Compliance leader in dark blue suit sitting at his work desk

Becoming a Successful Compliance Leader: Why Soft Skills Are Just as Important as Technical Knowledge

While compliance leaders must have an abundance of technical prowess, truly successful compliance executives today are the ones that seamlessly blend hard with soft skills.

As a complex role that wears numerous hats, balancing both skill sets enable compliance personnel to get people at all levels (and in particular, major company stakeholders) on board with controls, procedures, and policies and strengthen their positioning as valuable and impactful players in the operations of an organization – not just ones that checks boxes.

Below are the top soft skills that can make or break a compliance leader in 2022 and should be kept top of mind in order to really hone their craft.

Skill #1: Driving effective communication by listening, not just talking

A compliance leader must manage their own team and convey the importance of every department’s compliance responsibilities. A leader who doesn’t listen is likely to get a lot of meaningless “OK’s,” but ultimately find that compliance controls aren’t actually being implemented at all. Since the efforts of every individual contribute to a company’s compliance posture, effective communication and the ability to actively listen to various department heads (all with different needs and functions) helps assure that each department has their say in the process and doesn’t feel that compliance responsibilities are being foisted on them. Individuals who feel understood are much more likely to support a leader in reaching a goal—because it becomes their goal, too.

Skill #2: Being able to motivate others, at all levels

Along with the ability to listen, absorb, and communicate effectively comes the skill to successfully motivate others. A compliance leader who fails to motivate employees will likely experience major gaps in their programs because of people not taking their compliance responsibilities seriously.

So, how does a successful leader inspire another department to provide their full support? Often, this requires understanding how controls benefit that department, aside from their overall compliance purpose. The more relevant and valued a control is to a department, the more motivated they will be to implement and map against it. In addition, acknowledging a department’s efforts—when an audit is successfully completed, for example—lets them see that their efforts are warranted and appreciated, and helps motivate them to fulfill their compliance responsibilities on a continual basis.

The most inspirational of compliance leaders is one that conveys the importance of their work to senior management. Company leadership determines the risk tolerance of their business, and they fund the compliance leader’s efforts accordingly. Any compliance leader who can quantify the risks they mitigate and the contributions they make to overall company growth will be primed to have a seat at the executive table. It’s therefore critical for compliance talent to  showcase how compliance can optimize (versus hinder) operations and future scale – if and only if – it is part of the very fabric of the brand versus an add-on or afterthought.

Thus, the successful leader can motivate and inspire even people who don’t typically answer to them.

Skill #3: Getting the details right

In security compliance, seemingly small details matter most. A small but overlooked error can lead to large data breaches and millions of dollars in damages. Recognizing this, a successful compliance leader masters the intricacies that go into creating a complete compliance system. They want to know:

  • The details that make up every department’s processes
  • Precisely how controls are structured
  • What gaps lie within policies
  • The requirements of every framework adopted by the company
  • The modern tools and techniques, such as cross-mapping frameworks, that make compliance both more flexible and more rigorous
  • And whatever else they need to know to reduce the possibility of compliance gaps

Skill #4: Understanding the intricate workings of organizational departments

Compliance leaders need a deep understanding of the workings of other departments in order to implement proper compliance controls. In addition, in order to get members of another department to be responsible for running the controls, the leader needs to be able to speak that department’s language – understanding how they work, their pain points, and their pressures.

This kind of sensitivity isn’t achieved right away; rather, it’s learned over time with the right amount of effort. But it makes all the difference in creating the kinds of relationships that strengthen compliance company-wide if and when achieved.

Skill #5: Knowing exactly when to be decisive and when to wait

In a perfect world, a compliance leader has all the information they need to make a decision and an infinite amount of time to make it. But the real world tosses out partial information, fast-changing situations, and unexpected deadlines. A successful compliance leader knows when to make a decision despite a sub-optimal level of information, and when to hold off.

Skill #6: Recognizing the need to continuously learn

A compliance ecosystem is a field of constantly moving targets. Company systems, third-party partners, and security threats are just a few of the elements that are continuously changing. Not to mention the frameworks that a company adopts — whether there are changes in an existing framework, or the new requirements upon adopting a new framework.

Above all, a successful compliance leader will continuously update their knowledge about changes inside and outside their business and determine how those shifts affect their compliance responsibilities. But they won’t stop there, and those leaders will also make sure to train their teams and other departments, to make them just as aware and prepared.

Compliance would be so much easier if checking boxes did the trick. But it doesn’t, and a successful compliance leader would never want a job like that, anyway. With the right soft skills, compliance leaders can leverage their technical excellence to spotlight compliance as a growth enabler for a company and make other stakeholders willing and supportive participants in its compliance ecosystem.


Co-founder and CEO at anecdotes