As compliance and risk professionals, we are accustomed to challenge. It’s the nature of our role and becomes part of our DNA to detect tough situations; some might even say we thrive on it.

This pandemic, however, has challenged the most resilient among us. As one colleague put it to me recently—we are, for the first time, having to constantly live in the present. We can’t truly plan for the future. A great deal, perhaps most, of our business dealings and personal lives have been canceled, and all prospective commitments feel like a big question mark on the calendar.

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So how do we lead forward and impart the relevance of compliance and ethics roles in these times of uncertainty? Here are five things you can do now to survive and thrive in your organization:

1. Leverage a business mindset: Think like a business owner, not a risk leader. It’s a time to influence, not to implement. Ask yourself this question: In a time of pay cuts, furloughs, and business model disruption, what problems are my stakeholders paying me to prevent and solve? Asking this will help you stay relevant and be viewed as a strategic partner.

A few industries are experiencing a windfall of growth (and those should of course continue to increase their investment in compliance), but most are suffering. If your C-suite colleagues are making cuts, compliance will be expected to do its share. It’s important to get ahead of the game vs. being sidelined because you don’t make the right compromises. It’s more of an art rather than a science.

Consider this exercise: Think through where you can cut back without sacrificing essential functions and be ready with your “crisis plan” (e.g. temporary cutback) proposal. Come to the table before you’re asked (or told!). If cost reductions are necessary, being proactive helps to ensure you have a strong voice in the decision. 

One of my clients recently negotiated with his executive team to delay a major compliance implementation by 6 months—in exchange for an airtight promise that it would be in the 2021 budget.

Some of my clients are scaling back operating costs (e.g. reducing monitoring frequency, delaying “nice to have” enhancements like Code of Conduct or system updates) to keep their team and headcount intact. You can always buy more robust online training and compliance systems, but great compliance colleagues who know your culture and business are hard (and costly) to replace. Take a cue from startups: What does the “Minimum Viable Product” for compliance look like? If you must reduce operations, when times are good again you can ramp back up and still have the best team in place.

2. Strategize around influence and power: Double down on your network. Having a strong network is key to being informed of current business challenges and revenue-generating strategies in order to align your compliance focus and stay relevant. Make a list of your top five stakeholders. Set up time with them every couple of weeks and ask three questions: (1) What is their toughest challenge? (2) How can you help? and (3) What one thing can you do to be more effective in your role? This demonstrates many leadership skills (e.g., empathy, partnership, courage, and humility) that are always keys to success but become critical in a crisis.

3. Cultivate presence: Let gravitas center you to act from a place of strength. Some days this is easier said than done, but it’s important to boss back fear. The ability to remain calm and clearheaded while others are panicking or behaving badly inspires confidence in you as a leader. In times of extended crisis like the one we’re currently going through, publicly maintaining gravitas for long periods requires a foundation of mental fortitude and resilience. Commit to a personal strategy for refreshing your energy reserve through a deliberate practice of self-care. Get up and move between meetings, take a lunch break with your kids, listen to some of your favorite music. Set healthy limits for you and your team—don’t allow your flow to get sapped from too many Zoom meetings.

In addition to cultivating a calm presence for others, since your interactions and opportunities to show “you’ve got this” will mostly be online, it’s time to brush up your executive presence and home office tech to put your best foot forward. Adhere to such things as good lighting, positioning of your camera to be at eye level, a professional backdrop (or a good virtual one!). But take a lesson from this recent mishap illustrated on Buzzfeed News and don’t become a potato.

4. Create a culture of safety for connection. You have to meet people where they are. A lot of people are operating in fear—for their health, job security, and personal finances. As discussed in a recent HBR article, we are collectively suffering from anticipatory grief—the loss of things to come or things that may not happen. As compliance & ethics professionals, we know the importance of psychological safety for creating a speak-up culture. The pandemic has broadened our scope to encompass even more of an imperative: Safety is critical to healthy workplace culture. No one can focus on the work if this basic need is not met.

5. Be an active steward of company culture. As one CFO client told me, “The biggest surprise has been our realization that we can run this company virtually.” While perhaps not a unique realization of late (depending on your industry), the striking thing about this company is that its culture exemplifies Silicon Valley workplace culture. Yes, like the TV show: ping pong, a putting green, catered food and top-of-the-line all-you-can-eat snacks, cold brew & kombucha on tap, frequent and creative appreciation celebrations, and in-person open Q&A with the CEO. If they close or substantially reduce office locations, what will it mean for this culture when it transitions to virtual? How does that impact loyalty, communication of company values, rules of conduct, and a commitment to ethical behavior? 

With the stay-in-place guidance and employees working from home, this team’s sense of purpose and morale was in a complete slump. In a workshop, we reframed the team purpose to be one of creating community and connection, despite the physical distancing. And their ideas were off and running—virtual celebrations, rolling out an IM channel, and mailing care packages to employees for key milestones. 

While HR, finance, communications, and facilities are often the first functions engaged in this crisis, make sure you are on the pandemic response team and have a voice in the evolving company culture conversation. Who do you want your company to be when COVID-19 leaves the room?

I know I started off by saying we are living in the present and can’t truly plan for the future, but it’s important to start planning for what we already know will come next. True to our historical knowledge as compliance and ethics professionals, there will always be another crisis.

Below is a list of some trends this time and place will forever alter:

  • Increased remote work: IT infrastructures have been modified and many employees—and businesses—will prefer this going forward.
  • Intense scrutiny of business travel: We have mastered online meetings and many conferences have found ways to bring more attendees in with virtual events.
  • Conflict over what safety “looks like”: Once businesses start “re-boarding,” workplace conflict will increase over organizational and interpersonal health protocols. Workplace policies (like remote work) may need an overhaul.
  • Reliance on quantitative data (which will be easier to get) vs. qualitative (more difficult), such as evaluating truthfulness of a witness in an investigation.
  • The near-eradication of personal and professional boundaries: The increased lack of personal privacy from remote work may bring us closer, but it will also increase employment risk from the eroding of professional protocols that can increase employee relations issues, such as favoritism or unfair treatment.

Compliance needs to be thinking about these trends and how we do our job. What we do, such as helping people and organizations do the right thing, will not change, and that will be our north star through this fog.