This article was originally published on LinkedIN by ECI's CEO, Pat Harned. Follow her on Twitter at @PatriciaHarned
It’s not every day that opportunity arises to have a one-on-one conversation with a White House Cabinet official. In fact for me, it has only happened once before. So suffice it to say that I was pretty nervous when, at the Annual Conference of the Ethics & Compliance Initiative (ECI), I sat down with Attorney General Jeff Sessions to ask a few questions in follow-up to his keynote address.
Adding to the weight of the moment was the fact that I spoke with the Attorney General in the presence of a large audience. Among them there were a number of thought leaders whose opinions I deeply respect. Without question, the audience held a wide range of opinions and views about the best possible outcome for the conversation we were to have.
In a previous article I elaborated on ECI’s invitation to the Attorney General to speak at our conference. Our goals were to introduce the new leader of the DoJ to the E&C community; to have a dialogue about the priorities of his Department; and to gauge the impact that this administration will have on the work we do.
A number of articles have already been written to recount both his formal remarks and the informal exchange that the Attorney General and I had that day. You likely already know the important points Sessions made:
- The Department of Justice will continue to vigorously prosecute white collar and economic crime, especially with regard to enforcement of the FCPA.
- The Department will maintain its emphasis on the prosecution of individuals, and to that end it expects timely disclosures and investigations from corporations.
- The Department intends to continue its cooperative enforcement efforts with officials in other countries, particularly because it has an interest in helping to establish a level playing field for U.S. business in all regions of the world.
- Attorney General Sessions acknowledged the impact that an effective E&C program can have on an organization, and he expressed interest in hearing about ways the Department can do more to incentivize high quality programs.
For an industry hungry to know about the new administration’s priorities with respect to enforcement of white collar and economic crime, the Attorney General gave us a pretty good sense of his perspective.
My Two Cents
Now that the conference is over, I’ve been asked several times about my personal view of the event. I’ve found myself talking more about my experience behind the scenes than the dialogue that people saw on stage. A few things struck me about the Attorney General that I think are characteristic of the challenges that every high level executive faces. Regardless of the politics, I was struck by the need for:
- Performance under immense pressure. When he arrived at our venue, Sessions was led immediately to a private room where he never had a single moment of privacy. He met a small delegation of ECI directors. He stood for pictures, and a tech crew saddled him with a microphone. From there he was led directly to the stage. He calmly stood before an audience representing a wide distribution of friendlies and enemies. Virtually every major news source was represented and the cameras were on. The entire experience was non-stop, and I’ll just say that I felt the pressure even though my role was far less consequential.
- Messaging in a single moment. Surely the Attorney General knew that this oration — his first public speech about the DoJ’s priorities for white collar crime enforcement — was weighty. I am also certain he knew many people were inclined to dislike what he said from the moment he said it. Sure, he had prepared remarks to make the key points, but when we sat down for the Q&A together, the Attorney General had no notes. What struck me was his ability to deliver strong statements in sound bites that people would remember and the media would perpetuate. He responded in a manner that got his message across in a way that would linger.
- Personality and purposefulness. What surprised me most was the fact that the Attorney General was engaging and — dare I say it — fun to talk to. He was talkative and lighthearted. He got so excited that he sat up in his chair and interrupted my questions when he thought of another point he wanted to make. He shared a little bit about himself, and even admitted some of his faults. He was likable, and it was impactive. He said some important things, but his delivery is what has stayed with me.
To me, the most encouraging thing about the experience was the fact that the Attorney General expressed personal interest in joining a series of meetings to talk further about the role of — and challenges for — ethics and compliance professionals. I think he was serious about that offer. And trust me; I will hold him to his commitment. The ECI is already working with the Department to open this dialogue.
No doubt the audience left with the same array of opinion about the man and the administration as they had when they entered. But overall, I believe there was widespread agreement that as an E&C community, we had accomplished our goals by engaging with Attorney General Sessions that day. We did right by our organizations and our profession.