By Sean Freidlin
Senior Compliance Product Marketing Manager at Hanzo
The Hanzo Profiles of Excellence series interviews industry leaders in compliance, eDiscovery, investigations and risk management to learn about their experiences in the field and give them a platform to share advice. In this edition, we speak with Ling-Ling Nie, experienced ethics and compliance professional, who recently started a new role at Georgia Tech, a public research university and institute of technology in Atlanta, Georgia founded in 1885 with over 6,000 staff members and nearly 30,000 students.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, Ling-Ling. For our readers who may not know you already, let’s set the table a bit. How long have you been working in compliance, and why did you get started in the field?
Twelve years ago, when I was working in the federal government, I was asked to write a policy that clarified the concept of “misusing one’s official position.” That was my first assignment in the area of ethics and compliance. Fortunately, my boss liked my work product, and I was put on a path that eventually led me to where I am today.
After spending the last 12 years working in E&C for the government and then a public company, you recently joined Georgia Tech as their GC and VP of E&C. What can you tell us about your experience in that new role so far, and what are some of the unique new challenges and opportunities that drew you to this new chapter in your career?
I am a perpetual student, in that I look for opportunities that are new and unfamiliar so I can continue learning. I feel that it both broadens and deepens my professional experience and gives me a chance to work with experts across so many industries. It’s also very rewarding, on a personal level, to be able to develop connections with people from various backgrounds.
I came to Georgia Tech as the former Chief Compliance Officer of a Japanese technology company, and the opportunity to immerse myself in higher education, a totally new environment for me, piqued my interest. And, moving into a General Counsel role was something I had been contemplating for several months. So, the role at Georgia Tech was very appealing for all those reasons.
How will you define success in your new role, and what goals do you have for yourself that you hope to accomplish over the next 12 months?
I think that when you move into a strategic leadership role, success looks very different from when you were a junior or even senior attorney.
A successful General Counsel is a strong leader who can provide resources to her team, is a trusted advisor to the executives, and can provide not only sound and proactive legal guidance, but also meaningful insight on the broader impact of important decisions to the organization, its stakeholders, and public perception.
If you’re being called upon consistently to add value in that way, and on critical issues, I’d say that you’re on the right track.
Many compliance teams strive to build ethical cultures that make it easier for their organization to comply with policies and regulations, and in doing so, create an environment that retains talented, passionate employees. In a university setting, there’s a natural “turnover” with each graduating class of seniors and the incoming class of freshman, but also, an appetite to learn new skills. Do you feel like the fleeting nature of the collegiate experience makes a student more or less likely to follow the rules and “buy into the culture” being built on campus than someone who has years of experience in the workforce that is put in a similar situation by a compliance program?
I think people naturally want to be associated with organizations that they can be proud of, and it’s no different for students and their alma maters.
An important objective for any compliance and ethics program is to embed its values into the threads that run throughout the organization so that the output naturally embodies those ethical standards. It’s a concept that is articulated in various ways, but that’s essentially the heart of what you’re trying to do when you talk about building a strong ethical culture.
The vast majority of higher education graduates have a large amount of pride in their schools. The value of their degrees is closely tied to their schools’ reputation, which is largely built upon a foundation of ethical standards and values. So, it’s in their interest to embody that and to expect the faculty, staff, alumni, and donors to embody that.
Something I’ve observed is that a strong ethical culture actually transcends the organization itself, in that the individuals who were raised within that culture carry it with them. So, despite the transient nature of the student population, there are significant incentives and cultural forces that motivate them to make these things a priority.
From a compliance perspective, how do the expectations for students differ from the expectations held for staff members at the university and the partners it works with?
I think the expectations are the same. There is a diverse ecosystem of individuals co-existing in higher education institutions, and they all must make a commitment to behaving ethically in order to foster a strong ethical culture.
The different experiences you’ve had in the compliance field must also come with a lot of valuable lessons. What skills, whether technical or personal, do you believe a compliance officer needs in order to be effective and overcome the challenges they’ll face in their role?
A compliance and ethics officer’s job is not easy. It takes a tremendous amount of talent, leadership, judgment, and emotional intelligence to excel in the role. It’s no wonder why there are so many conferences, seminars, and publications out there to help us. I would recommend that you learn from others as much as you can and be a good mentor to those who are new and learning the ropes.
Challenges become easier to overcome when you have the support of the compliance and ethics community to rely on.
In a university setting, it’s hard not to think of things in 4-year windows. What trends, whether cultural or economic, do you think will have the most direct impact on the role of a compliance officer between the time this year’s freshman class graduates?
Because the scope of compliance and ethics programs in higher education includes not only students, but also the faculty, staff, alumni, and donors, my view isn’t limited to a four-year window. There is an army of people who work year round and over the course of decades to ensure students are getting the high-quality education that they have invested in.
So, when I think about trends, I think very broadly about how the value of a college degree has changed a lot over the last decade and how it will continue to evolve. These trends will impact the type of courses offered, the type of research that will be funded, and the type of people who will come here as educators and students.
All these factors will influence the culture of the organization, and it’s important I am closely following it so our program adapts to these changes.
Thank you for your time, Ling Ling, and congratulations again on this exciting new chapter in your career. Are there any closing thoughts you’d like to share with our readers, and if they have any questions for you, how can they reach you?
Say ‘yes’ to new adventures in life, whether they are personal or professional. Always look for the silver lining, no matter if you’re surrounded by clouds.
And if you’d like to connect, you can find me on LinkedIn.