IMG_3315Norbert Schemansky died last week. Are you as unfamiliar with that name as I was? I must sheepishly admit I had never heard of him before I read his obituary in the New York Times (NYT). Schemansky was one of the world’s all-time great weight lifters and the first person to win medals in four Olympic Games. Moreover, “Schemansky competed across four decades, winning competitions, breaking records and, with his 400-pound heaves, leaving spectators in awe. A bear of a man with a mild countenance, he could be instantly picked out of a bevy of musclemen in tights by his signature plastic-framed eyeglasses, as if Superman had shown up still wearing Clark Kent’s.” His USSR rival and fellow Olympian Yuri Vlasov said of Schemansky, “Norbert Schemansky is the greatest and strongest athlete I have ever seen.”

Similar to my lack of knowledge of him, he was almost unknown in the United States. He told the story of returning from the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, no one was there to greet him. Only an airport porter recognized him. He was quoted in his obituary, “The bus porter said, ‘Nice going, Semansky,’. “He mispronounced my name, but he knew who I was.”

Yet Schemansky had a passion for weight-lifting, once quitting a job so he could compete in the Olympics. His biographer, Richard Bak wrote in the book Mr. Weightlifting, “What Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis are to boxing, what John Grimek and Arnold Schwarzenegger mean to bodybuilding, and what Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky represent in hockey, Norbert Schemansky is to Olympic weight lifting.”

I thought about the passion and professionalism of Schemansky, over his 20-plus years of competition, when I read a recent article in the NYT Corner Office column, where Adam Bryant interviewed Ben Chestnut, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of MailChimp, in a piece entitled “Learn to Love the Job You’ve Got”. I thought about the passion of folks who work in the compliance profession and how that passion is literally leading the compliance profession to becoming a key component of corporate America in the 21st century.

Chestnut is Thai-American and grew up in a military family. Those two unique facts lead to some interesting insights. His father was a career non-com but he had the “reputation of taking weirdos and turning them into useful soldiers.” This meant he took or was assigned soldiers no one else wanted and turned them into soldiers. One story he told was about a Hell’s Angel’s club member who was “trigger-happy”. The soldier refused to march with the safety on his rifle ‘on’ so his father had him march in the front, so that if the rifle went off, no one would be accidently shot.

Yet, as his own leader, Chestnut provided his own interesting insights. The first is to “never sacrifice momentum” and by this Chestnut said that while he might believe he has a “better path, but if we’ve got a lot of momentum, if everyone’s united and they’re marching together and the path is O.K., just go with the flow. I may eventually nudge them down a new path, but never stop the troops midmarch.”

Chestnut takes input from his team on key issues, one of which was the development of the MailChimp culture. He said that he inquired from “all of our managers and senior managers to help me out with them, and we came up with three: creativity, humility and independence. The one that caused the most concern was the last one, independence.” Most interestingly, Chestnut believes the most important leadership skill is to allow independence when a leader manages a team.

I found this particularly interesting coming from someone who grew up in a military household, as I did too and following orders, not independence, was the prized behavior. Yet Chestnut recognized that “In a team setting, we may be all working together to accomplish a goal, but if somebody has a concern, they need to be brave enough to stand up and say it. And other team members need to be humble enough to recognize this individual. If they have a creative idea, recognize them. We need fearlessness, because creativity leads to innovation.”

Chestnut takes a somewhat orthodox approach in hiring. He said that he finds it difficult to obtain the measure of a candidate in a 30-minute session in his office so he likes to extended it over dinner because he likes to take some time to get to know the candidate. He said that he asks the question ‘why’ quite a bit because “I want to see if they’re passionate enough to push back. I want to see if they have a philosophy behind what they do. I’ll just keep asking why, why, why until I get to their core philosophy on whatever it is that they’re passionate about.”

Chestnut recognizes that in large part, a leader is only as successful as the people around him. If you only have Yes-Men (or Yes-Women) you could well end up with the corporate scandals we have seen unfolding in other companies. He said that he was someone who has a “philosophy because I want someone to push me and make me better. I want people who are smarter than me, and who will push and fight for something they believe in while also respecting the values and unique nature of the company. We have to be creative in pushing our boundaries, but sticking to our values.”

This final concept is one that I think differentiates compliance professionals even from legal professionals. As a recovering lawyer I understand one having a passion about the law but that passion is generally articulated in the phase ‘is it legal’ while the passion of the compliance professional is broader, looking at the wider question of whether something should be done; not simply can it be done. Bryant ended his interview with Chestnut with the following, “There’s a popular saying: “Do what you love.” I tell them to forget that idea because it should be, “Love what you do.” Take the job, learn to live in the moment and love it, master it, and doors will open for you if you’re good at what you do. Turn it into a passion if you can.”

That is the passion I see in the compliance profession. It truly is a profession that assist businesses operate more efficiently and more effectively through the identification, measurement and management of risk. I am proud to a part of that profession.


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© Thomas R. Fox, 2016