The below post was written by Richard Bistrong, who recently returned from a long China trip where he met with all sorts of companies to assist them in their compliance efforts. Richard is CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC and a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog (a truly great blog, BTW). In 2010 he pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to violate the FCPA and served fourteen-and-a-half months at a U.S. federal prison camp. He now consults, writes and speaks about compliance issues. He was named to Compliance Week’s list of Top Minds in 2017 and was one of Ethisphere’s 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics in 2015.
In today’s compliance environment, though we see a robust debate on what the new US administration might mean for anti-bribery compliance, the new ISO standard, and the recent DOJ “Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs” memo, those weren’t on anyone’s “what keeps me up at night” moments during my recent visits to China. Yes, those are all meaningful topics for the field of practitioners, but from conversations at graceful Buddhist restaurants (with thanks to my hosts for indulging my vegan preferences) to live engagements and panels, much of the focus was on the “what happens when local customs conflict with the rules” dilemma. And that’s not to say that there’s an inherent conflict in China between ethical business practices and commercial success, but in an emerging market environment, with a young, dynamic and engaged workforce, the challenge is daunting, and not to be ignored.
The Importance of Defining Success. Compliance programs in China, like anywhere else, address the importance of lawful and ethical conduct, but during my visits, I saw a profound focus around “how to execute on both values and objectives,” in an environment where people are extremely focused on success, and the rewards of success. This desire to succeed manifests itself in a way that’s much different in an emerging economy than in a developed one. Employment with western based brands are coveted jobs, and commercial teams are anxious to demonstrate their ability to execute on financial objectives – in other words, to succeed. But that goal driven model often widens what’s a cultural and operational disconnect between the support functions at HQ and those forward based teams which are deployed in less supervised locales. And you can’t bridge those gaps with compliance paperwork and contracts.
Servant Leadership. One executive’s initiative was to call on mid-level leadership to be “servant leaders.” That really captured my attention, as he empowered his executive teams to push power down into the organization instead of up. As defined in The Center for Servant Leadership, a “servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.” Though traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. “The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.” Yet another reminder as to why it’s so exciting to be back in the field — these are the business practices that one can only learn via immersion, and you don’t get that from the home office.
As to some more of the challenges, yes, anti-corruption was a big part of it, but not the only part. In China, corruption can intersect a work-force in both directions, as bribe payers as well as receivers. Commercial personnel who are responsible for dealer, intermediary and distributor networks might be subjected to requests for bribes, passed through those third parties to government officials — a set-up that’s familiar. But in China, employees are also exposed to the receiving side of corruption, as dealers might want to curry favor for discounts, product allocations or marketing allowances through corrupt offers.
In an environment based on relationships and hierarchy, that’s a complexity that might be hard to appreciate unless you are in front of it. It’s much more than anti-corruption compliance; it’s about ethical conduct in a broader sense, on hours and off. And those offers don’t come, or they don’t start, with brown bags of cash or numbered off-shore accounts. A dealer offering his beach flat for a holiday weekend to an employee might seem innocent enough, until a situation arises where that dealer might need a special allowance or discount. It’s a peril that often hides under the radar of friendship and association. It’s part of what’s called the “dangerous charm” of third parties. After all, who wants to say no to a friend?
That’s just part of how I engaged in a discussion where there was an appreciation and focus on how to develop a commercial workforce free of conflict of interest, and how to inspire commercial leaders to embrace their roles as brand ambassadors. And those efforts were backed up, including by my own experience, with a “you can’t hide bad conduct behind your third parties,” and “what you don’t know can hurt all of us.” We spent a lot of time sharing with the workforce how they have an obligation to know the values and integrity of the people they do business with, and not to switch their ethical radar “off” after the third-party vetting process. In China, with state investment and divestment in industry and commercial entities, risk can quickly change over the life of a relationship.
In sum, those are just a few of the elements to which I was honored to engage. Having spent the better part of ten years living and working overseas 250 days a year, this was my first visit to mainland China. It left me wanting more, to return, and to read more about China’s role in today’s global economy along with its internal struggles as to how that gets implemented. China is experiencing what I heard called the “new normal,” where the period of exponential growth is slowing down, creating yet new challenges for commercial teams to succeed in a tightening marketplace. It’s a fascinating place, I found it personally contagious, and felt privileged to play some role in how to engage and inspire China’s commercial and compliance leaders to work together as each other’s ambassadors.