Compliance management professionals ensure adherence to laws and standards, but Brandy Smith's career journey shows that the road to a compliance leadership role can be unconventional.
Smith is the assistant vice president and chief compliance officer and counsel for group protection for Lincoln Financial Group and this year was named to The National Black Lawyers' Top 40 Under 40 list. The Omaha, Nebraska, native has a bachelor's of science in elementary education and a juris doctorate. Her educational background and life experiences proved to be the right combination to prepare her for a career in compliance, Smith told HR Dive.
"Working in a compliance function, you have to be able to deal with stressful environments, and you have to be flexible," she said. "I can say that my upbringing has taught me how to be pretty even keel, and how to hone my energy on the right thing," even if there are times when everyone doesn't agree, she said. Her law degree is being put to good use, Smith said. "I actually have 'counsel' in my title," she said. "So, I am wearing two hats in my role." But "being an educator at heart," provided a foundation, "because through compliance, you really are teaching, you really are guiding," Smith said.
Although compliance is now at the center of Smith's career journey, she didn't actually have plans to go into the field.
Journey to compliance
Many law students aren't sure what career path they'll take, she said. Compliance wasn't a specialty area offered at her school, and "honestly even if it was, I don't know if I would have thought that it was a topic for me," Smith said. Upon graduating, finding a job was a top priority, she said.
An acquaintance encouraged her to apply for a temporary position as a contract consultant in compliance at Lincoln Financial Group, Smith explained. She got the job in July 2012, and worked hard "trying to make sure people saw my potential," Smith said. She went on to hold several positions of increasing responsibility based in Pennsylvania, including legal and regulatory compliance consultant and legal and regulatory compliance director and counsel.
Today, her responsibilities vary. Her team tracks state law requirements for the business' financial services and solutions. It oversees practices from a regulatory perspective, advising if adjustments need to be made. She serves as the enterprise co-lead for the company's African American Business Resource Group. She also spearheaded the legal department's involvement in Diversity Lab's Mansfield Rule, a program that measures diversity and inclusion for the legal department's top roles, high visibility projects and outside counsel representation. That means each day at work is different, she said. "Sometimes it is about putting out fires; and sometimes it is about providing guidance, up front, to ensure that people make the right steps."
Some companies faced compliance challenges due to a pivot to telework amid the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Lincoln Financial was prepared to maintain protocols, having worked on a remote strategy for years, Smith said. "We've built compliance in the foundation of how group protection functions to a point where people can come to us and say, 'I recognize this as a potential compliance risk, can we discuss it?' and that's either remote or in the office," she said. "Compliance isn't about knocking on someone's door and walking in," she said; it's about how you built the core foundation and influence decisions. Through set plans and technology, such as video conferencing, "we were already functioning in a way that has survived the pandemic and working from home," Smith said. "I really have not seen any disrupters from that perspective," she said.
Diversity and inclusion, too, was already baked in at Lincoln Financial before this year's protests for social justice. Diversity and inclusion "is a part of who we are," Smith said, "It's a part of our culture." From reinforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to addressing recent national calls for racial justice, "I can say that we are very well equipped to continue to move in the right direction," Smith said.
Outside of work, Smith is active in her community, she said, serving on several boards, including the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group. And as a graduate member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Smith serves as co-lead for her chapter's Risk Management Committee.
'Be your authentic self'
Although Smith has participated in formal mentoring programs at the company, multiple individuals who've crossed her path have also provided guidance, she said. "I've learned from every single person I've interacted with," Smith said. However, she specifically credits her first leader at Lincoln Financial with offering key career advice. "The one thing he told me was 'don't change; always be yourself,'" Smith said.
Those words of wisdom helped her as she navigated through feelings of self doubt. "As a first generation high school graduate who then went on to college and law school," Smith felt like she didn't fit in at first, she said. When stepping into a compliance career in the financial services industry, the "imposter syndrome starts to kick in," she said. Receiving the advice not to change her ways made Smith feel like "I was doing something right with being myself," she said. "As a young Black woman who may wear her hair braided one day, and have rings on my fingers, for someone to say, 'Hey, you're going to be the best, if you continue to be your authentic self,' was the best advice that someone, in my opinion, could have ever given me at the beginning of my career."