Imagine you work in New York City. You are walking from the subway to your downtown office when you see a crush of people — some are running toward something, some running away, some standing in place as they ogle an unusual sight. You join the crush to see what is going on. Getting to the center of the activity, you observe a huge, furry mass and, upon closer inspection, you realize it is a giant ape that has fallen to its death at the base of the Empire State Building.
Your reactions are mixed. You can already tell that the elimination of this risk is a victory, and you feel an internal rejoicing. But you also recognize that you are seeing a once-living creature that, through no fault of its own, was trapped in a situation from which there was no escape. Its inevitable fate is displayed before you.
Looking more closely you make a shocking discovery — an aftermath that those who later document the events will leave out in lieu of telling the story of the escape, the battle, and the ensuing fall. Lives have been lost; people have been crushed under the massive primate. The news outlets will release numbers, but you are looking at the actual evidence of devastation.
Shaken, you continue to work. Sitting at your desk, you grapple with what you have seen. Your assistant reminds you that it is time for your first meeting of the day. In comes the internal audit department to discuss the issues they have identified while reviewing one of the areas over which you are in charge.
How much do you think you're really going to care? How much attention are you going to pay? How important is anything they will say compared to what you have just seen?
We know internal audit is important. We serve an important function and, done right, are an integral part of the organization's success. But as we wrap ourselves with that importance and bury ourselves in the world of objectives, risks, and controls, we sometimes forget that there is a world outside that has nothing to do with us. And we forget that our clients/customers/fellow human beings have lives going on that have nothing to do with us. And, quite often, that life is a whole lot more important than our report on control breakdowns in petty cash.
Early in my career, I was sitting at my desk working on an audit when I suddenly heard someone cry out. Everyone in the office looked up to see a clerk rushing out of the office. She had learned her father had been killed.
I vividly remember looking down at my workpapers thinking that nothing before me was as important as the events that were going on around me.
Internal audit is important. But we have to balance that importance against the rigors of everyday life.
Yeah, it is an aspect of empathy, EQ, emotional intelligence, whatever you want to call it. But what it's really called is being human. And, in all our bag of internal audit tricks — in our skills of communication and critical thinking and writing and testing and the unending litany of proficiencies — no one thing is more important than the skill of being human and remembering that all those around us are humans, too.
The odds of any of us having a meeting with a client after they have experienced the effect of King Kong's fall are slim. However, any event in life, from a death in the family to that nasty hangnail, can be just as distracting. We have to be aware of the known and unknown incidents our clients are facing and take them into account.
As a friend of mine once said about internal audit, we're not curing cancer. Yes, we are important. But you never know when a 60-ton gorilla may have appeared in a person's life. Treat everyone accordingly.