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​​Shooting for Average​​

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Back in the 1990s, we had a Farmers insurance internal audit conference where all supervisors, managers, directors, AVPs, and the vice president were brought together from all over the U.S. Let’s call it about 40 people. It was one of the first times we had all come together to talk about where the department was, where it was going, and to just, generally, share ideas.

As often happens in these situations, there were some interesting stories. (Anyone out there who actually attended the conference will never be able to forget karaoke in the boat house. And, trust me, we’ve all tried.) However, I want to focus on a presentation that was made part way through the second day. One of my co-workers — a talented individual and good friend — gave that presentation and I was a bit flummoxed. It wasn’t good. In fact, without putting too fine a point on it, the presentation stunk.

Afterwards, I talked to him and questioned what had happened. That’s when I found out he was battling a stomach “thing.” His response. “I don’t know or care whether you thought it was successful. As far as I was concerned, it was successful if I didn’t throw up.”

Good news; He was successful.

This came to mind recently because I’m currently battling through a few things myself. A few weeks ago, I broke my foot walking. Not tripping, not falling, not anything extra special — I broke it just walking. (Feel free to take this moment to relieve yourself of any “old man” jokes you’d like to lob my way.) As I was recovering from that, I managed to get a minor respiratory thing. Nothing huge, but enough to knock me for a loop anytime I really start to work on anything.

Unfortunately, working on things was what I needed to do. I may be semi-retired, but sometimes that semi seems to have driven down the interstate, leaving me with the work.

There were two projects in particular — I won’t tell you what they are — that I looked at, realized my passion was dying, and thought “All I really need to do is get through them.”

Much like my friend and his presentation, I could have considered each a success if all I did was just complete them.

Luckily, I caught myself. I found I couldn’t let myself get away with mediocrity. At least, I couldn’t start out by aiming for mediocrity. Of course, part of the reason was that people were paying me to get these projects done — and done well. But, more importantly, I expected more of myself.

And I was reminded of something I know all too well. Once you start trying to achieve nothing more than mediocrity, even for the best of reasons, it becomes an addictive habit — the excuses for “just getting something done” start coming hard and fast and “less than good” starts becoming the status quo.

Two more stories from “True Tales of Adventure With the Internal Auditor.”

I had a new auditor who, on her third audit — an audit of petty cash audit — did a really mediocre job. Her previous audits had been impeccable, perfect examples of the art of internal audit. But this audit was the equivalent of paint-by-numbers. Yeah, it’s all there, but so what? When confronted, she explained — in no uncertain terms — “I’ve done so many petty cash audits I just couldn’t face another one.”

The work reflected it. But I never saw work like that from her again. One, I knew it was an anomaly and continued to expect greatness. Two, she knew I could see past the trappings and was not one to accept less than what could be accomplished. And three, she was not the kind of person to, normally, expect mediocrity from herself. Neither of us fell into the trap

Story No. 2: I worked with another auditor who was in a rather untenable position. (No details here. Suffice to say that he had plenty of reasons for his complaints and they were justified. It was not a good place.) His work was suffering. He didn’t care, and the quality of his work slowly decreased. Mediocrity was being aimed for and achieved. And this habit of mediocrity was beginning to permeate everything he did.

Charybdis was swallowing another Argonautian auditor. (Note; he got better and is now one of the most talented auditors I know.)

Mediocrity, particularly in the face of pressures (time; life; illness; personal issues; business issues; being battered, bruised, and beaten) is an easy solution. Achieving mediocrity takes a lot less work and allows us to better focus on (or, in some instances, solve) those pressures. And some of the excuses for mediocrity are pretty darned good. (Just make it through the presentation without getting sick.) But we can never go into a project (big, small, or somewhere in between) of any kind (work, personal, etc.) with mediocrity as the ultimate goal. We can never shoot for just enough.

Because, even when we are working at our best, mediocrity will sometimes be the result. Sometimes, even with our best efforts, we are forced to accept less-than-greatness, not-quite-our-best, close-but-no-award … we are forced to accept mediocrity. So, if we begin striving for mediocrity, and we miss the mark, something much uglier results.

I cannot tell you how the two projects I mentioned above will (or have) worked out. I believe I got past the mindset that was going to infect each project’s success, and I hope the individuals involved will not be able (or were not able) to tell that, at some point, I was basically ready to give up.

But I saw that slippery curb and almost stepped out on it.

We have to try to do more than people expect, even in the most inconsequential of projects, in order to show our value and potential to those people. In internal audit, every project is an opportunity to sell the department. And if, at any time, we strive for nothing more than mediocrity, then we are selling a mediocre product. And, while we know we can do better, our clients/customers will then start seeing us as doing something less.

And, among other things, that means we have to take a good, close look at what we want to achieve at the beginning and throughout any project; we have to make sure we have not reset our sights to something lower than we really want to achieve. It is easy for the dream of the city on the hill to become a nice little place in the valley.

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