An ECI Member Profile: Jeffrey Oak, PhD, Senior Vice President and Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer-Bon Secours Health Systems

By ECI Connector posted Apr 21,2017 11:49


Keys to Success: Skillful Career Pivots, Self-Care and Mastering the Soft Skills

With just a few days before the 2017 ECI Annual Conference, I am delighted to share the highlights of my recent conversation with Jeffrey Oak, PhD., Senior Vice President and Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer at Bon Secours Health System.

From Jeff’s career path and what influenced his deliberate career pivots, to how his passion in ethics developed in the first place, to his quest to always find new and engaging hobbies, my conversation with Jeffrey Oak covered a lot of very interesting ground.

Rather than begin this piece with a narrative about Jeff’s extraordinarily impressive career (we will get to that-I promise) and the savvy transitions he executed along the way (we will get to those too), I am going to start by highlighting what Jeff has found most valuable about his involvement with the Ethics & Compliance Initiative (ECI) and what he would like everyone who reads this article to know. “ECI has been and continues to be my community of practice. It is the community of people that I relate to….interact with….to get energy….[with whom I ]share the joys and the travails of this work…It has been and continues to be an extraordinarily important community of practice for me. One of the things that I have learned in doing this role for over 20 years is the importance of resilience; [being a Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer] can be a very challenging role…it is extremely important, I have found, to give substantial attention to self-care…and part of self-care is having a community of practice…which ECI has been for me over the years.”

“The thing that I would say as I reflect on this conversation and on my career is what an extraordinary privilege it has been to serve in this role [as Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer] in several very different organizations…and the privilege comes from the trust that the CEO and the Board at Bon Secours continue to place in my role and in me as a person to help shape the culture of the organization…the privilege of dealing with extraordinarily difficult and sensitive issues…most of which nobody else in the organization knows about other than perhaps the CEO, GC and myself and working through those issues, many of which are of momentous importance to the long-term health and viability of the organization…Being in a position to influence conversation…to influence decisions…to influence the direction of the company at certain critical junctures…All organizations have defining moments….and to play an important role in conversations that really shape the culture and direction of the company, and the quality of the work experience for our employees….privilege is the word that keeps coming to mind. This is an honorable profession that can be enormously difficult and enormously gratifying…often at the same time.”

Jeffrey Oak started his career in Ethics and Compliance as an academic---by pursuing a PhD in Ethics at Yale University and networking his way into his first ethics role on a volunteer basis. The position involved helping a local community hospital to establish an Ethics Committee. At the time, Jeff was pursuing his PhD at Yale, commuting to New Haven from Orange County, NY and living in a small town. At some point, a nearby community hospital learned that a “local guy was studying ethics” and the hospital reached out to Jeff and asked him to help form the hospital’s Ethics Committee. There before him was a practical, real-life objective---to help the hospital establish an Ethics Committee---which was a stark “contrast to the highly theoretical academic work [Jeff] was doing.” From that first assignment, Jeff developed a deep affinity for the healthcare sector, or as he put it “I fell in love with healthcare.”

In career progression terms, what happened as a result of this volunteer stint helped to lay the groundwork for Jeff’s subsequent career successes. After networking into a volunteer opportunity, Jeff was subsequently asked to join the Board of Directors in his early 30s. After that, the hospital’s CEO, whom Jeff describes as “very visionary” saw the potential in Jeff. The CEO ultimately asked Jeff if he would consider doing “as a paid employee what [he had] been doing as a volunteer...” Not only would Jeff be able to continue his Ethics Committee work on a paid basis, but the CEO also asked him to run a facility.” In sum, by networking into a volunteer opportunity and becoming deeply engaged in an organization and falling in love with the subject matter of a particular industry, Jeff landed an engaging full-time job opportunity in the Ethics and Compliance space. When he accepted the role, he was told the job would be approximately “90% running the facility and 10% ethics,” but low and behold, as a result of a regulatory development, Jeff’s responsibilities shifted and soon 90% of his role was devoted to ethics and compliance.” As a result of his work, first as a volunteer and then as a paid employee, Jeff became the first Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer for a nonprofit community health system.

Jeff then went on to spend time as a consultant at a boutique firm that did a lot of ethics turnaround work. Just as he identified earlier in his career that he was passionate about ethics and that he enjoyed focusing on the healthcare sector, it was his role as a consultant that highlighted for him how much he enjoys turnaround work. His next pivot was to a position at the Veterans Administration Health System, where he became the organization’s first Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer (his second time being the first CECO). The VA Health System was grappling with some compliance challenges that had sparked Congress’ attention. In that role, Jeff “built a [Compliance and Ethics] program from scratch in a sector for which Compliance Programs were very new.”

His next pivot, from VA Health Systems to Bon Secours Health System was a particularly interesting one. Demonstrating the importance of continuously activating one’s network, Jeff had a college friend who reached out to Jeff, because the organization had just experienced a significant ethics and compliance failure: “a $120 million accounting fraud perpetrated by one individual over a seven year period.” Jeff signed on as Bon Secour’s Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer at a time that was a low point for the organization and led the turnaround of the company’s compliance and ethics function that has transformed it into a very well regarded program. In 2014 Bon Secour’s Chief Executive Officer described the company’s turnaround in the Raytheon Lecture on Business Ethics, at Bentley University’s Hoffman Center for Business Ethics.

So why ethics? What was it about the discipline that prompted Jeff to pursue a PhD degree in it? As an undergraduate, Jeff served on his college’s Student Conduct Review Board, a responsibility that required him to investigate conduct violations of fellow students. “My first year on the Board, we had a significant ethics failure that many people on campus knew about….it was extremely visible…[and] disquieting ….[the work that] I did on the student conduct Board was an exercise in understanding the norms of a residential, academic community….how we go about identifying when those norms are violated and what we do about it when that is substantiated…as a practical matter, I did not know that what I was doing as a member of the Board was ethics and compliance work…but that is what it was: analyzing community norms and expectations, mediating competing values, holding people accountable…”

Jeff’s interest in ethics and compliance work grew in graduate school as a result of meeting a professor who inspired him. “When I went to graduate school, I was fortunate enough to meet an extraordinary teacher and scholar and I took every course she offered….and she happened to be an ethicist… [that is when I] came to love the ethics discipline.”

I asked Jeff what advice he has for professionals just starting out in the ethics and compliance field. “Right now my number one priority within my organization is building a talent pipeline. Positioning the organization for the future. I think my advice to professionals interested in moving into this space is to give equal attention to both the technical dimensions of the role and the nontechnical dimensions: the so called “soft skills,” which are really quite difficult.. The nontechnical things include things like being able to stand alone….knowing when to be firm and when to be flexible…being able to communicate both in the Board Room and with entry level employees….being able to navigate an organization using both the formal channels and the informal channels….earning trust….building rapport…establishing credibility, which in my experience is the single most important success factor for an ethics and compliance officer… credibility within the organization. If you do not have that, all bets are off.”

In addition to tackling the soft skills (or perhaps as a way of successfully doing so), Jeff believes that mentorship is essential. “The importance of mentoring and apprenticeship should not be underestimated and I would encourage people starting out who want to get into this career…to find a mentor…to find someone you respect…who is effective in this role…who has credibility… and develop a relationship with them. My advice is to rely less on the books and the degrees and the certifications, as important as they are….those are the table stakes; focus on really be a student in observing and learning these non-technical skills….so called soft skills that are actually quite hard.”

As an Ethics and Compliance Officer, it can be difficult to shake the perception that you are the naysayer…the Principal’s office…the well-known villain with the inescapable theme song that everybody knows. When I asked Jeff what advice he has for CECOs working to dispel this perception of their roles, he suggested that they “find ways of being present within the organization and visible within the organization outside of [their] ethics and compliance role…you can never take off the ethics and compliance hat…but I suggest trying to find as many opportunities as possible to be engaged in the broader work of the organization so that people see that you care about other things…are able to talk about other things, besides ethics and compliance…show interest, demonstrate capabilities and prove that you have contributions to make.

As I have asked all of the ECI members whom I have had the pleasure of interviewing as part of this project, I asked Jeff what he likes to do outside the office and his answer was pretty cool. In an era in which professionals are onslaught by articles on how to be better leaders and better people, I intend to take a page from the Jeff Oak playbook and identify new ways of having fun outside the office. “My number one passion is sailing. I also play billiards once per month with a group of friends and I play a little golf…though in the last five years or so, I have been trying to learn a new way of having fun, letting down and recharging my batteries every few years . I love to cook and several years ago, I was on a quest to learn how to bake the perfect baguette. This year, I am learning how to fly fish.”

Jeffrey Oak, PhD is Senior Vice President at Bon Secours Health System, Inc. (BSHSI). Under his leadership BSHSI’s ethics and compliance helpline has been recognized as a “top ten” portal in the US; both its conflict of interest process and E&C education received best practice awards through a peer reviewed process; and the program was recognized for innovation by both EY and the Hoffman Center for Business Ethics (HCBE) at Bentley University. Jeff also provides executive oversight for philanthropy, research, policy, governance and behavioral health. He previously served as the Chief Compliance Officer with the Veterans Health Administration. 

Jeff currently serves as: Board Chair of Blumont Inc.; Board Officer of Gettysburg College; Audit and Integrity Committee Member for Trinity Health; Kallman Executive Fellow at HCBE; and Expert Review Panel member for Global Ethics and Integrity Benchmarks.  He previously served on the Board of the Health Care Compliance Association, and as President of the Yale Divinity School Alumni Board. 

He has presented or published for organizations such as: Ethics Resource Center/ECI, American Health Lawyers Association, Bentley University Global Business Ethics Symposium, American Inns of Court, the Ethics and Compliance Officer Association/ECI, and the Health Care Compliance Association. He holds a PhD in ethics from Yale.

Megan Roudebush is Chief Compliance Officer at Crescent Grove Advisors. The views expressed in this article are her own and not the views of her employer. Megan cares about integrity based leadership, sound corporate citizenship and deep civic engagement. Outside the office, Megan is engaged with the Executives' Club of Chicago, sits on the Guild Board at the Lyric Opera in Chicago and serves on the Board of the Bryn Mawr College Chicago Club. She recently joined ECI and is also a member of the National Society of Compliance Professionals (NSCP).