Don't worry, this blog post is not about the current political situation. That's not the type of politics I'm talking about. (And, seriously, is there any one of you out there that wants, one more time, to dive into another debate about everything that is wrong with the world and whose fault it is? If so, go to Facebook, find a dissenting opinion, and start screeding to your heart's content. We'll just go on with our quiet, happy thoughts about internal audit.)
My guess is that every one of you, one time or another, have said the following at least once in your life: "I really like this job, but I hate the politics." Okay, even if you didn't say the first part about liking the job, you have probably, at break, at lunch, at happy hour, at the fifth tequila, vented about how much you dislike the politics that are associated with your job.
Here's another one: "It is important for internal audit, in order to preserve its independence and objectivity, to keep above organizational politics."
Well, I've got bad news for you. You hate politics? Get over it. Politics, in one way or another, is a fact of business life. And in regards to that second statement, unfortunately, whether the speaker knows it or not, claiming internal audit should keep above organizational politics is No. 4 of the biggest lies told by internal auditors, following just behind "We're here to help you," "This audit shouldn't take very long," and "The audit report is in the mail."
No one Is immune from office politics. In fact, to be successful — as a department or as a professional — politics must be recognized and embraced. Without understanding the political situations that exist within the organization, and without using that understanding, any internal auditor will find him or herself haplessly wandering the halls looking for someone who will pay attention.
And going the extra mile of avoiding politics — of saying internal audit must be above such things, of effectively standing outside the rest of the world and figuratively thumbing one's nose at the customers and clients — is tantamount to telling everyone in the organization that internal audit is too good to be part of what actually makes the system work.
Here's a quote from Tom Peters. "Implementation of anything is all about politics. If you don't like politics, forget about leading anything of any size at any time."
This seems counterintuitive because the concept of office politics has gotten a bad name. To most people, office politics refers to the mudslinging skullduggery of whispered gossip, knives in the back, and a continuing effort to climb to the top on the dead bodies of one's co-workers.
But there is a positive side to office politics, the side that must be embraced for any individual or department to be successful. It is understanding how people work together. It is understanding the social styles in play. It is understanding how to accomplish objectives within the organizational environment. It is understanding the interplay and negotiations that are necessary to accomplish anything. It is understanding that the world (and the organization and the department) is full of innumerable variations of people who all have their own needs and agendas and, given the right impetus and opportunities, are willing to work with others toward everyone meeting, as much as possible, everyone's needs and agendas.
Office politics is nothing more than the phrase we desperately hoped would show up on our grade school report card: Works and plays well with others.
Let me give you just one example of well-played office politics that demeaned no one while, at the same time, helped internal audit get its job done. One of the best CAEs I ever worked for seldom joined us for lunch. That was because he always went to lunch in the executive dining room.
Now, this might appear elitist or privileged or any number of adjectives that effectively mean this individual thought he was better than us common folk. But, trust me, that was not the case; there was not an egotistical bone in his body. As he told us on a number of occasions, he never wanted to miss that lunch because that was where the executives sat and talked about things — about the organization, about the industry, about the latest things going on in their departments, about their successes, about their failures. It was a safe room where everyone felt free to talk about what was actually going on in the organization.
And, because the CAE joined them for lunch every day, he had achieved one of the aspirations many audit departments still beg for … a seat at the table (literally.)
This CAE was well respected and was also invited to all board, executive, and other important meetings. And he had the ear of those who were making the major decisions about the organization. But, by an act as simple as joining everyone for lunch, he learned what was actually going on while, at the same time, cementing his already respected reputation. He was playing the (positive) politics within the organization.
That, my friends, is a leader who understands that politics is not to be avoided, that politics is not something internal audit should shy away from, that knows politics can be as simple as a hot beef sandwich with your peers.
I have had auditors tell me that the politics are not their concern, their job is to just get the audit work done. But, by not understanding the politics of the situation — by not understanding how things actually get accomplished — their job was, at best, only half finished. All the work in the world, no matter how great and wonderful and awesome and of a caliber never before seen on this earth, is of absolutely no value if no one will pay attention. And for someone to pay attention, someone has to play the politics.
If you do not like even the positive side of office politics — if you think you can stand above it all and still get something done — then you'd best find a new line of work. (And, I'll be honest. I'm hard pressed to think of any employment —even self-employment — where political skills will not be necessary.)
I am not saying that you have to participate in the backstabbing politics that occur in some organizations. In fact, those are the politics you do want to run away from. But the politics of learning about people, understanding what makes them tick, recognizing where power exists, knowing what it takes to get the department's work recognized — those are all part and parcel of being successful in business and, accordingly, making a successful internal audit department.