ChristieOn this day in 1890, Mary Clarissa Agatha Miller, who later became known as Agatha Christie, was born in Torquay, Devon, England. As a youngster, she and her sister, Madge, made up thrilling stories to tell each other. As noted in ‘This Day in History’, while her husband, Colonel Archibald Christie was off fighting in World War I, Agatha “worked as an assistant in a pharmacy, where she learned about poisons. She began to write on a dare from her sister and produced her first mystery novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), featuring Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who would appear in 25 more novels during the next quarter century. The novel found modest success, and she continued writing. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) became a bestseller, and she enjoyed phenomenal success for the rest of her life.” In 1930, she published her first Miss Marple story. She had an exceptional career and “wrote some 80 novels, 30 short story collections, and 15 plays, plus six romances under the pen name Mary Westmacott.” Here’s to Poirot, Miss Marple and all the rest.

I was fascinated to learn about the building blocks of Christie’s education that provided her with the background to write a number of her stories. Her work in a pharmacy was obvious but so was her travel with her second husband, Sir Max Mallowan who she accompanied on his many expeditions to the Middle East. These locales in turn became the setting for many of her novels. I thought about Poirot, Miss Marple and all the rest when I read a recent Corner Office column by Adam Bryant, where he profiled Greg Schott, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of MuleSoft, a software company in a New York Times (NYT) piece, entitled “Beware the Threats to a Positive Workplace”.

I was particularly interested in Schott’s reply to the question posed by Bryant, what lessons did you learn about culture along the way of your career path? His response was quite telling and one that I think Chief Compliance Officers (CCOs) or compliance practitioners should consider in all their actions going forward. Schott said, “I learned that it can take years to build a great culture and you can tear it down in very short order. It’s like a building — you can spend years building a beautiful building and then it can just collapse.”

Schott listed four reasons that he has seen reputations collapse suddenly. First is the “lack of communication, which can lead to a lack of trust. If people don’t feel connected to the leadership and they don’t feel like they understand where the company is headed, people will fill in the blanks, and often not with positive things.” It is mandatory that any CCO or compliance practitioner communicates not only what they are doing when interacting with the business folks but also why they are doing it.

Second is the situation where “leadership that looks like they’re out for themselves. People pick up on that when decisions are made that are not necessarily with everybody’s best interest at heart. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but it’s an attitude.” Such an attitude is obviously corrosive in any organization or discipline within an organization but none more so than in the compliance function. Never forget that without business there is no need for compliance and if there is one overhead function that must get out of the office and meet the troops in the field it is the compliance function.

Interestingly, Schott next identified factionalism as a problem. He said, “I’ve seen this in the tech world as companies grow quickly. There tends to be an old-timer group — the ones who have been around forever, which in technology is three to five years — and the new people who were brought on board later.” For the compliance practitioner I would point to siloed employees as a critical gap that must be bridged.

Finally, and I would say most importantly, is fair treatment and fair process. Schott said, “If there’s any kind of different treatment, like the folks who have been there since the beginning are treated as if they’re the only ones that can really figure things out, or if the new ones are considered the saviors of the company, that sends a terrible signal. We’re all here together to make it work.” One of the many lessons from the National Football League (NFL), the Brady suspension and its overturning by the district court was that Brady was treated differently by the NFL regarding its discipline of him. I often say that you must treat the employees in South America that same as your top salesmen in the US. The same holds true that if you provide lessor sanctions for certain conduct, you cannot come down like a ton of bricks on a similarly situated employee.

Schott also had some interesting thoughts on hiring which I found has insight for the compliance practitioner as well. Initially he noted, “we’re looking for someone who’s a good human. That is defined by high integrity, being a great team player, and they want to win as a company first, team second, individually third. The next thing we look for is people who are whip-smart. The third thing we look for is a clear track record of achievement.” Coupling both high integrity with being a team player can be a powerful tool to help bring a culture of compliance and ethics to an organization.

Yet it was Schott’s thoughts in another aspect of the hiring process that I believe can bring insight into who you are hiring and what their underlying values are going forward. He said, “And I also work hard to understand the decisions they’ve made along the way, like why they left a certain job to take the next one. You learn all kinds of things from why they made those job transitions. I’ll also ask what they’ve done that changed things for their organization as opposed to just doing the job that they were asked to do. What did they do that nobody asked them to do?” When a CCO or compliance practitioner is asked to help evaluate a new hire or promotion of an employee up to senior management, they can use Schott’s insights to make similar inquiries.

From Agatha Christie, we learn the lessons of putting together a great story through building blocks. From Greg Schott, we have specific steps on how to foster great culture by starting with the hiring process and then keep it going forward.

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© Thomas R. Fox, 2015