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Thoughts on Compliance Career Risk

Last week I had a chat with a mid-career corporate audit professional. She was a terrific person — good experience, thoughtful professional, well-spoken — but also out of a job, and somewhat out of sorts. 

We’ll call my friend Jane. She had been working at a tech company that had raised an impressive amount of venture capital, and was preparing for an IPO in 2020. One of Jane’s mentors had already joined the tech company and was working in the C-suite. The mentor recruited Jane at the start of this year to put policies and procedures in place and do SOX compliance work ahead of that presumed IPO. 

Uh-oh — “presumed” IPO. You can see where this is heading.

As Jane and her mentor implemented those policies and procedures, that change in the company’s structure left some long-time employees unhappy with the new rigor and corporate culture. Eventually the founders decided not to pursue an IPO. 

Jane’s mentor subsequently left the company, and Jane (along with numerous audit colleagues) was laid off. 

Jane called me because, for the first time since she was in high school, she has no job. Yes, several recruiters have called about potential openings. Yes, she goes to professional networking events and keeps her ear to the ground. Yes, she’s had a few calls with prospective employers, who’ve seemed interested and told her to stay tuned. 

That’s not the same as actually working. For anyone accustomed to having the next job lined up before the last one ends, that’s disorienting. 

Jane called me because she wanted my take on careers in audit and compliance generally, and any advice on job seeking specifically. For example, one acquaintance said don’t bother submitting applications to an online posting, because those submissions never get read by actual people; was that true? And where do I see audit and compliance employment going in the future, that Jane can go along for the ride? 

I have conversations like this fairly often, and Jane’s recent experience strikes me as representing a few big themes compliance and audit professionals might encounter in their careers. So let’s recap what I told her. 

Career Perils and Pitfalls

First I was struck by Jane’s brush with bad luck. I hear that from a lot of mid-career compliance and audit professionals. 

That is, Company A recruits you for a lucrative job, perhaps working for someone who seems like an excellent boss. So you leave your steady gig at Company B, start working at Company A — and then a few months later, something happens that screws up your future. 

In Jane’s case, the company’s CEO suddenly understood that going from private to public is a big change, one that he didn’t want to make. So out go the IPO plans, and the pre-IPO team along with them. 

Or you leave a steady old job for a new one, and six months later your new employer sells itself to a larger rival, making your compliance function redundant. Or you’ve followed a mentor to a new company, and six months later he relocates overseas, while a new general counsel reorganizes the function and leaves you on the curb. Or your company is working under a corporate integrity agreement which comes to an end, and a new CEO decides that therefore she can eliminate the whole ethics and compliance function.

Those are all stories I’ve heard from audit and compliance professionals in the middle of their careers — people who lead teams, do projects, or set annual strategic plans for their departments. Yes, they have more impressive resumes; but they also need more impressive jobs. The newbie part of their careers, where they’re a staff auditor or attorney who can fit into a team anywhere, are long gone.

That’s difficult. Once upon a time someone once told me, “It’s more important to work for a good boss than a good company,” and I like to think that’s true — except, there comes a time in your career when it isn’t. Jane had a good boss. They both worked for a company that didn’t grasp what “Hey, let’s have an IPO!” actually meant. Look where that got them.

I call this the Landmine Economy. It’s generally good, and you can navigate career perils most of the time — but you never know when you might step on some circumstance that explodes in your face. So mid-career professionals need to be much more discriminating in the companies they work for, and the jobs they’re willing to take. 

This also means, I suspect, many mid-career professionals leaving the corporate track for self-employment, boutique firms, or other forms of employment that provide more insulation from those landmines. 

Positioning Yourself Smartly

All that said, I have no worries about Jane’s prospects. Her company gave her a respectable severance package. She has the time to reflect on what her next move should be, and how to make it. She lives in a large metro area with a diverse range of businesses.

Fundamentally, however, Jane has great prospects because she works in risk assurance, and simply ask yourself — in what future will businesses need less of that? 

My only specific piece of advice to Jane touched on that point. Her LinkedIn profile is packed to the gills with SOX compliance experience at pre- and post-IPO companies, and I said the real need from boards and C-suites will be around broader risk assurance. Those groups want more help identifying emergent risks, or building analytics programs to monitor risks. If Jane wanted to make herself more marketable for the next decade or two, I said, tack into those winds. 

As it turns out, Jane does have experience with robotic process automation, data analytics, and enterprise risk assessments, in addition to all that SOX work. So like I said, I have zero concerns about her overall career prospects. Jane personally might suffer some bad turns, or the economy might sputter for a while and hold her back — but she works in a field that senior executives will always need. The path for her or anyone else may be rocky, but the path is in a sunny, fertile field. 

Compliance officers, risk managers, internal auditors: they’re all in similar situations. Each discipline touches on only one part of risk assurance, but it does touch on risk assurance. That’s the entry point to provide more risk assurance. 

Career success is always about demonstrating how you add value to an organization larger than yourself. In our case, it’s about refashioning what you do away from executing a task (testing controls, bargaining with regulators, training employees, writing policies) toward providing a resource executive management needs: a greater awareness of the company’s overall risk posture, so that managers can make better decisions. 

So sure, the Landmine Economy poses peril to us all — but I’ll still bet that risk assurance professionals can prevail, any day of the week.

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