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​Nourishment or Poison

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Ah, yes, the good old days. There was a reason people described auditors as those who bayoneted the wounded. We came in after the fact and pointed out everything that had gone wrong, most of it already recognized by the victim/auditee (no such word as “client” yet.)

When I joined internal audit in the antediluvian days of the early 1980s, the profession had progressed. At least things had changed at Farmers Insurance. My understanding is that we may have been a little forward-thinking that way. But what did I know? I was brand new and just glad to have a job. Small piece of perspective about the times. The prime rate was 11% and I had a friend who had to pay 19% interest for her house. Yep, just glad to have any job.

Mind you, even with our kinder, gentler approach we still managed to practice the gotcha mentality. We still wrote reports that effectively said, “Here’s all the wrong stuff we found. Now fix it.” Lots of reports with percentages of errors/flaws/mistakes identified, but no examination of what was wrong in the process.

Oh, we did some process analysis, too. Rudimentary, but we did it. In my second audit, I was able to talk to the people involved in a process to learn what the problem was. I found that Claims thought IT was doing one thing with a report and IT was doing the complete opposite. That one identified a couple of million dollars which, in the 1980s, was probably the equivalent of a gazillion. And at 19% interest …

And the other thing our audit group was doing right was that we saw our role as helping make the company better — we saw ourselves as partners with the business. Again, old hat now, but not that common back then. People generally liked us and weren’t all that upset when they saw us coming. (Fraud investigations being the possible exception, which, as always, is another story altogether.)

Nonetheless, the auditors (including me) still seemed to enjoy and almost search for those “gotcha” moments. I still remember the joy in the audit department when we’d catch someone or something. My guess is there was still the occasional cough of “cops” behind our backs.

We got better. And so did the profession. But it doesn’t go away. I can remember incidents in my final year with the company where I caught myself getting that little spark from finding something wrong. Not just finding a way to improve, but catching someone at something.

This all came to mind while reading a recent blog post by Austin Kleon in which he talked about adopting this mission statement:

“To be fundamentally more invested in finding nourishment rather than identify poison.”

As I say, the profession of internal audit has come a long way. And many of us are seen as partners to the business and trusted advisors. But accepting this mission statement, or at least keeping it handy as a reminder, might be important.

We can and should find the things that are going wrong. But, if we think our job is to only identify the poison, then we have lost our perspective — we have forgotten that we exist to help the business and, perhaps most importantly, that we are working with human beings. Instead, if we think of the profession as finding nourishment for the organization — helping it grow through the achievement of objectives — it shows the light years of distance we have traversed since those days in the early 1980s.

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