While some cataclysm in the slipstream capsizes the raft, shatters it, leaves us gasping amid the flotsam, ejected from the familiar flow of time — do we sink or sing?
— Maria Popova
I think we can start off by agreeing that this quote from Maria Popova of "Brain Pickings" expresses our current state pretty well. We have definitely experienced capsizing, shattering, and being left gasping. And we've been ejected from the familiar flow of time. But the real stinger is that last word. It is easy to talk about the choice of whether we will sink or swim. But let's be honest, swim is the lowest of expectations. It is struggling to get back to the status quo; it is just keeping alive. But to sing is to not only adapt, but to revel in the change.
There are volumes of interpretations available in the simple phrase "sink or sing," but here's where I'm going right now. The previous year forced us to learn things we already knew, things we should have known, and things that blind with their shiny newness. It forced us to make changes we all knew were coming, but never felt we had time for. And it forced us to recognize truths that were buried under the mundane applications of daily life.
What follows are some thoughts and learnings from the previous year — things we discovered or rediscovered.
Good and bad leadership become evident in a crisis. In our personal lives, in our business lives, and in the world at large, events have shown us what good and bad leaders look like. In particular, the crisis has brought out the polar opposites that exist — leaders can either recognize their role and step forward or abdicate their responsibilities. Take a close look at the leaders around you. During this crisis, which have shown what good leadership is? And which have been less-than-good? Find the good and follow them. Find the good and support them. Find the good and emulate them. And remember that others perceive you through the lens of the leaders you follow.
We learn to adapt, along with
What we thought was immutable is, indeed, mutable. We thought we all knew what agility and adaptation were. Then the maelstrom hit. As the saying goes, we began dancing as fast as we could. We work from home and sit in virtual meetings and do virtual audits and homeschool and forget to turn off "mute" and only dress the upper half of our bodies and drive cats off our keyboards and, in general, cope with an existence we never knew we could cope with. But the real lesson is that we can change much faster than we thought. And, in the future, we need to remember this. There are two phrases we should never utter again: "That cannot be changed" and "We'd like to make the change but there isn't time right now." Anything can be changed and, if change is necessary, it should be done now, not later.
Even hermits need to get outside sometimes. Anyone else missing even the simplest of travels? Stir crazy has many layers, but, for me, one layer is the inability to go out in person and see the people I'm presenting to. Which ties in with the internal audit side. The profession has made great efforts in adapting to remote and virtual work. But nothing beats real-life, face-to-face communication. And the minute we can get back to more of it, the better we will be.
We can't outguess risks. OK, this one really hurts. But let's be honest, how many of us had something like this identified as a potential risk for 2020? Yeah, we all knew there were disruptions in the offing, and there is always the chance of a catastrophe. But this was one of those high-impact, low-probability things that we put on the chart and then moved on. Which raises the question: How well have we married risk to crisis management within the organization? I just read a governance outlook report from the National Association of Corporate Directors that indicated 74% of board members felt the organization's crisis plan was effective in responding to COVID-19. However, it also showed that 35% were not really prepared for the crisis. Confusing results, and I plan on writing more about that in a soon-to-follow post. But the point is that, while no individual cataclysm should be on our risk forecasts, the broader topic of "potential cataclysms" should always be front of mind.
Our days are not filled with work. Face it, we all knew this one. Eight hours in an office did not mean eight hours of work. When we started working from home, how much time was spent on actual work. Stack this up against how many errands were run, how many cleaning projects were completed, how many hours of "Ren & Stempy" were watched. And did this have any impact on the accomplishment of objectives? This is not to say there should be a wholesale flogging until such time as people work eight hours. But it does mean we have to recognize how time is spent and adjust our perceptions accordingly.
We learned what is important. We learned who the essential workers really are. Author Harlan Ellison once noted that plumbing was a more honorable profession than writing, saying "When you need a sink fixed, you need a plumber, not Dostoevsky." We learned the broad reality associated with that quote. When we need food services, when we need mail, when we need groceries, when we need trash collected, when we need caregivers, when we need delivery services, when we need essential services, what we
don't need are internal auditors. Maslow's hierarchy explains it best — first physiological and safety needs, then we can move on to other things. Accounting is nice, marketing is nice, human resources is nice, internal audit is nice, Dostoevsky is nice. But until the basics are achieved, those other items are not even on the radar.
And one more thing about "what is important": We have also learned about priorities in our personal lives. As we have lost loved ones, as we have been cut off from loved ones, and as we have spent extended time with loved ones, we have regained the perspective of what personal versus business life really means. And we have reinforced and reestablished which of these should be No. 1.
Finally, one thing I learned. Thanks for reading. I throw these words out into the blogosphere in hopes that bits and pieces will resonate with someone. Based on the hits and comments, it looks like I occasionally get it right. But I wouldn't be allowed to do any of this if it weren't for all of you.
Thanks for joining me, and here's hoping I give you something you think is worth reading in the coming year. And let's hope that, in 2021, we learn similarly important concepts without having to receive the same kind of giant smack upside the head.