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Why Compliance Teams Should Consider Hiring ‘Generalists’

Do you need to fill a new position in your compliance team? Here’s why to consider hiring a generalist over of a compliance specialist.

by Moritz Homann 3 min

    It’s the beginning of 2020, and let’s assume you plan to expand your Compliance team. A new Compliance Manager is to be hired, and you have already received two applications. Person A has majored in Law, spent some years in a big law firm, specializes in antitrust cases and has Compliance-related certificates. Person B has majored in Sociology, spent some time in a startup in Marketing, has worked as a Sales Manager in a software company, and has no apparent Compliance experience.

    An obvious choice? Maybe not. In his New York Times bestseller “Range”, David Epstein creates a strong argument why in many cases generalists have skills that specialists don’t. He deconstructs the notion that employees and scientists need to find their specialty early on in their career and then practice to make sure they don’t lose the race against their specialized peers. Epstein’s argument: some of the most important discoveries and innovations in the world would not have happened without people acquiring broad and general knowledge and experiences instead of deep and narrow ones.

    Compliance Teams Nowadays Face Multiple Challenges

    What does this mean for Compliance? Compliance is moving away from a “tick box” mentality to an ethics-based approach that focuses on culture. Compliance needs to be integrated into the company’s processes and business models. The Compliance team needs to understand what drives different business areas and be able to put itself in the shoes of colleagues in sales, marketing, accounting, management, R&D, IT to name a few. Each of these departments deal with very different challenges. The best Compliance teams understand these different challenges and make compliance relevant to different roles by tailoring communication, processes and standards to them.

    Now, this does not mean that candidates with a legal background or a narrow specialization are not able to take on other perspectives. It only means that candidates should not be dismissed just because their CV does not include Compliance buzzwords or a law diploma. They might in fact be the addition a Compliance team needs to add a fresh perspective, to bring experience that the current team doesn’t have, or to challenge ‘we have always been doing it this way’.

    Hiring a Diverse Compliance Team Helps to Create a Wider Perspective

    Some companies have already started to diversify their Compliance teams. They put together teams of political scientists, sociologists, economists, people with backgrounds in marketing, journalism or sales. This enables a broader perspective and better answers to questions like: how do digital, disruptive business models work? How should a communication campaign be designed to achieve maximum impact among our employees? How does the media work and how would certain events be perceived by the public? How should we measure success in Compliance, and how can we acquire the necessary data?

    In addition to their knowledge and experience, people with diverse backgrounds can support stakeholder engagement. For example, a Compliance Officer who has worked as a Sales Manager before is likely to find common ground with the Sales team. They will share similar experiences and understand each other’s mindset. This helps the Compliance team to better connect, understand their colleagues’ daily tasks and challenges and ensures the Compliance team isn’t working in an ivory tower.

    You might say that having generalists on the compliance team is all well and good for large companies with significant resources at their disposal. For companies with more limited resources, they essentially face a choice. Do they have a short term need that requires specific compliance expertise or would they prefer to hire a generalist with diverse experience who is passionate about compliance and will take the necessary qualifications? The latter choice requires some courage: if the generalist underperforms, questions about why this person was chosen over the experienced legal professional, who might have looked better on paper, may arise. On the flip side, a team of very-specialized legal experts could fail to connect with employees and therefore be less effective. As a lot of research has shown across different fields, diversity is strength.


    So, for the next position you need to fill in your Compliance team keep an eye out for less obvious candidates. Try to identify different or diverse backgrounds that would add value to your team. With the right values and experience, the person can be provided with specific compliance training on the job. What they might not have in compliance expertise, they will be bring in creativity, empathy and out-of-the-box thinking – all essential to increasing the positive impact of compliance teams.

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    Moritz Homann
    Moritz Homann

    Managing Director Corporate Compliance – EQS Group | Moritz Homann is responsible for the department of Corporate Compliance products at EQS Group. In this function, he oversees the strategic development of digital workflow solutions tailored to meet the needs of Compliance Officers around the world.