Ilona Niemi*, Group Chief Compliance Officer, The Co-operators Group Limited

A Choice Point Interview About Values, Decision-Making, and Leadership.

*NOTE: All opinions represented in this interview are personal and belong solely to the interviewee. Any such opinions do not necessarily represent the views of the interviewee’s employer or any other persons, institutions or organizations with whom the interviewee may be associated.

Choice Point: Tell our readers what you do. What’s the ‘networking-event’ explanation of your role?

Ilona Niemi: As Group Chief Compliance Officer for The Co-operators Group Limited, I oversee the enterprise compliance program for property and casualty (P&C) insurance, life insurance, mutual funds and investment management operations. In short, I view my team as a business enabler aiming to integrate regulatory requirements, compliance best practices and ethics in processes from the outset. To be an effective and solution-oriented partner in a digital age, compliance needs to understand business strategy and objectives as well as broader trends impacting financial services.

C.P. Let’s start with a couple of questions about you, and your career. Tell us about the values that got you where you are today. What are they, and why have they been crucial for you?

I.N. Wisdom, adaptability and commitment are my three core values. These guide my personal and professional life and translate to my behaviors at work and outside, and ultimately impact my career decisions. 

Since growing up in Finland I have been fortunate to have been surrounded by people who believed in the importance of wisdom as a tool for robust decision making. I regard highly leaders who are knowledgeable beyond their subject matter expertise area – and who continue learning – and who are thus well-grounded in their wisdom, enabling holistic long-term decisions. 

Having lived and worked in eight countries, adaptability has been a paramount prerequisite for responding to any changes in my environment. I admire leaders who can continuously step out of their comfort zones and fearlessly plan ahead when the world around them continues evolving. These leaders naturally grasp the new circumstances and intuitively adapt with their teams and companies. 

Finally, I have had an opportunity to learn the meaning of dedication, having worked in different roles over my career. It is critical to show willingness to get involved, to be onboard and to seek growth at all times. I really appreciate leaders who are sincerely committed, and especially those who take responsibility for their people by building the next generation of leaders.

C.P. What’s your proudest professional achievement?

I.N. My passion is to build compliance organizations and structures that fit the business needs. An integral part of that journey is to have the right teams in place. In particular I am proud of those moments when I have positively influenced groups or individuals through training and coaching. I am especially proud when I start to see team cohesion building, or see individuals succeed and move on in their careers.  

C.P. Choice Point Solutions is all about training for decision-making. Tell us about a key juncture in your own career, or a dilemma you faced – a “go left or go right” moment – and tell us how you resolved it. 

I.N. After finalizing my PhD, I struggled to find a role at the right level, although I had been working in a consulting company for many years. I was eventually offered a position as an EU policy adviser in Brussels – but as an intern. Setting aside my pride and ego, I decided to leave Munich and follow my dreams in Brussels. (The role turned in to a fulltime position soon after!)

C.P. Thinking about the situation you just described, what was it about you that let you get through it?

I.N. I strongly believed in the long-term benefits of my decision, as it provided me with an opportunity to work and live in a new country. At that point in time – fortunately – I did not understand how long I would need to wait to truly start seeing the full value of this experience begin to materialize. 

C.P. Without necessarily telling us who it is or was, tell us about the characteristics of one of your mentors. What was or is she or he like?

I.N. Without my former mentor’s guidance, I would have never considered a career in compliance. My mentor was someone I respected and trusted to help me explore my fixed views and thought processes.

C.P. Now we turn to a couple of questions about best practices for companies. What’s the #1 thing for a company to keep in mind in supporting people to make ethical decisions in the workplace?

I.N. Having common sense (or a sense of integrity) is critical for ethical decision making in the workplace, but that is not enough. Companies need to provide employees practical guidance and support to apply, practice and understand ethical decision-making frameworks.

C.P. What about the flip-side? What’s the worst or most common mistake for a company to make in how it supports – or fails to support – people to make ethical decisions in the workplace?

I.N. Each ethical decision has a lot of facets; it is paramount to provide different paths to come to a conclusion and individualize the underlying decision-making process. Black and white ethical decision trees tend to fail their practical application tests.

C.P. At Choice Point we’re very interested in education, so here’s something that will interest the students out there, the future leaders reading this: beyond the right education, what do young people need to do, in order to get to do the kind of work you do?

I.N. Compliance has matured to an intellectually demanding and rewarding profession requiring future-proven skills ranging from technical understanding to business acumen, analytical thinking, problem-solving, and resilience. It is essential to have patience and devote time to learn these skills through different experiences. Above all, it is important to enjoy what you do. Happiness brings success. 

C.P. Finally, tell us a favourite book that you want to recommend, and why.

I.N. I really like Discover Your True North by Bill George – this is a book about how to enable authentic, global leadership. It is a guide to reflect on your own leadership path and transform it to the next, individualized level. It is a very practical book in its approach and well founded in strong academic research reflecting Bill George’s career as former Medtronic CEO and professor at the Harvard Business School. 

C.P. That’s all our questions, Ilona. Thanks for sharing your insight with us!

Ilona Niemi is Group Chief Compliance Officer, The Co-operators Group Limited. You can also find Ilona on LinkedIn .

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