Guy V. Lewis died last week. For those uninitiated in college basketball, Lewis was one of the greats, coaching for over 30 years at the University of Houston. He went to the Final Four five times, alas though he did not win any titles during those trips. While he is best remembered for his tenure during the 1980s when he took the Phi Slama Jama (world’s tallest fraternity) to the NCAA championships three straight trips, many thought of Lewis as the guy who rolled the basketballs out to start practice and let his teams run (and run and run).
But the first Guy V. Lewis that I recall was the one who coached the University of Houston to defeating a previously undefeated Lew Alcindor-led UCLA team in the 1968 Game of the Century, held in the Astrodome. I also remember Lewis (along with UH Football Coach Bill Yeoman) as one of the true leaders in desegregating college sports in the South. Lewis brought later NBA Hall of Famer Elvin Hays and later NBA Coach Don Chaney to play for the Houston Cougars. For myself, and a generation of Southerners, Lewis was one of the leaders in the fight against hate, prejudice and segregation.
I thought about Lewis when I read an article in the New York Times (NYT) Corner Office Column by Adam Bryant where he profiled Margaret Keane, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Synchrony Financial in an article entitled “When Hardship Informs Leadership”. I found the article had some excellent points for the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) to consider in not only the role as a leader but also the role of a colleague to others in senior management.
When leading the compliance function or otherwise acting as a leader in any organization Keane pointed to the need to respect others in an organization. While many lawyers certainly do not take this into account in their role in a corporate legal department, it is a requirement in the compliance function. Keane said, “The biggest thing I learned when I first started managing people is that you really have to respect the people who were there before you showed up. So you could come in with all these great ideas, but if you come in acting like you know it all and you don’t get the buy-in, then they will reject you.”
Another key ingredient Keane talked about was how you interact with your subordinates, but not with the normal platitudes you associate with a CEO. She talked about working with talented and smart people under you. She said, “Another important lesson was getting comfortable with the idea of having people work for you who are smarter than you. When you’re young, there’s an insecurity that you have to do and know everything. There are leaders who never learn that lesson, even later on in life.”
When it came to leading with your peers at the senior management level I found her next thoughts insightful. Keane believes that “A leader has to be decisive. The most frustrating thing for any organization is when you’re just waffling around and no one knows what to do. You’re going to make mistakes, but you’re better off moving the organization forward than having them waffle. And then you have to be very clear with the organization about what’s happening and why.” Once again her remarks point out a clear distinction between the legal department and the compliance function. Many corporate legal departments are very good at presenting or at least explaining options. This is what lawyers do. However, this is not what the compliance function or CCO do. The role is to prevent, find and fix issues before they become problems (or Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA)) violations.
Keane also spoke about another angle to leadership not often discussed. It is the perception that she could not make difficult decisions. I found the reason and her response something a CCO often faces. Keane noted, “there was a perception that I couldn’t make hard decisions. And the reason they thought I couldn’t make hard decisions was because people liked me. I would get really angry about it because I know how to make hard decisions, but it’s always about how you treat the process when you’re making the hard decisions.”
I found this point very perceptive. A CCO generally has to be liked to do their job. They often struggle with how well they will be perceived if they have to say “No”. Keane makes clear that it is about the process. If you lay out your reasoning, having considered all the relevant facts, almost everyone will respect your decision because the process is rigorous.
Keane also talked about something that is becoming a greater problem as the compliance program matures and more compliance practitioners grow into the role of a CCO. She related, “because I’ve worked my way up, I know a lot of things. So it’s easy for me to want to jump in and try to solve something. So I’ve learned to hold myself back from solving the problem and to let the organization solve it first.”
Keane also had some thoughts that every CCO and indeed every company need to consider in the hiring process. She said, “I always ask, “Why are you leaving your current job, and why are you coming here?” You want to make sure people aren’t running away from something and you want to make sure they’re coming here for the right reasons. And then I want to know if they can build teams. Do they have a following? How many people have followed them from one job to the next?”
Finally, Keane ended with three points that are useful for any employee, which I found to be particularly applicable to a CCO or compliance practitioner. First she said that you must “work hard. You’re not going to get anywhere if you don’t dig in and work hard. And that means doing things you don’t like doing and not complaining about it.” Second she noted that you need to ask questions. Moreover, if you are not getting enough from your boss or out of an assignment, then “raise your hand “to get some attention to have the situation clarified.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, “pick your head up from your phone. Look around, see what’s happening, engage socially. As much as we think they’re social, they’re not really that social because they do everything on their phones.”
So a fond farewell to the King of Houston Hoops, Guy V. Lewis. He helped move forward the cause of racial equality in the South. I hope you finally get that championship in the great beyond. As for more temporal matters, use the techniques that Keane has suggested, particularly to use the process of fair decision-making and get off the phone and out of your office.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2015