Haskell Wexler died on Sunday. For those remotely familiar with cinematography or movie-making in general, he was a true giant. According to his New York Times (NYT) obituary, Wexler won two Academy Awards and had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He received his first Oscar for black-and-white cinematography in 1966, for the classic film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He then won again a decade later, in 1976 for Bound for Glory, a biography of the folk singer Woody Guthrie. Wexler had five Oscar nominations in all, over a career that began more than auspiciously: His first genuine credit was on an Oscar-nominated 1953 documentary short, “The Living City.”
Wexler also directed one of the most interesting films I recall from my college days, the fictional documentary Medium Cool about the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention. The NYT noted, “Wexler was a member of a rare Hollywood breed, the celebrity cinematographer.” Most interestingly, and perhaps demonstrating that there are rarely problems, only opportunities, Wexler was colorblind. This led to his signature look and feel of contrast and shadows, particularly in color films.
I thought about Wexler when reading an article in the NYT Corner Office column by Adam Bryant, entitled “Making Room for Differences”, where he profiled Lois Braverman, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Ackerman Institute for the Family, a company which provides family therapy. Braverman had some interesting insights that I found appropriate for a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner to apply.
Braverman is the oldest of seven sisters and this led to what she called the “firstborn ‘right’ disease” which led her to believe that her way of doing things was “the right way to do it.” While admitting that this ‘disease’ led to “a lot of difficulties in your personal relationships” she found “in organizations, it actually gives you the courage to make decisions and to take risks because you have this internal sense that you’re right. Even though I know intellectually I’m not always right, it’s easier to make a decision as a leader.”
Her field of academic training is psychotherapy and family therapy. I found her insight that “One of the things about family therapy training is you come to understand that reality is all about perception. If people are in conflict, it’s because we really are perceiving some aspect of the world differently at that moment.” This insight about perception led her to make room for the points of view of others when she came into leadership. She said, “That idea fundamentally shaped me as a leader, because I saw how much trouble people had because they would get into these fights over who was right or wrong. It doesn’t generate a lot of creativity, and it doesn’t generate innovative ways of being together.”
Braverman feels that one of the keys for leadership is to recognize that while you may have one answer, there are usually several others answers. She stated, “And there may even be differences in terms of how we define the problem, because it can be different depending on where you sit in an organization. There’s an administrative reality and there’s a front-line worker reality, and those realities are very rarely the same. Organizational conflicts escalate when people don’t feel heard, when they don’t feel like their perception of reality has a chance to at least be heard.”
Braverman also spoke directly to one of the banes of corporate culture, the creation of silos. But here, her insight was not so much that the siloed nature of corporate life keeps information from flowing across the organization but that type of culture created an ‘us v. them’ mentality. She noted, “That kind of polarizing behavior can get very personal, right? People really start to demonize, pathologize or psychoanalyze others, and to see their colleagues through a negative lens. Often that comes from a place where you’re feeling anxious or stuck and not able to get something done. And so you really have to hold on to the idea — as a genuine, authentic, core belief — that everybody is really doing the best job that they can, and that they are a resource for you.”
Braverman had some interesting thoughts about hiring. She said that a key was to look at the underlying nature of a job function and hire around those skills. She gave the example if hiring for administrative position that requires attention to detail she looks for “someone with a high G.P.A., even if they’re not necessarily personable. You don’t get great grades unless you have worked really hard.” I would add this insight can work directly for the CCO in hiring a compliance staff. Many compliance positions, such as third party administrator, require attention to detail. I have found this is a key characteristic of most successful paralegals, which I believe to be an overlooked talent source for a corporate compliance function.
Braverman also had some insights into one of the least pleasant aspects of corporate reality, when you have to let someone go. She intones that it is not easy to do so but you must keep the bigger picture of the organization in mind. Even if an employee is a friend or well-liked in an organization, if they cannot perform their function or task, it is often better for all concerned to let them go, even if part of the organization is not going to be happy with you.
Tips on compliance leadership can come from many sources. I found Bryant’s Corner Office column on Lois Braverman to be an unexpected source of wisdom for around leadership in the compliance function.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2015