

I do find some lessons for the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner in this scene. I have adapted the lessons from an article in the Financial Times (FT) by Michael Skapinker, entitled “Seven lessons in management I learnt over the last decade”.

  1. Do not rush. It takes Groucho a while but he does not rush and he gets in. We all arrive with a new plan. Your plan may be right or wrong but unless the barbarians are at the gate (i.e. banks or creditors) you will have time to listen, refine and build alliances and to identify those folks who were actually waiting for what you may want to propose. Skapinker believes the most important promise you will make in an interview is to talk to everyone first and then work towards your implementation.
  2. A good deputy helps you sleep at night. This one may seem to be a counter-intuitive lesson from the above skit but not in reality, as it is in the interest of the establishment for Groucho to actually enter the Speakeasy. However, Skapinker believes you should have someone who not only understands what you want but also “a deputy with different skills from yours. You want someone who will alert you to problems. But you also want someone who sees the business the way you do”.
  3. Decide what your business stands for and tell everyone until you can no longer stand the sound of your voice. The Marx Brothers did this every time they opened their collective mouths; insanity prevailed. Skapinker wrote, “You need to decide what yours is, and you need to keep telling people, both inside and outside. Whether they believe you depends on how true it is”. I cannot think of anything more important for the CCO or compliance practitioner to follow.
  4. Hire people on probation. This would seem to be the entire point of the swordfish exercise. You need to find a way to determine if folks are going to do and say the right thing before you let them in. In the corporate world this should take place in the form of employees being evaluated for doing business the right way and in compliance with anti-corruption laws such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) or UK Bribery Act. Whenever someone is promoted to senior management or into a position where there is a high risk of corruption, such as to a region with a propensity for corruption, such an evaluation should be made by the compliance function in conjunction with the Human Resources (HR) function of an organization.
  5. Treat your team like adults. If the Marx Brothers were anything it certainly was adults. By this I mean their humor worked on multiple and a multitude of levels. It worked for me as a teenager in the 1970s just as it worked for my father who was then in his late 40s. Skapinker relates what might seem self-obvious that “Most people want to do a good job. They do not come to work to rip you off. So trust them. Judge them by their results and do not hover over them.” However, coming from the energy industry in Houston, I have certainly seen companies that treated employees like they were in the third grade. It simply does not work in the compliance arena because if you are big enough to be international, you will not have the ability to lord over all your employees, all the time. You have to try and hire the right folks, train them and give them the tools to succeed.
  6. Tell people what they have just told you. This technique simply shows you are listening, which is how Groucho finally figured out the password and got into the Speakeasy. In a company, Skapinker believes that “There is no more powerful management tool than showing people that you have listened to them. The best way not only to show you have listened, but really to do so, is to repeat their views in good faith back to them. That way, even if you decide something different, they feel they have had a good hearing.” At the close of meetings you can use this strategy to help rally your team around your decision including those who might have disagreed with you.
  7. Make your numbers. I think Harpo’s example here is paramount. Let folks see what you are doing. Since he was the mute one, he gave a visual representation of a swordfish but it communicated the message. For the CCO or compliance practitioner, you need to come up with some metrics to demonstrate the value you are adding. I would suggest that it comes in the area of accounting controls because at the end of the day, internal controls under the FCPA are accounting controls. You need to communicate your mission and that you are achieving it to the Board of Directors or senior management. 

I still grin when I think about the swordfish scene. For a clip of the scene on YouTube, click here.

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, 2015

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