Compliance & Ethics

Diligent Master Class for CCOs: Navigating the politics of the CCO role

September 26, 2023

This is the first blog in a 6-part series, the Diligent Master Class for CCOs (Chief Compliance Officers). Designed by CCOs who’ve built, scaled and run compliance programs for diverse industries across the globe, this is a one-of-a-kind program that provides actionable advice and frameworks for today’s compliance leaders.

Publisher Ernest Benn wrote that “politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.” Politics is the scourge of the chief compliance officer’s (CCO) role. Instead of just getting things done, alliances must be made, landmines avoided and opponents bested.

Navigating politics can be tremendously difficult, but there are actions you can take to make the labyrinth easier to get through.

Align with those possessing soft power

People often try to align with those with big titles like CEO or Chair of the Board. While these folks are critical allies, the effort spent creating goodwill with those leaders often consumes any time that could be spent cultivating other relationships. Instead of focusing only on those with fancy titles, look for people with soft power.

People with soft power can influence others because they are liked and respected. Often these are people that have been with the organization a long time. They know the ins and outs and can help you to navigate them. If you cultivate a friendship with someone with soft power, it can create a halo effect around you where the goodwill shown toward the person with soft power is extended to you.

Map out cliques and alliances

It’s important to understand the different factions that exist within the company. People often form alliances or cliques and then take the clique’s side in any argument or power struggle. There is frequently an old guard — those who’ve been in power a long time — and a new or younger set vying to take over as senior executives move on or retire.

Map out the various cliques and alliances and try to make friends with at least one person in each group. Try not to align too strongly with a particular clique unless it’s obvious that one will take power soon. By mapping out these groups, you’ll understand who is likely to influence whom and who will likely side with each other.

Ask, “How would they respond?”

When new senior leaders come in, they frequently bring other managers and administrative staff with them. When it’s time to present a new initiative, ask someone close to the new leader how the leader would likely respond. Say to a person who has known the leader for a while, “How do you think Alejandro would respond if I asked for a new headcount?” Listen carefully to the response. If the close person says Alejandro will react badly, ask what the best way to approach him would be. This information can be invaluable in prepping you for making requests. It can indicate whether or not you need to reframe your request or initiative.

Another way to navigate the politics of a new leader is to ask the person close to them about their style. Do they prefer short and snappy emails, or do they like more detail? Do they prefer charts, graphics, or words? Do they have any pet peeves in terms of communication or otherwise? Meeting a new leader as they like to be met can quickly put you on the in-team.

Listen thoughtfully

Most people are starving for attention. One of the reasons people choose factions is that they are listened to by others. If you choose to listen carefully to people’s points of view without taking sides, you’ll fulfill one of their basic needs. Be curious about each side’s point of view. Why do they feel the way they do? What benefits do they see from their point of view? If you provide a sounding board without taking sides, people are more likely to like you, which will help.

Keep your outrage out of work

Sometimes you need to vent. If someone has been rude, disrespectful, or embarrassed you in a meeting, it feels good to tell someone about it. Instead of going to someone at work to discuss the situation, force yourself to wait until you’re home or can unload to a friend or partner who doesn’t work with you. If you’re angry or sad at work and discuss that with your work friends, the likelihood is that it will get back to the person who angered or hurt you. This can come off as if you’re gossiping about them, which leads to the next strategy.

Don’t participate in gossip

Just like sharing outrage can feel good at the moment, participating in gossip can make you feel energized. It feels nice to be trusted with this type of information or share it with others. But once again, gossiping about others often gets back to them, which can create enemies.

Even if the person you’re gossiping about never hears about it, the irony is that the person you’re talking with may, at some point, likely wonder what you’re saying behind their back. There’s a famous saying: “what someone will do with you, they’ll do to you.” Avoid gossip to stay out of the vicious cycle.

Participate in dinners, birthdays and events

Avoiding participation in gossip and outrage doesn’t mean avoiding social interactions with colleagues. In fact, one of the worst things you can do to avoid politics is to fail to be known or participate in group social activities. Getting to know people at a personal level creates trust.

Search for non-work-related commonalities with those around you.

Things you may have in common could include having children, pets, a favorite sports team or vacation spot, or participation in local charities. When people know about your life outside of work, they are more likely to feel warm toward you, which can benefit you when you’re not around.

Go to drinks after work. Go to birthday lunches and celebration dinners. Make it a point to participate, even if you feel overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do. Remember that building alliances is an important part of work because politics is an essential part of work.

Navigating politics will always be a challenge, but with the right focus and attitude, it can be done more effectively. The more senior you get, the higher the stakes of getting it wrong. It’s possible to get it right, and using some of these techniques can make it easier to do so.

Now that you've learned how to built productive relationships with your colleagues, it's time to discuss how to leverage those relationships into the help and resources your team needs to succeed in our next installment, Making the case for more resources.


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