Company Leaders First: Former Coach Kevin Espinoza on How to Better Integrate Compliance Within Businesses

August 23, 2023

On this episode of There Has to Be a Better Way?, co-hosts Zach Coseglia and Hui Chen speak with Kevin Espinoza, a former collegiate coach who moved into compliance from sales and marketing. He talks about how this unique perspective has informed his approach to build compliance programs that embed compliance within the business, with compliance professionals focused on the same business goals as their colleagues.


Zach Coseglia: Welcome back to the Better Way? podcast, brought to you by R&G Insights Lab. This is a curiosity podcast for those who find themselves asking, “There has to be a better way, right?” There just has to be. I’m Zach Coseglia, the co-founder of R&G Insights Lab, and I’m here, as always, with my friend, colleague and collaborator, Hui Chen.


Hui Chen: Hi, Zach. Hi, everyone. I’m very excited about the discussion we’re going to have today.

Zach Coseglia: Me too. So, Hui, we have a guest—why don’t you tell us who our guest is today.

Hui Chen: Our guest is Kevin Espinoza, with whom I’ve been exchanging very exciting ideas about training, so we’re going to dive into that in just a bit. But before we dive into the topic, Zach, I think you like to ask your existential question…

Zach Coseglia: I would like to ask my existential question. Kevin, my question is: Who are you? Who’s Kevin?

Kevin Espinoza: First of all, it’s great to be with you both. Such a pleasure to be in this type of discussion, talking about how we can continuously do better or find Better Ways to do things. But the answer to your question, when I think about who I am, of course, the family stuff comes first, but professionally, I’m a leader and I’m a coach, and I think that has defined my entire career. I grew up playing sports, and I was so fortunate to have that opportunity to start my professional career as a collegiate coach, and that’s never stopped. The things that one of my players had told me with transition from coaching to the business world were absolutely true, so I guess I can thank a very insightful 21-year-old, who told me, “You’d be really good at this stuff.” And I’ve followed her advice ever since.

Hui Chen: Kevin, if I’m correct in remembering this, in your business professional journey, you actually started in sales and marketing?

Kevin Espinoza: That’s correct. I started in sales. I made this incredibly bizarre career change from collegiate coaching to working in sales. Somebody was foolish enough to hire me as a hospital specialty rep in Boston, Massachusetts. I had absolutely no business, based on my experience, doing that job. I had a degree of success, and I had the opportunity to go in-house at a big pharma company, and it was just an unconventional path to compliance. At that time, there were only lawyers working in the space with a few accountants, and so, it was a much different world than where we are today as a profession, but it prepared me for everything that I’ve done since, because I experienced compliance before I started working in it. I worked at a company that had a great compliance program, Eli Lilly, and yet, still there was a sense of disconnect, that these people didn’t really understand me, and they might not trust me. I know for a fact that was not the intention of the people I worked with—it’s not how they saw their work, but that’s how it felt and that’s how I experienced it. When I got assigned policies, I felt bureaucratic. When my colleagues were investigated, I felt it was punitive. And despite their best efforts, again, of a really good compliance program in the year 2000, it didn’t change the impact they were having on me, or at least not in a meaningful enough way to override all those other things I just described.

Hui Chen: I imagine when you went from sales and marketing to compliance, it was like joining the enemy camp. I’m very curious as to how your experience coming from sales and marketing has influenced your approach to compliance?

Kevin Espinoza: The job I was doing just preceding my entry into compliance was, I was working on the Eli Lilly brand team, the corporate brand team, and we were going around the company doing brand action exercises, helping people better align their daily work with the desired corporate brand. We had four brand attributes—we wanted everything employees were doing to align with those four brand attributes, and one of the groups I was advising was compliance. So, to answer your question, when I was invited to join the team, I was already advising them—I was already helping them discover insights that they already possessed to better implement compliance. The craziest thing of that experience is, I was asked to help launch the international compliance program. Unbeknownst to me, we were right in the middle of an FCPA investigation. It was a similar fact pattern to what Schering-Plough had gone through, and somebody said, “You know what? We’re going to do this different. We’re going to put this organization reporting to the global marketing and sales organization.” My boss had no compliance experience, I had no compliance experience, and we went out and hired a bunch of top talent in the global marketing and sales organization from around the world. So, from the very outset, we said, “We’re going to do this different. And we’re not going to be called “compliance,” we’re going to be called “global compliance solutions,” because we are going to find solutions that help our teammates be successful. They were never our clients—they were never outside of us. They were always our colleagues—always our teammates. From my very first job in compliance, we sat shoulder-to-shoulder with the business—we were in the business, and we reported to the same boss. I still absolutely love the experience because we were able to pluck top talent out of every region of the world. We gave top talent opportunity to get out of their country, get into the region, dotted line to the regional head, and really bring those leadership attributes that a lot of us try to cultivate—they already had them; they were already top talent. We could teach anybody compliance—that’s been a mantra of mine over the years. When I need expertise, I go find it. If I’m trying to find somebody who’s great at monitoring, I don’t care if they’ve ever done compliance before—I can teach them compliance, but I can’t teach them the sophistication of using advanced data analytics.

Hui Chen: Kevin, it’s really interesting for me to hear of a company, at least at one point, of seeing compliance as a marketing exercise, which I think is awesome. Your experience coming from marketing and working in a marketing-embedded compliance function clearly shaped the view of how you do things. One of the things that led us to our very fascinating exchange was how training was done. We talked about the model of doing compliance training, not as compliance training, but really as part of business learning. And you have some examples of how that was done in your experience, so tell us more about that.

Kevin Espinoza: For me to do my job at Lilly, I had to go to Lilly Marketing Institute and do 12 hours of core marketing training. So, before I could even enter a brand planning session as a compliance person, I still had to have that foundation. Again, from the outset of my career, I knew nothing else. I knew that I had to be fully trained as a marketer in order to work with marketers, and so, that was always in my head. The benefits I had was I got to work with certified learning professionals. When I started getting into leadership roles in compliance, I was struck that many of our people in charge of training and learning were not learning professionals. It was people who, again, did great work but weren’t qualified to do it. So, I always reflected back to my experience of working with certified learning professionals, and what they offer is, first of all, adult learning. Not everything needs to be computer-based training—live sessions, workshops, all these things work well. You’ve got to have clear objectives, you’ve got to ensure the course meets those objectives, and then you’ve got to have an assessment at the end that demonstrates that they know that. Again, that’s my foundation—I understand how good training and good learning, which are different, need to occur.

In the pharmaceutical industry, there are two principal ways that we educate physicians. The number one way—there’s many ways now, but back then and to some extent today—we invest a lot of our resources in direct education of clinicians through sales reps. So, we have direct one-to-one—the sales rep shows up in the office, does that education. Then, the other way is peer-to-peer speaker programs where we hire a speaker, generally a physician, who, at a restaurant or even live on site within like a hospital, for example, will educate doctors on a product on our behalf. They are, I guess in legal terms, an agent of the company—they are contracted and paid. At least on the pharmaceutical side of our industry, they can only use slides that we have constructed. In some smaller companies, they still let the doctors develop the slides, but generally speaking, this is a promotional exercise. The FDA sees this as 100% promotion. If you’re paying the doctor, you control the agenda, you invite the attendees—it’s promotional. Now, that being said, we’re in the life science industry, so there is a very scientific educational bent to this. As you can imagine, if you’re paying someone who’s a really important customer of yours to speak to other important customers of yours, there’s significant kick-back risk there. There’s also significant opportunity for off-label promotion, which is very significant in the pharmaceutical industry. We can only promote within the approved label, so this is one of our higher-risk activities when we’re paying very influential, important customers to speak to other important customers.

We monitor these programs. We send people out to attend the programs. We also do records review to evaluate sign-in sheets of attendees, and all the requirements within our policies. The knee-jerk reaction sometimes when you find an actual violation in monitoring is to say, “What did the rep do wrong?” Well, that was never our position—we embraced humility and compassion or empathy. And so, with that mindset, your first question is not, “What did the rep do wrong?” It’s “What went wrong and why?” Because the problem may be us. Maybe we didn’t effectively train them. Maybe we didn’t give them the support and resources they need. We found ourselves in this position of doing our root cause analysis to say, “We have an unusually high number of violations. Why did it happen?” In our root cause analysis, we found training to be a bit insufficient, but we also found some degree of frustration from the business side, if you will, where reps weren’t really prepared to do this. As we dug deeper, we found out that in the sales training, the initial sales training at most companies takes about a month to get these sales reps trained to do their work. We hadn’t trained them on how to do a speaker program effectively, and so, we in compliance saw this as a great partnering opportunity with the business.

We had our findings—we went to the sales leadership team, basically all the vice presidents of sales, about 10 people or so, and we presented to them what our findings were. Then, our ask of them was, “Can you support the development of a pilot program” (or as I like to say, a phased implementation program), “where we could develop some new tools and then roll it out in one particular business unit (maybe a smaller section of that)?” They assigned us a project manager from sales operations, and there were probably about eight people involved in the program and one compliance person—so, eight businesspeople and me. The idea was, “We’re going to help employees be more successful,” which also is compliance. The resources were how to plan and then how to follow up on the speaker program. The training was more focused on execution, but we had these other supporting tools. We named the intervention we were going to do, “How to Conduct an Effective Speaker Program,” and we seamlessly embedded compliance, policy requirements and those sorts of things, within the training. And because it was being delivered by the sales leadership team, it wasn’t seen as a compliance intervention. We had maybe four or five objectives to the training itself, and one or two were compliance-related, so if we ever had to show this, which, of course, we did have to show this to the DOJ and OIG, we could show them, “We are teaching them how to be compliant. We just embed it as two of four or two of five objectives within a course.”

Hui Chen: When I was at DOJ in 2016-2017, I was at one of the conferences where somebody asked me about compliance training, and I then said, “My dream would be that there is no separate compliance training. My dream would be that all compliance training is embedded in business training.” I’m so glad to hear that somebody had been living my dream, or at least doing my dream. The other aspect that I really want to pick up on is this phased implementation/pilot program approach—again, this is something that I often urge people to do, because it’s a safe way to test something out. That you try it with one business unit or one region, you learn from whatever mistakes that you might have made, and then you try it for two or three more, and you can have those opportunities to learn and perfect your approach until you feel comfortable rolling it out as a standard program. So, I just wanted to draw that out for our audience, in terms of what I’m taking away from it.

Zach Coseglia: The other big takeaway that I’d actually love for you to talk a little bit more about, Kevin, is the empathy with which you are approaching compliance. We talk here a lot about human-centered compliance, and a big part of that is acknowledging that when we’re developing trainings, when we’re developing policies and when we’re developing programs, that there’s someone on the other end who’s experiencing it. You started by talking about your experience as a salesperson who was experiencing compliance before you became part of compliance. I’d love to hear a little bit more from you about I guess what you would say to all the compliance officers who were listening, who maybe haven’t had the experience of experiencing compliance in the way that you did before you began your compliance journey.

Kevin Espinoza: It’s not just my experience—we’ve been measuring it ever since. Any important decision we make has to be informed by data. You can do brand equity audits or there’s surveys—there’s all kinds of things you can do to understand the experience of the people you’re trying to lead or you’re trying to influence. So, there’s lots of ways that you can measure the culture of your organization today and in a more systematic manner than an annual HR survey. You’ve got to do poll surveys. You’ve got to do things that really get at: What is the experience of people with compliance or with culture in general at your company? Once you know that and your eyes are wide open to that—I love that human-centered compliance—you can approach people in a very relevant, meaningful way. You can use words that resonate with them. You can say, “We did this survey, and we found that there’s a lack of trust in compliance, and here’s the things we’re going to do about that.” And so, you can transparently acknowledge where you are in your organization and then intentionally address it.

Zach Coseglia: We talk within our Lab about the power of thinking like a scientist. We’ve been known to quote Adam Grant from time to time.

Kevin Espinoza: I love Adam Grant.

Zach Coseglia: Of course. So, Adam Grant gives us definitions of thinking like a politician, like a preacher, like a prosecutor. What does it mean—and this is really relevant to the topic we’re talking about today—to think like a coach?

Kevin Espinoza: When you think like a coach, you’re trying to create an environment where people can perform at their absolute best. There is a scoreboard, so you’re keeping score, and it’s important to know that we’re intentional, we’re strategic, we have an objective we’re trying to reach, but we’re trying to create an environment where people are motivated and can perform at their best. It also has to be flexible to the needs of the person, because not everybody learns the same way—not everybody comes with the same skill sets or the same experience, and so, we’ve got to be flexible. When you’re thinking environmentally, you can account for that. You need to think about the environment you’re creating. Does it give them opportunities to sub out for a few minutes? Have you given them space? Have you given them developmental opportunities where they can grow? Are you leveraging their strengths? So, to me, coaching transcends job performance. When you’re a leader, you’re creating environments where people can be successful. It doesn’t matter if you’re a leader of compliance or a leader of a business function, you’re still creating an environment. If they’re not successful, you take accountability for that as the leader, even if someone else says, “It’s not your fault.” And that’s challenging, because you do have people sometimes who are not high performers, but you don’t have a choice—they’re on your team, and they can actually be problematic to the others if their performance isn’t addressed. I’ve always felt that you can also be kind and still drive high accountability, because kindness actually makes a huge difference. When I experience compliance professionals who try to bully employees or try to have this presence, “You’re going to do it because I said so, because I’m in compliance.” They never say that, but that’s the impact they’re having on people. We’ve got to help them do their job differently, because that’s not going to be effective over time.

Zach Coseglia: I love that. As also someone who draws inspiration from all kinds of places and enjoys others who do as well, there’s something really wonderfully simple but also rather deep about the point about there’s a scoreboard—how that then translates into, “What are we doing to measure in the world of compliance? Where’s our scoreboard? What are we scoring, and how are we going to do it in ways that actually help us figure out whether or not our coaching, our training or the learning experiences that we’re offering people are actually helping us achieve those objectives?”

Hui Chen: I also want to pick up on something, the scoreboard idea. One of the challenges that we experience in compliance is, in some ways, it’s as if we’re trying to create a separate scoreboard. Ultimately, if you’re working in a company, the ultimate scoreboard is not just revenue but really the long-term interests of the company. If you translate it down to, let’s say you’re working with salespeople, they have to sell. It would be great if your compliance is wonderful—they’re all compliant with whatever you’re asking them to do—but if the result of that is that they make zero sales, that scoreboard is a big fat zero. We were talking a little earlier about incorporating compliance training as part of business learning—really you’re thinking about compliance scoring as part of business scoring. To me, it’s two layers of the same concept. Really everything that compliance in an organization does is not about inhibiting the organization, but it’s about the organization’s overall success. I think some of the challenges that compliance functions have is really trying to figure out what role they play in this. I think your training example on the speaker program was a very good example of one way to start thinking like that. The other thing that you had mentioned in our email exchange is you have this mantra that you tell your team that “We’re company leaders first, and functional experts second.” Tell us more about what you mean by that, and how you help your team embrace that concept.

Kevin Espinoza: I think it starts with that, again, eyes wide open to the compliance brand. No matter how good we are, no matter how great our intentions, there’s still this experience that people have had with compliance that shapes their perception of it. So, we’re coming at our daily job at a disadvantage, likely through no fault of our own. If I’m starting new with a company, again, I can’t control the previous experience they’ve had, but I can control how I show up. If I say that “I want to be a trusted advisor” (one of those fun terms we use), “if I want to be relevant, if I want to have the greatest impact I can,” again, people need to know that you care. Part of caring is understanding what they’re trying to accomplish, and I think it starts at the company level. You need to know the strategic imperatives of the business in totality. But then, when you meet individuals, you also have to know their objectives. When I onboard a new compliance professional, I don’t let them talk about compliance for a good two to three weeks—I give them a list of one-to-ones that I think they need to have. I want the focus of the discussion to be about the other person. What are their objectives? What are they trying to accomplish from a business standpoint? And sincerely care about what they’re telling you, ask questions, and understand it. So, you start from a position of, “I care about your success.” Again, I think that serves you well in interpersonal relationships, but on a macro level, if you have the same attitude towards the company, you’re going to come up with better solutions.

Hui Chen: Again, picking up a couple of things there, what I really love is the fact that essentially you make sure that when people are joining your team as a compliance professional that they spend the first chunk of their time, two or three weeks, just listening, listening to stakeholders in the company. I think a lot of times we do the opposite. When we bring in a new compliance professional, we parade them out, not to listen, but to deliver messages. And so, I think that’s a great approach that I would love to see more of.

Kevin Espinoza: The one place we tend to do this really well is with our business partnering roles. Over the years, we’ve added a lot of business partnering roles—put senior-level compliance professionals on business unit leadership teams, so those people tend to be really good at it. But what about the operational people? If you have somebody or somebodies who are responsible for monitoring, we should do the same thing from an operational standpoint. If there’s commercial analytics, market research or commercial operations, we should care about them just as much. Again, that’s why everyone on your team needs to have this mindset, because those other people have pressures, objectives or systems they’re trying to implement, and stuff like that. If you come to them and not just hear about them, but demonstrate a curiosity, like, “Tell me more about that. That sounds like a heavy lift. Is that an SAP system?” And show them you care, too. So, I do think, as an industry, at least on the pharma side, we’re pretty good at the business partnering roles, but we need to have that same intentionality on the operation side, too.

Hui Chen: I think that’s interesting. A lot of compliance folks love to talk about, “We should make the emerging business leaders go through a rotation in compliance as part of business leadership training.” I like essentially the idea I’m hearing from you, which is for compliance professionals to go through a business rotation so that they can become better compliance leaders.

Zach Coseglia: Kevin, you’ve given us so many Better Ways, from curiosity to empathy to a more integrated approach to compliance, and a more integrated approach to compliance training. You’ve told us about what it means to think like a coach, which will probably be the highlight for me. Now, it’s time for you to experience the Better Way? questionnaire, and for everyone to get to know you a little bit better. As everyone knows, this, for me, is based on the questionnaire that James Lipton used to ask on Inside the Actors Studio. Proust, Bernard Pivot, Vanity Fair, lots of folks have done this, and now we’re doing it.

Hui Chen: I will ask the first question. This one you get to choose one of two options. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be? That’s option one. Or: Is there a quality about yourself you’re currently working to improve? If so, what?

Kevin Espinoza: I’m always trying to be a better listener.

Zach Coseglia: Question number two—again, you have an option. First: Who is your favorite mentor? Or: Who do you wish you could be mentored by?

Kevin Espinoza: I’m going to go with favorite mentor. Her name is Anne Whitaker—she’s a pharmaceutical industry veteran, if you will. She started off as a sales rep like me, and she got into organizational development and leadership, and then she went to run business units at GSK, eventually president of Sanofi and some other companies. But she was the one, and what I loved about her mentorship is it was all about accountability. I recall having a monitoring finding one day, and she said, “Kevin, I know somebody’s going to ask me to send an email to tell him to stop doing that, but that’s not what we’re going to do.” She would start conversations like that, acknowledging what the easy answer would be, and then promote the more difficult answer. The other example I’ll offer from her is, it was her idea to embed compliance within our scoreboards at GSK. She would never assign ownership to me—she always assigned it to her head of sales, head of marketing or head of whoever was most able to impact or improve results for the next quarter. It was her leadership and her absolute commitment to accountability and driving that with them to the business that grew me significantly and shaped the way that I see things throughout my career. So, just a fantastic mentor for me.

Hui Chen: That’s so wonderful. Now, next question is: What is the best job, paid or unpaid, that you have ever had?

Kevin Espinoza: I’m going to leave compliance, as great as it’s been, and I’m going to go back to coaching. And it wasn’t coaching my college or high school teams—I used to do summer camps at different universities around the country. My favorite thing we would do is team camp, where an entire high school volleyball team would come in for a week. I would get somebody else’s team, and I would have the opportunity to not only make them better volleyball players but make them better teammates. They would often at the end of the camp write out cards and stuff to me, and it just made me feel so good, because it’s such a pivotal age. I have two daughters and two sons, but I know from my two daughters, what a pivotal age that is, middle school and high school. And to make relationships stronger, to have them play back to me that I had the impact that I hope to have as a human being, that was probably the best time in my life.

Zach Coseglia: Terrific. What is your favorite thing to do?

Kevin Espinoza: I’m a trail runner, and I do ultra-marathons in the mountains. I don’t win anything—it’s all about my own personal goals, and it’s all about completing the race. It’s the furthest thing from a keyboard and a desk I could possibly think of, and I love it all. I love the suffering. I love the people that support you when you’re doing a run like that. I just love being in nature and the unpredictability of it. You trip and fall a lot. You may run through a snowstorm. It’s just a great way to keep you humble. And so, yes, that’s my favorite thing to do is just be in the mountains running a trail race.

Hui Chen: Nice. What is your favorite place?

Kevin Espinoza: Same answer: the mountains. I love the mountains.

Zach Coseglia: Terrific. What makes you proud?

Kevin Espinoza: My kids. I’m a first-generation college student, and so, for me, education’s real important. I have four kids, and I think we’re approaching the eighth degree. Our youngest is a senior in college, and it just makes me so proud that my wife and I have instilled the value of education and that we’re privileged enough to help them and support them in getting these degrees. So, my kids make me proud on a lot of dimensions, but their college education’s been really important to me.

Hui Chen: Now, we go from the profound to the mundane. What email sign-off do you use most frequently?

Kevin Espinoza: I use two: “All the best” is what is in my signature, so that’s my default, but I find myself manually crossing it out and doing “kind regards” a lot.

Zach Coseglia: All right. What trend in your field is most overrated?

Kevin Espinoza: I could answer this a lot of ways, but I would say listening to the DOJ, and I say that with the utmost respect. In my experience, I’ve walked into three companies under investigation where I’ve implemented CIAs—I like to think I prevented CIAs. In my last two companies, neither one of them were given CIAs (“corporate integrity agreements” for those non-life science folks who are unfamiliar with the DOJ or the OIGs). I think in those experiences, I like to teach DOJ attorneys and OIG attorneys why I do what I do, what I’ve learned and how we implement it. They’re attorneys. They’re prosecutors. They’re not experts in data science. They’re not experts in monitoring. They’re not experts in training. I often advise people that, “If you have a good story to tell, if you have a good explanation for why you do something, those really smart attorneys will absolutely respect it.” And I think taking it to the next level, if you teach them something they didn’t know, and you help them understand what informed your thinking and informed the story, even better. I think we’re way too quick to adopt things they say, like “tone at the top or “culture of compliance.” To me, it’s “commitment at the top” or a “culture of accountability.” We need to use words that resonate with business leaders. And so, again, they have a lot of valuable insights based on the work that they do, and we should absolutely listen and learn from them, but they should also listen and learn from us as professionals in our field with a vast amount of experience, and hopefully an experience of being effective.

Hui Chen: So true. I have often said that trying to get guidance from DOJ about how to improve or ensure your organizational integrity is like looking for guidance from your local juvenile delinquent officers on how to raise your children. They have a job that is to go after companies and organizations that have engaged in wrongdoing, and that’s a particular view that they would form based on those experiences. And it’s not really where you should start, if your goal is never to meet them—if you do your job well, your path shall never cross that of the DOJ’s.

Last question: What word would you use to describe your day so far?

Kevin Espinoza: “Excited.” I’m excited—it makes me feel good. Again, I’m still learning, so I don’t have all the answers, but I feel like you’re a kindred spirit, and I’d add Zach to that as well. We’re all trying to do good, and we’re all trying to do better, and that makes me excited about my day and about what I’m trying to do in my professional and I’d say personal life as well.

Zach Coseglia: Thanks, Kevin, so much for joining the podcast and for giving us the chance to get to know you a little bit better and for sharing all of your Better Ways. And thank you all for tuning in to the Better Way? podcast and exploring all of these Better Ways with us. For more information about this or anything else that’s happening with R&G Insights Lab, please visit our website at You can also subscribe to this series wherever you regularly listen to podcasts, including on Apple, Google, and Spotify. And, if you have thoughts about what we talked about today, the work the Lab does, or just have ideas for Better Ways we should explore, please don’t hesitate to reach out—we’d love to hear from you. Thanks again for listening.


Zachary N. Coseglia
Managing Principal and Head of Innovation of R&G Insights Lab
See Bio

Kevin Espinoza
Kevin Espinoza
Integrity & Compliance Leader; Former NCAA Athletics Coach