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10 Questions That Speak Volumes About Culture

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In a Fast Company article, "10 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview That Will Really Expose a Company's Culture," author Karen Eber provides advice to those being interviewed for a new job. (And a quick note about this link. You do not have to subscribe to access it, but Fast Company does restrict the number of articles that can be viewed each month without a subscription.) The intent of the article is to provide interviewees with a different approach when confronted with the predictable/inevitable/dreaded line, "What questions do you have for us?"

Often, trying to actually learn a little about the department and the organization, the interviewee might ask, "What is the culture here?"

It is an important question that every job seeker should care about. But worded that way in that situation, it is a time waster, a bit of puffery that will provide no real information. No interviewer will answer that the culture is toxic, or numbing, or devoid of life, or advise the candidate to run away before it is too late. Instead, the response will be filled with blather, pontification, and assorted platitudes about what a wonderful place it is to work, followed by cliches derived from corporate and departmental vision and mission statements.

To get better answers, better questions need to be asked. To quote the article:

If you want to get a sense of the story of the leader and team's culture, use detailed questions. You will get a much better sense based on the responses, especially if the leader struggles to think of what to say. If you are a manager, prepare to answer detailed questions that illustrate your team's culture. 

The article provides 10 questions that are a bit unexpected. Slightly aggressive (in a good way), they are constructed to dig deeper for answers that will speak volumes about the organization, department, and culture.

But I didn't call you here to provide questions to ask as you are being interviewed or to prepare you for the interviewee that is armed with these questions. (Not that either of these would be a bad thing.) Instead, I want to talk about the culture within your department.

There are a lot of things developing, visionary, and/or innovative internal audit departments want to accomplish. And this is a good thing. It is only by reaching beyond the mediocre and even the good that the profession will get better. But I have seen and talked with audit shops that say the words and audit leaders who think they are trying to achieve what the words mean. But nothing is accomplished; there is no forward movement, and leadership can't understand it. They think they really want change and think they are saying all the right things and think they are doing the right things. But it just doesn't take off.

In various presentations, I have a slide that says, simply, "Culture: Trust, Honesty, Openness, Freedom." The point: without a culture based on trust within the department, honesty among everyone, openness about what is going right and wrong, and the freedom of members to express themselves, any plans for creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, leadership, and positive change will fall like seeds scattered on rocky ground. Leaders who cannot understand why change is not occurring need to take an honest look at the rocky culture on which they are trying to scatter the seeds.

The questions in this article provide a start — a very good start — in examining the culture that is allowing or inhibiting the change that is necessary for success. Let's take a look at a couple of the questions and what the answers might say.

Tell me someone you are proud of. This single question will tell you audit leadership's priorities. Is the individual someone who has come up with new ideas? Is it someone who is an informal leader within the department? Is it someone the leader developed into greater positions within the organization? Any of these responses shows a focus on development of the department and/or the employees. However, if the individual is someone who always got his or her work done on time, completed all required audit documentation, or did not argue with organizational leadership during meetings (and I saw that one up close and personal) then the focus is not on getting better, but only filling in the blanks and getting work done. Laudable indeed, but not a department striving to become better.

How do you focus on your own growth and development? As people reach higher and higher levels within an organization, there is a tendency for the focus on personal growth and development to wane. This question will reveal if the department is serious about lifelong learning, a foundational principle to any success. The focus on growth and development should be seen at all levels. And no matter how many years of experience the chief audit executive, vice president, associate vice presidents, directors, etc. have, they should still be striving to learn more. (Note: You're never too old to get the Certified Internal Auditor designation.)

How did you start your last team meeting? Actually, let me change that one. What do your team meetings look like? Are they organized? Do you have an agenda? Do you have an objective? Are you holding them just to hold them? Are you the talking head? Is anyone besides you actually excited about the meeting? Are you even excited about the meeting? We all know meetings are a No. 1 time-waster. Yet, done correctly, they are integral to success. If the proper emphasis is not put on something as fundamental as holding effective meetings, it cannot be expected that the proper emphasis will be placed on any other operations within the department.

So, there's three of them — a taste. Go review the article and take a look at the questions, including what they might mean for your department. If you are a leader, ask yourself these questions. And, if you have the guts, share the answers with your team. (After all, you're a leader, so such bravery should come easily.) If you are not in a leadership position, still ask yourself these questions. And, if you have the opportunity, ask them of the leaders. And no matter what position you are in, evaluate the answers and determine what kind of culture exists within the department.

This is not a trivial exercise. Because, when the answers come in and the analysis is done and you step back and see what you have, you will know if you actually have a team or just a bunch of auditors doing nothing more than the work.

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