Five characteristics of the ultimate compliance officer or candidate

Everyone agrees that the market for anti-money laundering compliance officers is going gangbusters right now. But getting in the door, and subsequently thriving, in the roiling world of shifting risk landscapes and crafty criminals takes a special blend of talents.

That’s because the compliance officer has to be part circus performer to juggle multiple program elements – risk ranking, suspicious activity reporting and sanctions hits. They have to be part scientist and mathematician to understand how the interwoven systems work. They have to be part politician and diplomat to woo business line allies and foil budget overlords, and they have to be part psychic to appease examiners with their own agendas.

Oh, and don’t forget, even if you try your best and the program fails (and in some recent cases the gaffes have been spectacular), you might not only lose your job, you could find yourself facing both penalties on your organization and individual shaming from regulators and possibly law enforcement.

Still interested? Needless to say, anyone that would willingly jump into such a maelstrom of uncertainties should make sure they are up to the task. To delve into the skills required to succeed in financial crime compliance departments, ACFCS spoke with recruiters and compliance professionals.

Here are what some recruiters say are the key qualities that could make an ideal candidate, both with and without experience, and the personality profiles that would create the best chance of success in unraveling the compliance conundrum.

1. Specialized Skills: “If you want to get hired in this field, the No. 1 thing is experience, that trumps everything,” said Christian Focacci, the founder of “But the really big banks are looking for specialized skills along with AML experience.”

“That would include not just knowing how to file SAR, but, say, knowing the financial crime vulnerabilities of the brokerage sector and having been involved in remediation projects to find missed suspicious activities,” he said.

In addition, the highest of the in-demand sectors now are those with AML experience but also strong analytical or mathematical backgrounds to validate the complex software and hardware programs that rank customers and identify suspect transactions automatically to generate alerts for analysts and, possible law enforcement.

 2. Experience: Even individuals who have done low ranking consulting projects, or have been part of an AML team doing the more basic work, such as gathering and updating know-your-customer information, will see their inboxes peppered with requests from recruiters if their resume details such exploits.

Banks, particularly larger more complex institutions and those currently under enforcement actions, are desperate to get people in the door to handle the grunt work of ensuring the terabytes of customer data in a bank’s virtual vault is correct, and the more these greenhorns know, the less time the bank has to waste in training them. Consultancies of all stripes are also looking to poach such skill sets, and if you have ever filed SARs, or even managed some element of a compliance program, get ready to wheel and deal.

3. Pressure and stress: “The other thing a good compliance officer has to be is be really good under pressure,” Focacci said. “The nature of the job is that you are continually a gatekeeper for the organization. You don’t want to miss anything because that could be a really big problem later on. Even if the compliance officer is 99 percent right, and one percent wrong. That one percent could end up being a really big deal.”

“You really must have a good tolerance for stress as well because you might not be the most popular person in the bank,” he said. “You have to be forthright because you will be going against executives and the heavyweight moneymakers in the bank. It’s really an adversarial relationship, but with really good communication, you can get these people to realize everyone is on the same team.”

4. Critical thinker: Particularly if a person is new to compliance, they are going to have to show incredible critical thinking skills and a willingness to find out the solutions to problems without asking for a lot of help, said Ralph Dahm, president of Wheaton, Il.-based recruiting firm IT Audit Search.

“Thinking critically is so important,” he said. “The person has to be able to get the job done and find the answers to things, in some cases going outside the bank to other contacts to better understand the nature of the problem and how do they solve it. They have to have a real thirst for knowledge so they can understand financial crime patterns like structuring and get all available training inside and outside the bank, including certifications they would learn about in their spare time.”

5.Expert Networker: Along with being a master negotiator and tactician to get business line and other managers to buy in to your compliance strategies, the ability to network could mean the difference between getting a job or not, both Dahm and Focacci agreed.

“From a practical perspective, if you are a new person and you have no experience, you have to network,” Focacci said. That would mean attending any local chapter meetings of groups focusing on financial crime, possible conferences and, again, certification groups as those additions typically allow access to forums and groups of more seasoned compliance officers who could be looking for talented, yet unproven candidates. Prospects can also bolster their understanding through reading stories on the latest trends and issues and commenting in the forums or emailing compliance staff directly, building a rapport that could later be the key that allows for the proverbial foot in the door.