to-sir-with-loveI continue my tribute to those who have recently passed away and today I leave the world of music to move to the world of literature with a name you will probably not recognize, E. R. Braithwaite. You will, however, recognize his most famous memoir “To Sir, With Love” which was made into a film in 1967 starring Sidney Poitier and who’s soundtrack included the singer Lulu’s hit single of the same name.

As noted in his New York Times (NYT) obituary, “The book chronicled his efforts — as a courtly, Cambridge-educated military veteran who had been denied employment as an engineer because he was black — to motivate a group of unruly adolescents raised in a slum in early-1950s Britain, which was still slowly recovering from the austerity of the war years. The students’ antisocial behavior, casual racism, penchant for violence and, worst of all, self-hatred horrify the new teacher, whose colleagues expect little of the pupils.”

Yet through his unorthodox teaching methods he wins the respect and trust of his students. I was surprised to learn that the title comes from words written on a pack of cigarettes given to Braithwaite as a gift by one student. Braithwaite’s portrayal of both race and the English class system of the 50s was widely praised. Braithwaite’s ability to not only see past the racial and class prejudices of the time resonated with both the book’s readers and the film’s viewers.

I found his story an excellent tie into today’s blog post. In a recent On management column in the Financial Times (FT), entitled “Technology and millennials are out to kill the org chart”, Andrew Hill discusses how the org chart may soon be relegated to a relic of the past. From his description, it might not only be a good thing but from the compliance perspective it might help companies more quickly and efficiently operationalize compliance down in the DNA of their company.

Even though the org chart is one of the most read documents in any organizations, it did not always reflect the reality of the company. Hill noted, “Even when everyone used to pay attention to the pyramid of power, though, the diagram was a poor reflection of corporate reality. Century-old examples are pockmarked with vacancies, indicating that chart makers struggled to keep up with changes. Now staff turnover is more rapid, charts are relics of a command-and-control approach, where information flowed through fixed channels, from your boss’s boss, down to your boss, to you, and back again. It need not be this way. In many such plans, the dreaded “dotted reporting line” already signals that nothing is as neat as the chart may imply.”

Hill even took it a step further, finding that many Human Resources (HR) directors find org charts to be ““uncomfortable straight-jackets, a hindrance to more natural interaction between colleagues” or simply a loathed obligation.” Although some HR professionals felt org charts helped an employee understand the context of an organization’s hierarchy, “they always “come with the caveat that aren’t true.””

Hill recognizes that businesses need structure and that employees need to be able to refer to the structure. But by ossifying structure in an org chart, it could stifle people from making decisions applicable to their area of expertise. This is a long held key that employees must be empowered because if they are, they will execute more efficiently. But more than simply such platitudes, Hill points out that business leaders have a different role than sitting at the top of long list (horizontal and vertical) of employees. In one of the most interesting analogies Hill cited to Professor Lindred Greer of the Stanford Business School for the following insight, “leaders must behave like hippos. They can remain under water, with just their eyes protruding to observe the team, and emerge only if they need to exert their full authority.”

Hill ends by stating, “the fixed org chart is already losing potency.” Moreover, “even those HR executives who favour organigrams point out that younger staff could not care less about the hidebound hierarchy they represent. They will happily take ideas to a senior partner or divisional director, bypassing old-fashioned channels, says one. It is a reminder that the chart, love it or hate it, is not the main impediment to change; the people in it often are.”

The implications for both a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) and the compliance profession are quite profound. Clearly a CCO wants to have as much input as he or she can receive about the company and whether it is doing business ethically and in compliance. If an org chart communicates siloed behavior is the expected norm in an organization, a CCO may well not receive information needed to prevent or detect inappropriate conduct. These are two of the three negative points that Hill raises; a straight-jacket around communications and a hindrance to natural communications between colleagues. I would add such structure could even stop employees from believing they could have such communications.

This all relates back to Braithwaite and educating his students who were written off by the other teachers. He took them to museums, many for the first time in their lives. He told about his story in rising up from a colonial existence to becoming a World War II, Royal Air Force fighter pilot. In short, he used communications to win their trust. Once he had their trust he could begin his assigned task of teaching them because they were then receptive to his message.

The same is largely true of any CCO or compliance practitioner. You do have to work to win the trust of your employee base. If there is a formal org chart sitting out there commanding communications flow in one method, it could seriously impact your ability to prevent and detect. Moreover, if there are folks in the business unit who could move compliance forward to make it more efficient or even move it more closely into the field, those opportunities may be missed if the org chart is too ossified at your company.

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© Thomas R. Fox, 2016