4 Habits of a successful compliance manager

Discover the four traits that allow compliance managers to protect the organizations they serve, and to help them thrive.

November 10, 2021

At its most essential, the work of a compliance manager within a business is to help the organization meet all relevant legal and regulatory requirements. 

This allows a business or entity to protect the health and wellbeing of its employees and customers, but according to CHRON the job isn’t just about warding off problems.

“​​Many business rules and regulations can help you more than harm you. For example, rules regarding discrimination and harassment help you create a better working environment for your employees, which can lead to more worker productivity. Following safety and security rules helps prevent injuries, fires or building evacuations that hurt your profitability.”

It’s a job with a great deal of responsibility, essentially giving the business a framework of rules to operate within, almost as a referee. But whereas athletes and coaches often grow angry at referees, a compliance manager must build strong relationships in order to create buy-in.

Without effective leadership in this area, an organization could run afoul of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which ensures a safe work environment for employees, or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which guarantees discrimination-free hiring practices. You also could violate industry-specific regulations.

Those missteps can lead to costly fines and increase the liability of lawsuits. You can learn more about the ins and outs of compliance in our article, What is compliance management and why it matters to you.

The critical nature of this work explains why, according to the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Chief Legal Officer (CLO) Survey, the top concern for chief legal officers is ethics and compliance.

Now that you understand how important the role of compliance manager is, let’s explore what it takes to be effective in the role.

The work of a compliance manager

How do you define “compliance manager”? It is a role within a business or organization that is specifically tasked with keeping operations within the relevant legal and regulatory boundaries.

Of course, the actual work of a compliance manager (sometimes called a compliance project manager) varies greatly depending on the industry, the size of the organization, and other factors. 

For instance, in healthcare, a compliance manager would be concerned largely with laws and regulations regarding patient wellbeing and protecting patients’ private information. Whereas in law enforcement, the compliance manager would need to focus on issues such as code of conduct requirements for officers.

But there are a handful of key, general skills that compliance officers need:

  • Thorough understanding of laws and regulations
  • Integrity
  • Knowing the goals of the business, and how to help achieve them
  • Knowledge of threats to compliance
  • Creativity in problem solving
  • Communicating effectively
  • Measuring and quantifying outcomes

While those skills serve as a baseline for the role, there’s much more that goes into being an effective compliance manager. Our Entrust Compliance podcast spoke with Emily Davies, the professional development and training manager with the Cornell University police, and she shared the four traits that she says are essential to succeeding in compliance. 

Let’s go through these traits one by one.

1. Develop positive relationships

A compliance manager can have all of the knowledge of laws and regulations and can offer perfect guidance on operating within those boundaries, but they won’t be effective if the leaders of the organization don’t follow that advice.

So while it can seem as if the role is an entirely technical one, relationships are actually central to it, Davies said.

“I wasn't sure where to start because I was working on a completely different side of the office than all of the other civilian employees,” Davies said in the podcast. “I grew up with a lot of family in first responder roles and in law enforcement, but that did nothing for me. And I had the assumption going in that I knew what it was like…but definitely not.  

“So, I took on the responsibility for myself of building relationships with my team first, getting to know them, and seeking advice on how to get to know everybody within the department and throughout the university. And I started eating lunch with a lot of the officers on a daily basis and just listening to the problems that they were facing…and then eventually they started including me in conversations about the training aspects and things that, in general, they thought needed to change about how we were training.”

This approach speaks to being open to learning when you come into a role. Rather than thinking that you are there to teach everyone how to be compliant, you can learn about the needs of the organization and of the individual employees. You also can learn their communication styles, how to relate to them.

And once those relationships are in place, it sets you up to have a good working partnership, where you can earn the trust you need to do the job effectively.

2. Continue to learn

Even the smallest organizations can be complex, and the way that those complexities interface with laws and regulations is an even more confusing picture. It takes time to get a handle on all of the requirements of your specific compliance manager role.

The best way to approach the job, then, is to embrace that uncertainty. You need to always be learning.

“When I first came into my position, it was a huge learning curve,” Davies said. “It took nearly a year to adjust to the various training needs of the department and to learn about all aspects of the compliance software that we have, which includes PowerDMS. There were aspects that I had no idea about, such as de-escalation, use of force, domestic violence, defensive tactics, anything like that.”

Her recommendation is to look for courses, webinars, or other training offerings that you can use to supplement your knowledge of the business and industry, as well as the laws and regulations around it.

The key is to continue to seek out those knowledge-enhancing opportunities, which can be offered by your employer. Laws can change fast, and you need to stay on top of those changes in order to do your job effectively. And a business can pivot as well, which could mean moving into a new space that is governed by other regulations.

If you’re always learning, it means you’re ready to adapt when change inevitably comes.

3. Stay organized

The work of a compliance manager is inherently complex, as we covered above. There can be a great many rules and laws to navigate, and a complex operation with many moving parts. 

To keep on top of this complexity, Davies recommends staying organized. She described coming into her role and being overwhelmed even in just breaking down the massive responsibilities into first steps, rather than just having a jumbled mess.

Instead of giving in to the chaos, she created a structure, breaking her role down into smaller component parts. Then she organized each of those bit by bit, until she had a clear game plan for each focus area, and a concrete list of tasks to complete.

The second piece of organization is to analyze the work as you go. That creates defined measures and processes to record how you’re handling things, and the means to make sure you’re doing it in the correct way. 

This means utilizing reporting tools and statistics, and knowing how to record that data and how to analyze it. A policy management software such as PowerDMS allows you to run automated reports on compliance work, which can greatly speed up the process.

That analysis allows you to maintain accountability, which is critical in compliance work. It also allows you to self analyze and to explore ways to become more streamlined.

It’s also helpful to have conversations with others and to gather opinions about how the compliance work is going, but you need to have a foundation of data to have a true, unbiased evaluation of the work.

4. Be flexible

The last trait of an effective compliance manager, and the one Davies said is most important, is flexibility. 

One of the key lessons she learned on the job is that things change all the time, and there is nothing you can do to slow down or stop that change from coming. The best thing you can do is be prepared to adapt.

For instance, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, effectively every industry was forced to grapple with a host of new federal, state, and local requirements, some of which conflicted with each other. Compliance managers were tasked with figuring out what laws and regulations applied, and how to make adjustments to remain in compliance.

Davies works in law enforcement, and in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, that industry has seen the passage of new laws and states and cities pushing new requirements, particularly around use of force and accountability.

But there are also changes that occur within a business or organization. For instance, a change of the key leadership can cause significant effects throughout an operation. Leadership styles vary widely, and so one leader might be hands off, and the next might want to closely manage processes.

By being prepared to adjust on the fly, it helps you to react when changes occur and allows you to keep important tasks from being dropped or forgotten.

Final thoughts

The work of a compliance manager isn’t glamorous, and it sure isn’t easy, but it is essential to your operation. It requires relationship building, a hunger to learn, organization, and flexibility, as well as a mastery of the laws and regulations of your industry.

While this can be challenging work, it also can be greatly rewarding. As a compliance manager, you help to protect the wellbeing of employees and customers, and you safeguard your organization against lawsuits and fines.

Thankfully, there are tools available to help you in this work. A policy management software like PowerDMS can pull all of your files into one place and allow you to push updates to all employees, requiring them to study and sign off on each policy. It also can automate compliance and accreditation tasks. You can learn more about PowerDMS right here.

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