On this day in 1836, Colonel William Barrett Travis issued his now famous call for help on behalf of the Texan troops defending the Alamo. It has gone down as one of the great cries for freedom-loving peoples everywhere. The plea was made the day after a large Mexican force, commanded by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, arrived suddenly in San Antonio. Travis and his troops took shelter in the Alamo, where they were soon joined by a volunteer force led by Colonel James Bowie. Though Santa Ana’s 5,000 troops heavily outnumbered the several hundred Texans, Travis and his men determined not to give up. On February 24, they answered Santa Ana’s call for surrender with a bold shot from the Alamo’s cannon. Furious, the Mexican general ordered his forces to launch a siege.
Addressing one of the pleas to “The People of Texas and All Americans in the World,” Travis ended his call for help with the following, “I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism and everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch. The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily and will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor and that of his country.
VICTORY or DEATH.”
While Travis certainly took the direct approach with General Santa Ana, the same cannot not be said to always be appropriate for a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner. Indeed, I am continually amazed at the sources that would seem about as far from the world of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) compliance that lends itself to CCO lessons. One such unexpected source was the Financial Times (FT) Business Book of the Year Award judging competition. Andrew Hill, in his On management column, wrote about the “horse-trading, mind games and bluff” engaged in by the business executives, professorial types and editors who make up the judging panel, in a piece entitled “Seven lessons from the FT’s business book prize judges”. There are two rounds: the first selects a shortlist of six books and the second chooses the winner.
The seven lessons were about navigating “the fine art of group decision-making”. As every CCO must lead through group consensus, I thought it was an excellent article to draw upon for leadership lessons for such a person. Hill thought the discussions around this book award could be “lessons for far weightier decisions, such as selecting a chief executive.”
Hill believed the first point was almost self-obvious, which is “people whose time is precious must set priorities.” I often say that meetings are the bane of corporate existence and this book award process is no different. Hill noted that while the selection process in fiction awards can drag on for hours, in the initial meeting “the jury ruthlessly dismissed the weakest titles in the first 30 minutes.”
Second, “preparation is everything.” This is more than simply reading the books or even for a CCO reading all the memos but being ready for the political aspects of the event. Hill noted, “I have seen judges strike alliances in taxis en route to the meeting, or over coffee before the formalities begin, as they jockey to get their favourite titles through to the final six.”
Third, at times team decisions require deft and nuanced leadership. One example was the change in meeting styles from Fed Chairmen Alan Greenspan to Ben Bernanke. Greenspan was an autocrat who “quashed dissent…by laying out his preferences at the start of the policy discussion.” Contrastingly, Bernanke changed the tone of the meetings by “inviting others to voice their options first” and reserving his “judgment to the end.”
Fourth, a “diversity of approach yields the best decision”. Hill reported that “Some judges apply a strict, quasi-scientific method — separating the books into genres or styles — and some trust their gut. Executives tend to put a premium on the topic of the books (the rise of China, say, or the march of technology); journalists and writers on the panel naturally favour elegant prose. To win, business books have to satisfy those contrasting viewpoints.”
Fifth, “flexibility is important.” But more than being flexible Hill noted there was the technique of reciprocity, as articulated by Robert Cialdini who wrote about the concept in his seminal work, Pre-Suasion. Cialdini’s key thesis is “people say yes to those they owe” and Hill wrote that by “gracefully conceding on one of their choices, panelists may win reciprocal support for another.”
Sixth, use your veto power sparingly or I might say, listen, listen and listen before making up your mind and then making a decision. A team by its nature will move towards consensus. If you break that consensus with a veto, rash or otherwise, you will probably hear about it for some time to come.
Seventh, and finally, “compromise with care.” While it is certainly a requisite to listen, it is important to listen with empathy to understand the perspective of other parties and you must “strike a balance between co-operation and competition.” If you have too much empathy, you may fail to “advance your own interests.”
Hill concluded with an interesting twist. He wrote, “Sometimes a surprise contender bursts through to the shortlist of six, ahead of books that initially seemed bound to reach the final. As one judge and non-executive director told me, there are dark parallels with the way boards sometimes mishandle succession planning. A candidate for chief executive who is some board members’ favourite loses out to a less suitable rival who was their second choice. That is tolerable when only book sales are at stake, unacceptable when the future of a whole enterprise depends on the decision.”
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2017