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A Commando Approach to Compliance: Get Your Board on Board

By Pauline Blondet (Updated )

As a compliance professional, you need to secure the necessary resources and support from many stakeholders, in particular—at the top. To reach that objective, you must convince your board and top management that you and your compliance mission make business sense!

We all agree that compliance is such a strategic issue that it deserves top management’s utmost and undivided attention. But the truth is sometimes they are looking at their phones a bit too much when you come to present your quarterly update.

It’s also worth noting that top-level executives are a tricky audience: they have very short attention spans, high tolerance to stress, and complex and diverse decision drivers.

Today, let’s take a blunt look at how we approach our job, including convincing top management. How would YOU feel if you had to listen to a laundry list of initiatives and look at ugly slides with far too many words on it? This is how to master getting your board on board with compliance.

1. Be clear on your core underlying message

Your compliance program is about protecting the company as well as its management and employees from regulatory and reputational risk. Compliance is a company-wide initiative, and you are the project manager of this global project, which involves many functions and stakeholders. You cannot and should not do it alone.

We see a slight drift from that principle in many companies, where compliance tends to be seen as compliance’s problem, rather than a company-wide initiative which is everybody’s business. Avoid that drift at all costs.

Very concretely, make sure to remind top management regularly that compliance is their business. When you underline a problem or a need, it is not your problem or need, it is a company problem or need and should be addressed as such, involving the relevant functions and stakeholders. This works both ways, of course, when you underline a success or progress, make sure to underline that it is a company-wide achievement!  

2. Prepare for an impactful performance

Every single time you speak to your board, you want to be impactful. Take a few minutes to write down some bullet points about what you want to achieve (e.g. support, more resources, engagement, a decision on a business partner or on starting to do business in a risky country) and keep your objective in mind while organizing your content. Remember that less is more. Carefully gauge what is relevant to top management and provide them with the big picture.

The way your message is presented is as important as the message itself. Abide by the one slide = one idea principle. Your deck should be visual to support what you say, rather than containing all you will say. If you need to write down what you will say, do it in the Note sections of your powerpoint rather than on the slide itself, or distribute readouts. Don’t try to impress your board with a laundry list of ways your compliance program adds value; focus on the core message and present it succinctly.

3. A gentle disruption goes a long way

You need to speak to the reptilian brain of your audience and retain their attention extremely quickly. This happens when the level of novelty is high.

As Olen Klaff puts it in his thought triggering book Pitch Anything, your message has a few seconds to be classified by your audience as follows:

  1. If it’s not dangerous, ignore it.
  2. If it’s not new and exciting, ignore it.
  3. If it is new, summarize it as quickly as possible—and forget about the details.

As a result, “unless your message is presented in such a way that the crocodile brain views it to be new and exciting—it is going to be ignored’”

You want to gently disrupt while avoiding triggering the fear circuits caused by big chunks of abstract information and lack of visual cues, which will create a fight or flight response (i.e., have them want to either attack you or leave the room).

Keep your message about your compliance initiatives high level, concrete, and fact-based. It's an opportunity to speak their language with high-level metrics and KPIs and present highly contrasting options to choose from.

4. Deliver with style

Make sure to keep your eyes on the prize while speaking.

Refresh your mind on Marjorie North’s Ten Tips for Improving your Public Speaking Skills, and in particular, remember to abide by the following principles:

  • Your speech is about your audience, not about you: be on the lookout for your board reactions, in particular, their body language (arms crossed, legs crossed, back pushed in the chairs...) to adjust your message along the way
  • Don’t read! How could you interact with your audience if you are reading your slides or your notes? Well, that means you will need to know your topic well!
  • Be yourself and be likable, remember to smile and use humor. And if you need to be convinced on the tremendous powers of a simple smile, watch this inspiring Ted talk delivered by Ron Gutman on the hidden power of smiling. Smiling to your board will not only make them like you and help overcome adverse reactions, but it will also make you appear more competent!

5. Remember that you are selling an outstanding product - compliance!

At the end of the day, it is about selling what you do. As compliance professionals, this tends to challenge us, as we like to see ourselves as experts and we take pride in this expertise. Let’s drop the pride, we all are “in the business of selling compliance” as Kristy Grant-Hart puts it in How to be a Wildly Effective Compliance Officer.

As she explains in her book, you are selling an amazing product! Your compliance program is about protecting the company from regulatory and reputational risk, it may not be perfect just yet, but if you are given the means and resources to develop it enough, it will not only avoid fines and prison but have a sustainable and deep cultural impact, maintain the company’s reputation, protect its bottom line and help secure the future of business.

So when you go into these meetings, you are going there with the objective of getting the support and resources you need to deliver on your vision. Being wholeheartedly enthusiastic about the benefits of your product and the meaning of your mission will create so much engagement and make your sell natural!

A Commando Approach to Compliance

In case you didn’t catch the introductory post, Key Compliance Challenges from the Field: Meet GAN’s Newest Expert, I wanted to fill you in on what ‘A Commando Approach to Compliance’ is all about. In short: it is a blog series that will focus on the very concrete challenges compliance officers face in their day-to-day lives. The commando aspect of this title refers to the diligent and proactive approach that I believe drives the best results for compliance leaders. This blog series aims to address some of the most common but least addressed hurdles that compliance professionals strive to overcome. Sign up for our newsletter to ensure you are up to date on the latest commando blog posts!

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