20140214 Why I love my job.

I’m feeling all loved up this morning and it’s not just because it’s Valentine’s Day. Sitting in my study, looking out across the rooftops of Kuala Lumpur to the Petronas Twin Towers glinting in the early morning sun, the birds chirping (there are no trees so they nest high in the building – about 10 metres away from me) and, because most of the heavy work has been done, the air is clear of both noise and dust from the construction that has turned my part of the city something reminiscent of Hong Kong in the 1980s. Far below me, there’s a Chinese Temple and today is the 15th day of New Year. So far this morning, the glorious melting pot that is central KL has given me the call for prayer from the nearby mosque, the call to mass from the nearby church and the drums and fireworks that are designed not to call but to repel evil spirits as the New Year finally gets underway after two weeks of festival. I’m one of, in global terms, the lucky few who gets to live where he loves to live.

That’s not all that’s right with my world. What I do for a living is really rather nice, too. I’m in a very privileged position. I’m not stuck with the detritus that lands on the desks of Money Laundering Risk Officers or compliance officers. I have the luxury of time to sit and think and I don’t have a whole company bleating at me that I’m preventing them making money. I don’t have directors that demand to know why I have ever-increasing need for budget when they can’t see anything feeding to the bottom line except a nebulous “if we don’t spend it, there’s a chance we’ll get fined far more.” And I don’t have regulators demanding ever-more complex reports.

I’m lucky because my “audience” is, mostly, educated and clever. You, mostly, know that knowledge is not the same as intelligence.

You are not as lucky as me because you don’t have time to sit and think about the wider perspectives.

You cannot, for example, decide to take three months to research and write a book to the exclusion of almost everything else. You can’t do that because the phone rings constantly, your mobile interrupts you because someone else thinks their time is more important than yours.

You cannot do as I have done and take the phone off your desk, turn off your mobile comms, close your e-mail program just so you can spend longer than a normal working day in uninterrupted thought.

Because you don’t have time to consider the wider implications of your work, you don’t have the opportunity to examine the more complex issues. I spend some of my time in what some might call a daydream, allowing concepts to develop and mature, swirling around in a kind of plate-of-spaghetti way until an end makes itself visible and, with one long gentle suck, that thread can be extracted in its simple, easily digestible, form.

Because I have this time, and because I can load up my head with a mass of wide-ranging ideas so that they can interact, it means that my mind is more receptive.

Everything goes in, without a primary filter of “I’m too busy for this.” The first filter information comes to is “how can I make use of that?” And it’s surprising how much of the information that would otherwise drift by proves useful.

And so, it still takes me all week to read an issue of the Economist but in there I will often find a few words that illustrate a point by referencing current affairs, often by relating something apparently unrelated to the subject I am dealing with.

But it also means that when I’m having “down time,” things appear that I can use to reinforce a message so that my audience remembers it.

That’s why, in my work, you will often find quotations from films or TV, popular literature and song lyrics.

The chances are that many of you will already know the expression, some may even know where it comes from. For me, the fact that you already know it gives it extra punch, the fact that you probably remembered it because you enjoyed the film, etc. means that every time you hear it or see it, you will be reminded of the alternate use I put it to, and so my message comes back to you and helps you remember that there’s a bigger world than the bullet points of an “executive briefing” and the all too frequent and insistent call of the phones.

It’s not just The Economist, films and TV that provide inspiration: Norse, Greek and Roman myth, 18th century philosophers, Physicists, Astro/meta-physicists, psychologists, criminologists, theology and modern fiction writers all find their way into the new book. Reading this stuff and using it is a normal day for me. And it’s nice.

Maybe, one day, I’ll be recognised as the first counter-money laundering philosopher!

If I were to say “have a nice day,” it would not be a throwaway platitude. It would be a wish that your day will be as nice as mine.

Now, don’t think I’m telling you this so my life sounds great and yours sounds shit.

I’m not.

I’m telling you this so you can fully understand the differences between what you and I do and how those differences create a balance.

I don’t do day to day compliance or risk management: that’s your job.

You don’t (even though you might like to) get to spend time thinking of what risks (both in terms of criminal risk and legal/regulatory risk) might be coming over the horizon and how to deal with them: that’s my job.

The plan is that you should be aware of those risks, and preparing for them, long before they arrive at your gate.

We have complementary functions, you and I. I do what you do not have time for and what so many others, who sell compliance and template risk management, say you don’t need. There are several large financial institutions nursing bruised reputations and large financial penalties because they did not listen to warnings I have issued, often because their more prosaic advisers told them I was wrong. I wasn’t. They were.

When I practised law I always took the view that nothing should be done until it was fully prepared for and that the objective was to avoid surprises which are, by their nature, disruptive: in my book “Sun Tzu and the Art of Litigation” I wrote “If all the preparation has been done right and the strategy executed flawlessly, victory will flow. Of course, that is not always so because of the inevitable unpredictability of litigation risk but what Sun Tzu counsels is that by managing both the upside and the downside, one is prepared for surprises and the chances of losing are minimised.”

In April this year (2014), I will have worked in the areas of money laundering risk management and compliance for 20 years. All that stuff that’s arrived in my head over that time is still there, being cross-referenced and used in analysis of what goes wrong and what will go wrong.

One of the nicest things about my job is that can explain things without having to adduce evidence. I can tell you things to watch out for but I don’t have to have proof.

Why not?

Because, your job is to prevent risk management turning into crisis management.

So you need early warning of risk. I can say “this is what I expect to happen” and you can prepare for it.

I don’t want your job: I don’t want to be a compliance or MLRO.

It’s not what I do. What I do is provide you with the intelligence so you can do your job more efficiently and more effectively. We all know that building a fire break is a much better use of resources than fighting a fire. I suggest where you might usefully build that fire break.

It’s true that sometimes, like in today’s article in Complinet about compliance in Asia Pacific, I speak a brutal truth and it offends people. It should not: it should be a wake-up call. The only people that are offended are those who recognise themselves in criticism. Sometimes they attack me instead of attacking the problem.

World Money Laundering Report is our primary vehicle to identify issues, often uncomfortable, that make risk management and compliance difficult and to spot the things that are still over the horizon.

The issue about Bitcoin took more than 120 man hours to prepare.

You don’t have that time.

And your company would not want to pay for my time to produce that report on an exclusive basis. But you can get it as part of a site licence that gives you access to all the analysis we’ve published since 1999.

The great thing is that I can give you reasons to ask questions about things that you don’t have time to think of for yourself, not because you are stupid but because your function, especially in companies where the compliance function is an adjunct to another function, is not designed to allow you time to think.

So, we can look at this as me having the time to think about things you don’t have time to think about and to present you with the information you need, already structured and explained, to reduce your workload not make it bigger.

I write in a simple way (OK, sometimes it’s a bit like a lawyer and sometimes it’s a bit academic but very rarely) because I believe that the message is more important than trying to impress you with big words; and because at least half of our readership has English as a second or third language.

Also, sometimes, because my mind fires off tangentially when presented with information, it might appear as if I’ve gone off course when, in fact, I’m just following a different orbit to reach the same point because a more direct course would be a too-steep descent risking burn-up on approach and / or a hard landing. It’s also because that approach keeps your brain working instead of drifting off or skipping ahead and missing the steps that underpin the argument. Often, you’ll find sarcasm, irony (which I have to point out because sarcasm and irony don’t work on the page if people aren’t expecting it) and humour to prevent the subject matter becoming too dry to swallow.

In a couple of weeks, when “Understanding Suspicion…?” is published, you will be able to read, in a few hours, the most comprehensive analysis of how suspicion is created that has ever been published. It is very easy reading even though it deals with highly technical topics drawn from law and psychology and covers a wide range of aspects of customer due diligence and why it fails. It uses short, sharp sentences and punchy paragraphs. It says things like “Customer Due Diligence fails because someone was not suspicious when they should have been.”

And yes, the book does include a line from the film Men in Black.


© 2014 Nigel Morris-Cotterill
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