Until early last year, I was in a front-office senior leadership role at one of the three big local Singaporean banks. That was when I was called up by the CEO and told: “We have a problem with our compliance department. It’s suffering from high attrition and low morale, and we’d like you to sort it out.”
My first reaction was, “I’m a banker, a business guy – I don’t know much about compliance and controls. I’m not sure I want to do this”. But he insisted that he wanted to recruit from the business to get someone who could, as clichéd as it sounds, think out of the box. So after 16 years as a corporate banker, I accepted the new role and started to manage a very large regional team from here in Singapore.
After about 12 months in the job, I now admit that he was right to recruit from the front-office. I’d like to think I’ve come up with innovative ideas in my role because I’m a naturally innovative person. But I think the fundamental reason why I’ve done well in this position is because a lot of the issues that compliance people face are caused by the front-office or at least involve the front-office in a major way.
For example, there was an attitude among bankers that compliance was an annoyance that could be passed down to my team and forgotten about. That in itself was the major problem. To solve it, I’ve made a variety of changes – all aimed at the front-office – such as upgrading compulsory compliance training and increasing the percentage that your compensation gets docked for compliance breaches. Bankers must now speak the language of compliance every day.
With the front-office so central to compliance, I think it makes sense for banks to transfer more bankers into senior leadership roles in compliance. They can bridge the two worlds. Someone who’s only worked in compliance, no matter how experienced, may not be able to do this as effectively. They wouldn’t be as adaptable and couldn’t talk the talk with the bankers so well.
I’m living proof of this. Because I came from the front office, it’s been much easier for me to defend the compliance world when I speak to the business. Conversely, I’ve told my team the reality of how our bank works: the front-office has traditionally treated compliance people like second-class citizens. I’m now working to change this. I want more front-office people to actively put their hands up to join us, but leave it up to us to decide whether they’re up to the job.
I’m trying to make jobs in compliance more inspiring. Cutting out unnecessary internal rules has helped with that. On my first week in this role last year, I was shocked my how many people – including junior folks – were stuck on a teleconference with me. Most of them didn’t need to speak, so it was a waste of their time. These days, we only have meetings with the key people, leaving the rest to get on with their work.
It’s early days, but morale and retention in my team have improved markedly here in Singapore and regionally. I now love working in compliance…who would have thought?
Henrietta Kim (not her real name) is a senior Singapore-based manager working in compliance at a local bank.
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