The Three Traits of a Trade Compliance Professional

Rules like to be done in three parts. For example, there is a rule in business: you can have it done quickly, done cheaply, or done well; pick any two. The presumption is that you cannot have all three.

The job of logistics is to move goods quickly and at the best rate. The job of a trade compliance professional (TCP) (trade compliance, export control, legal, tax, etc.) is to do things correctly, to protect the company. It is an administrative role meant to be a cost.  It contributes to the bottom line in a negative way.

Sure, occasionally someone in trade compliance can identify an opportunity for duty avoidance or refund because of a free trade agreement, for example. But that is (hopefully) the exception, as identifying savings should not be the primary role of a person in compliance.

I am continually asked by clients how they can drive change or at least, maintain the level of compliance they have worked so hard to build. This is especially challenging when a TCP is presented with a business demand, and their better judgement tells them to say No. After all, those of us with a brokerage license have a fiduciary responsibility to our employer or client, and to US Customs and Border protection. In the end, customs broker license or not, our ultimate responsibility is to ourselves and our career. We simply cannot afford to jeopardize our license or our career by cutting corners or making decisions (or failing to make a decision) that cause us to lose sleep at night.

Back to maintaining compliance. In my 30+ years of experience I have built departments and hired and trained individuals from many walks of life with much, a little, or no experience. I have hired people with a high school diploma, a college degree, and an MBA. When building a trade compliance function, it can be difficult to find applicants with the skill set and experience you hope to use. I have found it easier to hire people who have the requisite personality traits rather than the job skills that are so rare in the US of A. Read these three traits and adopt them yourself to make you the best version of you there is, and you too can help Save The World (and your career). Note that I wrote “career” and not “job.” They are not the same. 

A trade compliance professional is meticulous.

Tariff classification, as one part of trade compliance, is a job of details. It is a job of splitting hairs, of differentiating between “plastic” and “rubber,” or determining the sensitivity of a scale (chapter 84 or chapter 90?), of remembering that casters go in chapter 83 or 87 depending on their size. The trade compliance professional is happy down in the weeds looking for nuggets of truth. The devil’s in the details, right?

A trade compliance professional is persevering.

Often the TCP will need information that their employer does not normally capture, such as the outer diameter of a castor. Requests for arcane details will be unanswered; emails will be ignored, and voice mails will be unreturned. Emails will be followed up on, marked “Urgent.” Phone calls will be made twice, then thrice (love that word). The TCP cannot provide the customs broker with the information needed to clear the goods. Entry is not filed, then BAM, the goods arrive into the US, where they sit. And they wait. The free days expire. Someone in Purchasing or Procurement or Logistics or SCM notices.  The inevitable email/phone call/desk “visit” occurs to find out why the TCP isn’t doing their job. This results in the dreaded demand: “I don’t care what you have to do, you get that delivered (fill in unreasonable deadline).”

A trade compliance professional is empowered.

A TCP keeps good notes. They do this as part of “reasonable care,” that standard we are held to by CBP that others on the outside call “due diligence.” When confronted with the demand to cut corners, to make assumptions, to simply get it done then fix it tomorrow, the TCP is empowered to do it right or to not do it at all. This will frustrate and anger some, especially those who did not return a voice mail nor respond to an email. The frustrated person may sense their failure to recognize the seriousness of the inquiry from the TCP as one reason for the delay. The frustrated person will become defensive, and may try to go behind the TCP’s back, even to the TCP’s boss.

A good boss will respond to the angered individual, “Thank you. That’s what we hired her for and I’m glad you brought this to my attention.” The TCP is empowered to say No when pressured by others. 

In the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (the ITAR, 22 CFR §120.67) published by the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls under the State Department, there is a job function: Empowered Official.  An Empowered Official is a person who “(4) Has the independent authority to … refuse … any … request … without prejudice or other adverse recourse.”

I have found these three personality traits in individuals with backgrounds in accounting, compliance, tax, shipping/receiving, sales, logistics, HR, etc. As stated at the beginning, a person’s background is not as important as who they are.  So, empower yourself to meticulously persevere, and your career will thrive.

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