Five Lessons Ethics & Compliance Professionals Can Learn from the World of Sports

Despite the FIFA scandal and other not-so-great news from the world of professional sports recently, it’s good to remember that sports, at their best, can be a rich source of strategies and inspiration for the business world—and for ethics and compliance professionals.

In this post, I hope to inspire us to consider and apply lessons learned from the world of sports—and in the process, help build stronger compliance teams and programs.

1. Analyze Stats to Understand Team Strengths, Weaknesses and Opportunities

“We’re not that much smarter than we used to be, even though we have much more information—and that means the real skill now is learning how to pick out the useful information from all this noise.” –Nate Silver, statistician and author of “The Signal and the Noise” and developer of PECOTA, a system for forecasting baseball performance

Any successful sports team spends a lot of time and money analyzing game films and player statistics for itself and its opponents. The best teams operate from a place of strength and make adjustments to compensate for their weaknesses. They also understand that many conditions, injuries or other variables can dramatically change the outcome on any given day.

In compliance, the E&C risk assessment serves a similar purpose. As a compliance program professional, if you don’t understand where your team’s weaknesses are, how can you improve your stats through corrections like increasing the frequency and intensity of workouts (like deploying spot training or burst learning) or swapping out a starter (like updating your code of conduct)?

Key Takeaway: Conduct regular risk assessments to better understand your program’s strengths and weaknesses, make meaningful changes and strategic course corrections—and keep what is working. 

2. Recognize That There is No “i” in Team

“Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” Vince Lombardi, former head coach of the Green Bay Packers

In team sports, many individuals must come together to ensure success—including players, coaches, team captains, fans and owners. Each person has a defined role to play and, without their contribution, the team is at risk of floundering.

Similarly, E&C teams need to be structured so that the team members—the board, senior executives, chief compliance officer and the program’s day-to-day managers—have a clear reporting structure and understand when and how to escalate issues that might arise. The SEC or DOJ will not look kindly on a compliance program where everyone is pointing fingers or responding with “I didn’t know” or “that was not my job.”

Key Takeaway: Ensure that each individual with ethics and compliance responsibilities understands their role in the bigger picture, and takes ownership for carrying out that role with integrity.

3. Set the Right Tone for Success

“A team takes on the personality of the head coach.” Ricky Williams, retired NFL running back and Heisman Trophy winner

Earlier this year, a college basketball team was sanctioned for off-court academic issues. The coach was called out for failing to “promote an atmosphere of compliance and monitor his staff and the school’s lack of control over its program.” 

In Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations (FSGO) lingo, this is the equivalent of missing the mark on creating “tone at the top.” The FSGO expects the “governing authority [to] be knowledgeable about the content and operation of the compliance and ethics program and [to] exercise reasonable oversight with respect to the implementation and effectiveness of the compliance and ethics program.”

Key Takeaway: In compliance, as in sports, the words and actions of the coach and team leaders can have a great influence on the actions of individuals—and a profound effect on program effectiveness and outcomes.

4. Practice Like it’s Game Day

“It’s not the will to win that matters—everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.” -Paul “Bear” Bryant, former head coach of the University of Alabama football team

Coaches like to say that players “play like they practice.” That means if you practice hard and smart, you are more likely to give your best on game day. A lazy practice where an athlete is going through the motions is likely to be repeated on the field. For training to be effective, not only do players have to commit, they also must practice in a way that best benefits their team. Pitchers must train differently than shortstops, and football defensive ends don’t do the same drills as players on the offensive line. 

The same kind of preparation, discipline and customization drives the best E&C training programs—and is the downfall of poor programs. Like an athlete who “phones in” a practice, training and communications that are sporadic, dull, repetitive, static or haphazard will not be effective. Furthermore, training that’s not relevant to an individual’s specific role will not be as effective as specialized training.

Key Takeaway: When employees and executives are given meaningful training, which relates to their job, challenges or company culture, they’re “practicing harder” and will be more ready on game day—a time when they must put their training into action by making an ethical business decision in a tough situation.

5. Build a Winning Culture

“You have got to develop a culture. I think the last three years all I worried about was winning rather than developing a culture. I am disappointed in myself for not developing a culture of toughness with our team.”
Bruce Weber, men’s basketball head coach, Kansas State University

Sports teams have organizational cultures too. Some teams are clearly playing “for the love of the game,” while others are being coached to “win at all costs.”

Likewise, companies with poor compliance cultures may pay lip service to integrity—yet their actions belie this commitment. Employees may see top performers who skirt or flout the rules and ignore training and other performance expectations because they “are too busy.” Or, when management suggests to sales employees that they should “get that contract at any cost” or “failure to get contract renewals will mean loss of a job” they are sending a signal that the law and policies the company values take a back seat to the bottom line. They may not actually say, “We expect you to bribe, cheat or play fast and loose with the rules,” but employees get the message.

Key Takeaway:  To have an effective compliance program, the FSGO expects an organization to, “…promote an organizational culture that encourages ethical conduct and a commitment to compliance with the law.” Companies with excellent and compliant organizational cultures are “winners,” with employees who believe that company expects them to do the right thing—and supports them in doing it—without fear of retaliation. Employees at these companies often profess their love of working there. And these companies also tend to create more business value for their stakeholders.

The Endgame

Now when the other executives and employees are spouting sports metaphors, you can be armed with your own version of what it takes to “knock one out of the park” or how “teamwork” is critical to the ultimate touchdown: an effective, culture-changing ethics and compliance program.

And remember, as Knute Rockne, former head coach of the University of Notre Dame said, “One [person] practicing sportsmanship is far better than 50 preaching it.”