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A values statement?

My most “liked” Linkedin post of all time was the one when I announced my successful completion of my St John’s Ambulance recertification assessment as a first-aider. I posted it for two reasons. First, I dislike intensely reading posts by people telling me how they (not me) have been successful in being invited to speak at events or honoured for some reason or publishing books and articles. These are “look at me, aren’t I special” posts. Some are obviously necessary. People need to tell the world that they are still out there and relevant.  Often, they are also simple attempts to help organizers market events which makes sense as such. We all post them.

People can look up my experience and qualifications easily enough on my website. So, why is the first aid qualification so relevant? I can glibly say that it represents my true values, rather than the look at me approach. People’s physical and mental welfare matter to me much more than awards or conference invitations. There is quite a bit of truth in that.

“What do they know….?”

I like to think of myself as being intensely human. Like many others, I lifted and rewrote the “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know for the end” comment of CLR James for the last line of a chapter of my first book (the one on international arbitration). Even writing this blog, I became distracted by Mike Brearley’s fabulous lecture on James and Socrates:

The key, though, is to think beyond compliance. Maybe, it goes back to my early days at the Insurance Ombudsman Bureau, when my supervisor, the late Paul Tobias, wrote out with his fountain pen the various products with which we would be dealing. I reacted to the description of a mortgage endowment by saying a bit too loudly “I wouldn’t want to have one of those”. This was a visceral way of saying that combining three unrelated risks, investment, mortgage (even if the investment makes money, that it will not be sufficient to repay the mortgage at the end of the term) and sustainability (not being able to sustain payments over 25 years) was not a good idea. Nobody’s rulebook said any of this.

The right answer

Good compliance is not just about looking at the rulebook and regulatory guidance. We are helping people to do the right thing, something that they may not be all that interested in doing. One of the giants of the financial services industry, Fay Goddard, once described me to a bemused woman from the Consumers Association as someone who “will tell anyone regardless of who they are what is the right answer”.

That has been something of an anchor for my compliance business. This is nothing to do with my inherent virtue or lack of it. I am just not very good at dissimulating. This does not mean that I have never had my arm twisted when it should not have been. We have all had clients that we should never have had. We all make mistakes.

This “arch-ness” and willingness to say what I think regardless of whether people want to hear it has been both a source of sustainability and weakness. Ultimately, I have been right enough on enough of the big compliance calls for long enough to build credibility and keep myself sane. Unfortunately, the UK financial services industry and most of its regulators have not had a great track record on many of these concerns, all too often realizing that something has gone wrong far too late. Playing the role of Cassandra can be awfully lonely and is not a great money-making scheme.

Generally, those who most need compliance help least want it and vice versa. In my early days in business, people often told me of a latest fine as a business opportunity, only to be greeted by “It’s too late, they are already in the hands of one of big management consultancy businesses” – often the real cost of enforcement action. People are understandably reluctant to expose themselves to the risk of “I told you so” advice. I try never to say that to customers but they know that I am thinking it which is probably just as bad!

So, there have been times when what I have to offer has fallen out of fashion. People have preferred to talk to people sympathetic to what they are doing or have done in the recent past. In the past, I have turned to writing as an alternative. It is less scary to read the “right thing” than to have it delivered in person. The current fashion for speaking truth to power is usually honoured far more in the breach.

There you have it – a sort of values statement – or is it just a statement of weaknesses? You can decide.

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Contact Adam by e-mail, phone or post at:

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The Attic, 117 Priory Road, London NW6 3NN.