7 Habits for compliance professionals

Stephen R. Covey was one of the most prominent authors of leadership, self-improvement, and motivational books and speeches of the 20th century. Though the businessman, author, educator, and speaker passed away in 2012, his well-known writings are still influential and insightful for the current generation of managers, students, and thinkers. The teachings from Covey’s books can be applied in many fields of life – business, family, religion, and community, lending heavily to his continued popularity with a wide variety of people. Not simply positioned as self-help, Covey emphasized ethics and distinct definitions of both values and principles, as separate concepts that independently influence people’s behaviors and decision-making.

Due to these emphases, Covey’s writing is specifically interesting and useful for compliance professionals looking for a novel way to approach imbedding into a corporate culture both individual values – which one could see as ethics or morality – and organizational principles – which one could see as compliance program requirements and goals. Covey’s teachings often touch upon the value of inner success, rejecting external competitive measures as the true sign of achievement in favor of emphasizing personal mission statements and progressive goal-setting to allow an individual or an organization to go from immature dependence, through self-sufficient independence, into the higher state of functioning interdependence with others. This strategic vision has a high affinity with the sort of planning compliance officers must do to encourage a successful culture of compliance.

Arguably, Covey’s best-known book is the worldwide best-seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This book is not only a worldwide best-seller that gains new fans every year for its simple and timeless insights on how to work toward, achieve, and sustain inner success, but it is also the Covey book which is most applicable for compliance professionals to study and take into consideration in the course of their work.

Taken individually, each of the 7 Habits endorses values and principles and encourages conduct in support of those, which are useful for compliance risk awareness both in planning program priorities by the compliance officer as well as encouraging awareness and fostering integrity for individuals and organizations.

Steven R. Covey’s famous 7 Habits, annotated with suggestions for their applicability to corporate compliance and ethics programs, are as follows:

  1. Be Proactive – This is the first of three Habits that focus on maturing from dependence to independence, a process also referred to by Covey as self-mastery. This Habit introduces the concepts of Circle of Influence, one’s effective community – in a business perspective, partners, stakeholders, and clients or served parties – and Circle of Concern, where problems happen and dysfunction or distrust can stymy success and achievement.
  2. Begin with the End in Mind – Simply put, this Habit calls upon individuals and organizations to be devoted planners. Once the plan is set, apply with dedication to following it, in on-going and careful review of its efficacy and currency. Planning is a fundamental component of any successful compliance program. Setting goals and priorities for the program is necessary to encourage informed business buy-in and checking these goals and priorities on a continuous basis helps to keep them grounded in reality and responsive to evolving business and regulatory demands.
  3. Put First Things First – This Habit identifies the difference between leadership and management, a crucial dichotomy for the encouragement of both ethical leadership and adequate supervision, which are equally necessary in order to model conduct expectations and ensure progress in one’s mission. Covey says that leadership in society requires personal vision and for the individual to embrace the importance of character ethic, or internal personal qualities such as ethics, honesty, and loyalty, rather than personality ethic, or external personal qualities such as popularity or other short-term human interaction traits.
  4. Think WinWin – This is the first of three Habits that focus on interdependence, offering tips for working with others. In a service function such as compliance, working together effectively to establish a consistent and open relationship-based approach to risk management is crucial. Likewise, it is important for individuals to appreciate the importance of interdependence also, to see that their individual actions are significant in the overall scheme of the compliance program and to appreciate the importance of accountability, driving them to discuss dilemmas and enhance understanding. Finally, from an organizational perspective interdependence is also very important, driving home the cultural significance of corporate social responsibility and even political engagement in establishing corporate values and creating an identity and purpose in society.
  5. See First to Understand, Then to be Understood – This Habit focuses on the importance of listening for genuine understanding in order to build trust and promote personal credibility. Of particular importance are the Greek philosophy concepts of Ethos, the trust individuals inspire or in Covey’s words their Emotional Bank Accounts; Pathos, aligning and communicating with others and their own emotional trust; and Logos, the reasoning that must be included in communicating with and considering the trustworthiness of others, while projecting your own. Check back in the future for an blog post dedicated to the important concept of Emotional Bank Accounts.
  6. Synergize – This Habit reinforces the key interdependent competency of teamwork. Set goals together and achieve and maintain them together as well. In compliance terms, establishing trust and transparency as key values requires a cooperative commitment to supporting these individual values in the organizational principles that are established, be it via a corporate mission statement or through business strategy and growth plans.
  7. Sharpen the Saw – This final Habit focuses on personal and interpersonal continuous improvement. Balance is key to contended success in both life and business; no achievement attained with disrespect for resources it requires can be sustainable. In order to be truly successful, renewal and sustainability are the most important priorities. Continuous improvement for a compliance program or a company’s corporate values requires continuing risk re-assessments and a rolling plan for how to implement and refine compliance planning and communication.

For an in-depth look at Stephen R. Covey’s work and legacy, check out this official website maintained by the Covey Family. And for an entertaining take on the book, watch this animated book review of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

How to make voluntary engagement with compliance values meaningful

A pure rules-based approach to compliance is direct and clear-cut, but by design lacks emotional or personal engagement. Following rules of all kinds – legal, community-based, household; practical, austere, illogical – is a social norm most humans are taught from their earliest memories. Despite this, many of them do not do it very well even with the best intentions, and still more never intend to attempt adherence.

To have any expectation that rules will be credible and inspire understanding and respect, there must be an authentic and compelling “why,” a purpose that people feels relates to them and calls for their commitment. Many laws are so deeply linked to societal expectations and taboos that the majority of people do not need to be persuaded to appreciate them – restrictions against pre-meditated murder, property theft, and abuse of animals for example. Those who remain unconvinced these acts should be prohibited and punished are not likely to view violating laws as something offensive or damaging either.

Sincere attempts to reach individuals who are antipathetic toward all rules, however few or rare they may actually be in society, with a rationale rooted in values are not likely to prevail. In general a values-based approach can be very powerful and evocative, but in order for it to hold personal appeal it must strike a difficult balance between universal relatability and individual accountability. All organizations should define their values and position their strategy and public branding within that set of principles, but this is delicate. If the values are too specific then they will be exclusionary rather than engaging, appealing only to a core group of true believers rather than attracting a wider audience. If the values are too broad, however, then they will be superficial and ring empty – again preventing individuals from attaching to them and being their standard bearers.

An especially effective tactic for bridging this gap is to make corporate values a living artifact which reflect the organization as it grows and changes along with business and society. In an ambitious and forward-looking organization, the profile and strategy will evolve and so should the outlook of what matters most in defining its purpose. Using a rules-based approach to provide both the floor and the roof for the terms of the corporate mission statement, values can fill the space between and invite everyone – employees, partners, stakeholders alike – inside.

There are many mechanisms through which corporate compliance programs can appeal to employees to make the connection between rules and values. Inspiring voluntary compliance, where employees feel aware of and responsible for the values of the compliance program and connect to them individually, adds weight to the mandatory compliance expected by the rules. Increasing the relatability of the requirements with principles behind them gives people incentive to sign on and go along with the compliance program. Compliance programs can aim to encourage ongoing employee adhesion to the organization’s values-based approach in the following ways, ranging from the lightest touch to the heaviest:

  • Nudges: Simply put, make it possible for employees to make ethical choices by expressing values that promote this and building decision-points into the processes they encounter in their working experiences which reflect those values. Business strategy should coincide with business values, and if it does not, then actions such as setting new standards client acceptance or exiting and reassessing product offerings or market participation are natural consequences of trying to bring the two together. In order for employees to make choices that reflect both individual and organizational integrity, the procedures and standards within which they work should facilitate and support this type of decision-making. Doing the right thing should always be accessible and indeed prompted.
  • Codes: While nudges make values implicit and leave the decision ultimately in the employee’s hands, in codes values are explicit and expectations for adherence to them are formalized. Codes can take a variety of formats, and in some industries regulatory requirements may dictate their scope and even content, but generally speaking, the more concise and accessible the better. Employees at all levels should be able to read, understand, and engage with the code, whether it dictates ethics, conduct, or both, and they should be able to retrieve, review, and ask questions about it whenever they want. A code document should be updated on an ad-hoc basis and reviewed regularly, and it should be seen as a living record of the specific values of the organization which underlie all other policies and procedures in place.
  • Attestations: Once a code is available, employees can be asked to attest to their compliance with it. This can take a very simple form, even just a one-liner of “I attest that I have been in compliance with the requirements set forth in the Code as of the below date.” This can be done once per year (or other regular period of choice) or on an ad-hoc basis. Asking an employee to attest to adherence prompts self-reflection and may also create a space for questions or dilemma discussions, which are important tools for ensuring awareness.
  • Warnings: Warnings may sound punitive, but in reality they can just be reminders. Unlike attestations, which look backwards and ask employees to self-assess based on their past behavior, warnings would accompany present choices or activities. For example, an expense claim form might include a statement on it reminding the submitter that the data on the form should be accurately and honestly reported, and that there are certain expenses which may not be reimbursable or permitted. Providing these warnings at the time the employee is going to take action that checks compliance values brings together all the previous methods – it provides a nudge, makes expectations explicit, and directly asks the employee to consider ethical obligations when making choices in the course of the task.
  • Oaths: Oaths take the most advanced step of ensuring that employees comply with the ethical and compliance expectations of their profession by asking that they voluntarily submit to discipline should they violate these. This submission is by taking an oath and signing it, typically with witnesses and even a level of formalization or ceremony in order to underscore the significance of the commitment and the seriousness of trespassing against it with future misconduct. A very interesting example of a professional oath is the Banker’s Oath in the Netherlands, which is intended to restore trust in the financial sector and banks specifically by requiring that every Dutch employee take an oath to comply with uniform ethical guidelines. To read more about the Banker’s Oath, visit the website of the Dutch independent organization Foundation for Banking Ethics Enforcement (FBEE).

The above methods for encouraging voluntary compliance can be employed by compliance professionals simply and powerfully in routine compliance communications and awareness initiatives. Reminding employees of values – the purpose – helps to heighten the credibility and appeal of rules – the requirement – and provide a mission perspective to their engagement in the compliance program.