What is the best way for a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) to speak truth to power? How do you speak up to stop something that might cause a legal violation such as under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) or sustain serious reputational damage to your organization that could result in a significant drop in stock price? These are questions that continue to trouble CCOs and others in the compliance profession. It turns out that like almost everything else in business, it is a process. I was therefore intrigued by a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, entitled “Cultivating Everyday Courageby James R. Detert.

This is not the situation where someone raises their hand and speaks up about an issue. It is the situation where an issue has become a legal consideration or significant reputational issue. This is the precise situation that a CCO may well find themselves in. Detert’s article provides a roadmap for every CCO to put in place so that if and when they do have to stake out such a position they can do so, without losing their careers. Although the article was not written for CCOs specifically, I have adapted his findings for the compliance professional.

Detert reported on his decade long study of those who speak up in the workplace, focusing on those who did so in a way which did not destroy their careers. Detert called such employees, “competently courageous because they create the right conditions for action by establishing a strong internal reputation.” This includes several steps, improving fallback options in case things go poorly; carefully choosing their battles; determining whether a opportunity to act makes sense in light of their values, including “the timing, and their broader objectives”; it entails maximizing their odds of success by managing the messaging and their emotions; and following up to preserve relationships and maintain commitments. The author laid out five steps you should follow in the process.

Lay the Groundwork

 Detert’s research revealed that employees who speak truth to power “have often spent months or years establishing that they excel at their jobs, that they are invested in the organization, and that they’re evenhanded. They’ve demonstrated that they’re able to stand both apart from and with those whose support they need. In doing so, they’ve accumulated what psychologists call idiosyncrasy credits—a stock of goodwill derived from their history of competence and conformity—which they can cash in when challenging norms or those with more power.”

I would hope that as a CCO or compliance professional you give your best effort at all times, simply because you owe yourself, your employer and the compliance profession that effort. However, as Detert makes clear, the bank of goodwill begins with your efforts. This is true in a wide variety of areas and certainly true here as well.

Choosing Your Battles

 As with many other things in life, timing is everything. You have to pick the right time to speak truth to power. Detert notes, “not every opportunity to display courage is worth taking. Importance, of course, lies in the eye of the beholder. It depends on your goals and values and those of your colleagues, stakeholders, and the organization itself. As you gauge whether an issue is truly important, be aware of your emotional triggers; allow yourself to be informed but not held hostage by them. Also assess whether engaging in a potential battle—whatever the outcome might be—is likely to aid or hinder winning the war. Ask yourself, for example: Will securing resources to address this problem make it less likely that a higher-priority proposal will subsequently get funded?”

Drawing on your bank of goodwill, do not do so immediately. Look at what is going on around and if the timing does not look right, hold off. Look for outside events and trends that can support your efforts. Use an organizational change or the appearance of a new ally, for example. Finally, unless you conclude that taking action is necessary to integrity, prevent a legal violation such as a FCPA violation or even plant the seed of an idea, “competently courageous” people should not act before those around them are ready to take them seriously.


This is key skill of every CCO and comes into play in spades in this situation. You must have your arguments marshaled. The author stated, “competently courageous people focus primarily on three things: framing their issue in terms that the audience will relate to, making effective use of data, and managing the emotions in the room. They connect their agenda to the organization’s priorities or values, or explain how it addresses critical areas of concern for stakeholders. They ensure that decision makers feel included—not attacked or pushed aside.”

Obviously you need others to buy into your thesis but you should also work to make them feel apart of the team that will lead the organization out of the dark woods that it finds itself in. You must also keep your cool as some of the people you are speaking to will be very threatened by your comments. You should acknowledge their biases and stay calm and concentrate on simply making data-driven arguments.

Following Up

Whether it’s the devil in the details or not, it is all about execution as this is where the rubber meets the road and you must plan a follow up strategy. Of course it can be modified based upon your results but as Detert notes, “Follow-up also means continuing to pursue your agenda beyond the first big moment of action. Even when their initial steps go well, the competently courageous continue to advocate, reach out to secure resources, and make sure others deliver on promises. And when things don’t go well, they take it in stride, viewing setbacks as learning opportunities rather than hiding from the fallout or giving up.”

Detert concludes by noting these traits can be learned and the process studied so you can learn to follow it. Also do not jump in the deep end right away. Learn the traits and build up to it. Finally, “keep your values and purpose front and center. You’ll have a stronger sense of self-respect through any setbacks you face, and you’ll be less likely to regret your actions, no matter how things turn out. And by using the principles discussed in this article, you’ll increase the chances of successfully creating change, making the risks you take all the more worthwhile.” I would add, also be prepared. One thing I learned long ago as a young trial lawyer, no judge or jury will fault you for being prepared. You may be nervous, your delivery may not be perfect but if you are prepared; that preparation will shine through.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2018