If you love spy novels, mysteries, intricate who-dunits or just great writing you probably know we lost one of the greats from the second half of the 20th Century, John le Carré, the nom de plume of David Cornwell. His New York Times (NYT) obituary said of le Carré his “exquisitely nuanced, intricately plotted Cold War thrillers elevated the spy novel to high art by presenting both Western and Soviet spies as morally compromised cogs in a rotten system full of treachery, betrayal and personal tragedy”.
How great was le Carré? Graham Greene said of le Carré’s first book, the 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, “the best spy story I have ever read.” But he evolved into much more than a writer of spy novels. William F. Buckley Jr., writing in the NYT, said The Little Drummer Girl, is about spying “as ‘Madame Bovary’ is about adultery or “Crime and Punishment’ about crime.” Timothy Garton Ash wrote in The New Yorker in 1999, “Thematically, le Carré’s true subject is not spying,” It is the endlessly deceptive maze of human relations: the betrayal that is a kind of love, the lie that is a sort of truth, good men serving bad causes and bad men serving good.” Finally, Philip Roth pronounced A Perfect Spy, “the best English novel since the war”.
Yet it was his spy novels for which he will always be remembered. In them, “Le Carré upended that notion with books that portrayed British intelligence operations as cesspools of ambiguity in which right and wrong are too close to call and in which it is rarely obvious whether the ends, even if the ends are clear, justify the means.” His greatest character, George Smiley, is lonely, disillusioned whose work was “driven by budget troubles, bureaucratic power plays and the opaque machinations of politicians — men who are as likely to be betrayed by colleagues and lovers as by the enemy.”
One thing that Smiley did have in spades was the ability to listen and then ask questions. Other than the skill of listening, asking questions is about as important to the compliance practitioner as any other that can be employed. Yet, equally critical is to ask the right question, which is an issue explored Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman in their book, entitled “A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life”.
Grazer is a well-known and successful Hollywood director who has directed such movies as Splash, A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man. He believes that much of the success he has achieved is because he asks lots of questions and “Questions are a great management tool.” This is because “Asking questions elicits information” and it also “creates the space for people to raise issues they are worried about that a boss, or colleagues, may not know about.” By asking questions, you allow “people to tell a different story than the one you’re expecting.” Finally, and perhaps most significantly, “asking questions means people have to make their case for the way they want a decision to go.”
Getting your employees to not simply talk to you but tell you the truth about how they feel or what they may be thinking is a key skill for any leader. As a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO), you may find this particularly difficult in far-flung reaches of an international company. Whether you are performing a risk assessment or simply getting out of the corporate home office, you need to be able to engage employees across the globe and from a variety of cultures.
Ask open-ended questions so you will not receive back a simple yes-no answer. Some key foundational questions include, “What are you focused on? Why are you focused on that? What are you worried about? What is your plan?” By asking these or other questions, such as “What are you hoping for? What are you expecting? What’s the most important part of this for you?” as a CCO, you can get much more engagement from the people with whom you work.
Consider pursuit of a high profit deal in a high-risk geographic area. You might want to sit down with the business unit person in charge of the project and ask them, what is your plan to sign this contract and execute it, consistent with your obligations within the company’s compliance program? In doing so you are communicating two key concepts using a 360-degree approach. First, you make clear there should be a plan in place. Second, you make clear the employee is in charge of that plan. Therefore, by simply asking the question, you are communicating the employee has both the responsibility for the problem and the authority to come up with the solution. This type of approach allows those who so desire to step up to do so, as “It’s a simple quality of human nature that people prefer to choose to do things rather than be ordered to do them.”
Equally important are the values you can transmit by asking questions. If you do have to fly to China or some other local office, you do not want to be seen as the US corporate executive coming to deliver some bad news or that costs need to be cut. By asking questions you can solicit ideas to help solve problems. This is because asking questions creates the authority in people to come up with ideas, coupled with the responsibility for moving things forward. Questions create space for all kinds of ideas and the sparks to come up with those ideas. Most importantly, questions send a very clear message: “We’re willing to listen, even to ideas or suggestions or problems we weren’t expecting.” This is not about being warm or fuzzy, it is demonstrating curiosity in the employee.
You should also consider asking questions in the context of 360-degrees of communication. It really demonstrates not only a level of knowledge but that communication itself is important in every other direction in the workplace. People should ask their bosses questions. If employees feel comfortable enough to ask these questions, it allows the CCO to be clear about things that they think are clear, but, more importantly, which may not be clear at all. Finally, if a person asks a question, they most usually listen to the answer. This is because “People are more likely to consider a piece of advice, or a flat-out instruction, if they’ve asked for it in the first place.”
You too can use this simple and straight-forward technique to improve not only your leadership qualities in the compliance function but your organization’s compliance function as well. The reason that asking questions is so much better than simply giving orders is that you have a vast talented workforce you can tap into to help you do business in compliance. But the how of doing a business process that is, or should be, burned into your company can be facilitated by possibilities that are out there in your employees’ minds. 360-degrees of communications allows you to create an atmosphere where nobody is afraid to ask a question. Perhaps, equally importantly, no one is afraid to answer a question.
What is your favorite le Carré novel? For my money it was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which is perhaps the most intricately plotted (read-complicated) novel I have ever read. It was also the beneficiary to two great video adaptations. First the television series starring Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley, which I thought could never be outdone. At least until the movie version starring Gary Oldham as Smiley. Both shows are worth your time over this holiday season but I would suggest you curl with my favorite le Carré book – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.