Gordie HoweGordon ‘Gordie’ Howe died last week. To most of North America he was simply known as “Mr. Hockey”. In his first hockey career, he played in a by-gone era of what we now call the ‘Original 6’ where two Canadian teams and four teams from the northern half of the US battled in what might be delicately called, a much more physical game than is played today. Howe has not only a product of that time and style of play but was literally head and shoulders above all other players with the exception of perhaps Maurice Richard of the Montreal Canadians. Howe also exemplified the era by defining what became to be known as the “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” (GHHT) which consisted of one goal scored, one assist and one fight all in the same game. Yet having named this distinction, Howe had only two GHHTs.

Howe retired from his first career in 1971. However it was in his second career that I became acquainted with Howe when he came out of retirement to play with his sons Mark and Marty in the Houston entrant to the new World Hockey Association (WHA), the Aeros. Howe and his sons led the Aeros to two WHA titles at a time when the city of Houston was dead last or near last in all other major professional sports. Once again, thanks to a sport-addict grandfather, I got to see Howe play in Houston for the Aeros. The Howe I remember is the one who made Houston a winner for the first time since the 1961 Houston Oilers (which I really do not remember). But to everyone north of the border, and south of it – here’s to Mr. Hockey and I know you are either on the original Production Line or the Howe family line.

I thought about Howe’s career when I read an article in the New York Times (NYT) Corner Office Column by Adam Bryant, entitled “Seek Out the Curious and the Fastidious”, which featured Soledad O’Brien, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Starfish Media Group, a production company. She has some interesting insights that I thought would be applicable to a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner. As a news anchor for CNN, she found herself working for five different news presidents in six years. In this midst of this management chaos, she related “What I learned there was that you have to go back to the basics of thinking, “Here is what I do well, and I am going to make sure that everything I touch is good and solid.”” Any CCO who has to work under multiple or even chaotic management could do well to take this lesson to heart.

I also found her comments about the fact that television news anchors are really about managing ideas. This is a great insight for any CCO, that you manage the idea of doing business ethically and in compliance with laws. If you think about the concepts that you have to push down into the business units, it becomes clearer that you are selling ideas to those in the business units who will implement them as business processes. Further, just as a news anchor must communicate ideas through the medium of television, a CCO must communicate via the medium provided by the company. How are you going to manage those ideas?

O’Brien also had insights into how a leader can receive solid information as well as how to treat your team members. She said, “A key insight for me was that if you want good feedback from people, you have to create an environment where people want to come and tell you things.” This is important for your direct reports and your wider employee base as a whole. As a CCO, you want employees to come forward with information which will help you run your compliance program in a more efficient manner going forward. Along those lines, O’Brien said, “environment is very important to me. It’s important to me that people aren’t unpleasant and that they treat each other respectfully. It’s hard to be creative when there’s someone or something that’s really irking you.”

O’Brien also talked about the difference in working very hard and succeeding and the skills of leadership. She admitted this was difficult for her because she had been so successful. She said, “Another challenge was that I was successful in my previous role because I really worked hard and took a lot of responsibility for making things good. But that’s not actually a great skill for being a boss.” However those talents are not what are called for in a leader, as “The job of the boss is to help other people reach their goals and dreams. The area where I’ve grown the most is that I am good at making decisions in the macro and helping other people make the decisions in the micro.”

Finally O’Brien’s hiring strategy related some very interesting concepts for the corporate compliance officer and hiring. She said, “You hire for character and teach people skills.” For the CCO, this seems to be a good time to remind you to go down the hall and talk to the head of Human Resources (HR). What does your company take into account when they interview around character? Is this investigated? Is it assessed in any way? Does your HR department mention its importance at anytime during the interview process?

I found it interesting that one of the top qualities she is looking for is curiosity, which unfortunately she believes is an innate quality. That is something I have been accused of over the years so it resonated with me. It has also allowed me to write about some of the things a CCO or compliance practitioner needs to know; not just everything you can know about creating and implementing a best practice compliance program. Yet, given all the areas a CCO must be familiar with, from reading a spreadsheet to understanding and managing a wide variety of risks, curiosity would seem to be a mandatory skill.

I do not know if we have lost more luminaries this year than in other years. I know that the rock and roll heaven has greatly increased in 2016. The sports firmament greatly increased by one with the passing of Gordie Howe.


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© Thomas R. Fox, 2016