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​Warm Fuzzies and Pink Slips

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A heads up: This is a post that talks about internal auditors, but is less about the profession than it is about leadership in general. But don’t get fooled. It still applies to all of us. It is just that some truths are bigger than the profession.

I have been lucky enough to work for a number of people who became good friends. For one of those individuals, I worked for him two separate times, both of them when he was brought in as AVP of internal audit.

Allow me to preface this by indicating that he is a most excellent auditor, leader, and friend. I learned much from him and still count him as an important friend. But others may not have had the same impressions.

Through circumstance or nigh-on-Machiavellian planning by the chief audit executive, my friend was brought in as AVP of our internal audit department two different times. And in both situations, the department faced serious decisions and the need for drastic changes.

In particular, there were individuals in the department who were, shall we say, of a quality less than the minimum daily requirements. Oh, let’s just cut to the chase. Fat needed to be trimmed. Chaff needed to be separated from wheat. The herd needed to be culled. Bad apples needed to be removed from the barrel.

People needed to find employment elsewhere.

In both situations, after my friend completed the less-than-palatable duties, he wound up moving to other positions. It wasn’t the plan for him to move on; things just happen. But it meant that many auditors only saw him in the role of hired gun.

Had he stuck around, I’m sure things would have worked out well. He is a good and talented auditor and, as noted, an excellent manager, leader, and human being. I have watched him in subsequent leadership roles, ones where his responsibilities did not include getting rid of people, and he has succeeded magnificently. And, as evidenced by his handling of the situations in which he found himself, he is the kind of person who, when a tough job needs to be done, will not hesitate to do it.

However, for our internal audit department, his departure may have been a good thing. In both instances, the individuals that followed him as AVP were quickly embraced by the auditors as leaders who cared about people — the opposite of how some perceived my friend. It was not that there was specific ill will against him, it was just that his future would most likely have been tainted by what he had needed to do. The wounds from what had occurred were probably better healed by his leaving and replacing him with others who could provide the salve.

And therein lies the point. Few leaders can successfully switch roles and maintain credibility. We ask it of them, but it is not something most can do. And in some instances, it doesn’t matter if they actually have the chameleon-like ability to become the person needed for differing situations, the employees will have perceived them as being one kind of person and may find it hard (if not impossible) to see those leaders in new roles.

I worked with one organization in which the hatchet man was still in charge long after the hatcheting had been accomplished. I do not know how well this individual might have done in other circumstances. But the past left a legacy, and the staff continued to react in fear that was based on that past. People were afraid to speak the truth, silos grew, a culture of distrust flourished, and turnover took its toll.

I also worked with an organization from the other side of the spectrum. The leader was of the kinder, gentler, people-person persuasion. Then it was time to wield hatchets — to call people to task for what was and was not getting accomplished — and it did not go well. People had trouble taking this more authoritarian image seriously, and change did not occur.

In either of these instances, it is hard to say if it was an issue with the people in charge, with the perceptions of the employees, or both. But it raises the point that one leader may not fit every situation.

Leaders have to adapt and be able to fit many roles. Any of us who aspire to leadership (and, by the way, that means every single auditor out there — in fact, you are already in a leadership position and may not realize it), any of us in leadership roles or aspiring to be leaders must learn to adapt.

But in some instances, it may be that a change in leadership is the only way to be successful. For those of us in charge, we may have to recognize the need to move a leader and bring in someone new. And for those of us who are leading, if significant change occurs, it may be that we need the courage to step up, step out, and let someone else lead for a change.

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