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​Selling the Value in Not Knowing a Lot About Anything

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In my last blog post I talked about the book Range by David Epstein and its contention that success is more likely to come to generalists (those with broad knowledge about a number of things) than specialists (those who have deep knowledge about specific areas). I discussed how internal auditors — individuals, departments, and the profession — will have a better chance for success when we recognize our need for generalists, our need to hire for generalists, and our need to train for generalists.

That’s a major takeaway that can fundamentally change the way we hire and train. However, there is another, pretty important, takeaway from this concept of generalism versus specialism.

Tell me this hasn’t happened to you. You are in an audit kick-off meeting. The most important client in the room (manager, director, AVP, VP, Grand Poo-Bah) suddenly turns and says, “What do you know about marketing/distribution/technology/sales/human resources/ R&D/customer service/[insert your favorite process here]? You’ve never worked in the business. You don’t understand how things get done. I’ve been here [insert a very large number] years and you think you can tell me anything about the way my operations work?”

My guess is we’ve all sat in that meeting…more than once.

So, how do you answer?

My approach was always to focus not on what internal audit doesn’t know, but what we do know.

“You’re right. We do not have the vast expertise you and your staff have with these processes. However, we understand risks, we understand controls, we understand processes, and we understand the way this organization works. And our intent is to work with you, combining what you know about your operations with what we know, to generate ideas that will make your operations more efficient and help you better achieve your objectives.”

Okay, maybe it never went exactly that way. But, in any such discussions, that was the message we were desperately hoping we were delivering.

However, as I look at that response in light of what Epstein has to say in his book, I realize the response contains the seeds for a marketing approach we are all missing.

One of internal audit’s unheralded strengths (if we are doing it right) is our broad perspective regarding the organization and the business. We are in all operations of the organization. We have a general knowledge about all operations. We see how those operations impact each other. No, we may not have worked in IT or Marketing or HR or any other department, but we understand how IT impacts Marketing impacts HR impacts anything else from janitorial services to the C-suite.

That means that Internal auditors, as generalist – as the ones who know a little about everything – have a better chance of finding better solutions than the people with whom we are working.

And now let me throw in another point from another book I’m just starting. In Shane Snow’s Dream Teams, the first chapter discusses how teams composed of people with different perspectives come up with better and more successful solutions. (Actually, I’m all the way through chapter two which begins to provide some caveats regarding diverse teams, but that is a discussion for another time.)

Put that all together and a we have a major selling point regarding the value of internal audit that I think most of us have really not thought about — diverse teams with a broad breadth of knowledge that can look at a department with fresh perspectives.

Now, I recognize that trying to market the department on the concept of “we don’t specialize in anything” ain’t exactly the best way to make raving fans. Let’s face it, most people are not aware of the role generalism plays in success. (Shoot, I always suspected it, but didn’t really have any proof until I read Epstein’s book.) But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t understand this as a basis for our success and build it into the DNA for marketing our departments.

Of course, if you have a knowledgeable client — one who understands these ideas and buys into them — then, yes, by all means sell it to them this way.

But the more important sales technique is the one that makes the client a partner to the process. (Yes, this is something you should already be doing, but this reframes that approach.) You have to make them a part of the solution so 1) they can provide their expertise and 2) they can see generalists at work – see generalists successfully coming up with surprising and value-added solutions. (Quick note: I don’t know a lot about agile audit processes, but I believe this inclusion is one of the keys to the success of that approach. Another reason that, if you haven’t explored agile, you might want to take a look.)

Yes, when clients ask us what we are bringing to the table, part of the answer is that we know risk, process, and controls. But the other part of that answer is telling them our broad knowledge is an asset. And if they are unsure why that should matter, then we need to ask them to take a leap of faith. “Work with us and let’s see what we can accomplish together.”

That is the start of marketing our generalism and, done right, it means we have made a convert. And marketing the department is much more successful when it comes from raving fans than from any techniques we might use.

Start letting people know that you don’t know everything about everything. But then follow it up with a discussion of why that might be a good thing. And then, leap together, to find something new, great, and successful.

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