There is a saying that posits, “Only a fool thinks he knows everything.” This is true, but nowadays we do have more knowledge (and when we are stuck, we can always ask Google).

Of course, not even Google knows everything. So, what does the modern compliance officer need to know, and how might the phrase “I don’t know” be considered a strong alternative?

The strength is in part reflective of the courage to admit a lack of knowledge. Some people may pretend to know because of a perceived weakness based upon lack of knowledge. I have always been comfortable with saying “I don’t know,” as it has helped me to learn and sometimes aided me in eliciting the truth and detecting fraud.

As a young police officer I craved knowledge, because in criminal investigations knowledge really is power. I learned from older and wiser officers who shared their experience and expertise with me and other younger officers. For sure, there were those who would ridicule those who lacked what they perceived to be basic knowledge, but smart people adhere to the practice of knowledge sharing and subscribe to the school of thought advocating there is no such thing as a stupid question.

Upon leaving the police service and embarking upon a new career as a financial crime compliance officer within wholesale banking, I succeeded as a result of my lack of knowledge, because all too often I did not have a clue as to what people were talking about. There were far too many three-letter abbreviations, so I made notes and made lists, to which my mentors provided answers, full text, and context.

Fraudsters and errant bankers often seek to intimidate people, be they victims or compliance officers, by suggesting a lack of knowledge is a weakness or a deficiency. Thus, fraudsters seek out weaker people who determine not to say “I don’t know what you are talking about,” or “I don’t understand.” Think for a moment: If a fraud does not actually have a legitimate process or outcome, it cannot be explained. This was the case with Bernie Madoff and whistleblower Harry Markopolos, who discovered it was not possible for Madoff Investment Securities to operate the proposed investment strategy, leading him to conclude it was a fraud.

Markopolos wrote and published a paper titled, “The World’s Largest Hedge Fund is a Fraud.” He met with officers from the Securities and Exchange Commission and explained his findings were based upon some complex mathematics. The SEC officers did not understand and were wrong not to admit this. Consequently, the fraud continued for many more years, until Madoff gave himself up because he ran out of money and victims.

Markopolos later wrote a book titled “No One Would Listen,” pursuant to which Senators Chris Dodd and Barney Frank introduced legislation to make sure the SEC did listen and would in the future reward whistleblowers for reporting fraudsters like Madoff. Imagine what the outcome could have been if only of the SEC officers said, “I don’t know how the math works, or how you conclude this is a fraud, but please explain it to me.”

We all know we should assume nothing. We draw strength from the knowledge we have, which gives us the confidence to confront situations; challenge people; and seek out answers, explanations, and details when we come across areas where we do not know how things operate.

I finish with a quote from musician Frank Zappa, who said, “A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.” I know what I know, and I know there are a lot of things I don’t know. Importantly, I am both comfortable and confident is saying this. In addition, as I am now a little older and wiser, it is now my turn to share my knowledge and experiences with others, including you and other readers. In the event you too are sagacious, please remember the times when you didn’t know what you know now and share this with other, younger compliance colleagues.