Mindfulness and internal audit are not natural bed fellows. Let’s define it:
Mindful (comparative more mindful, superlative most mindful). Being aware (of something); attentive, heedful.
I think internal audit and auditors have a natural predisposition against being mindful. We are trained to be dispassionate and objective. We value not getting emotionally connected or engaged with the subjects we audit. We are naturally competitive. We as auditors are always looking for how something can be improved and looking for non compliance, fraud, error, sub optimality of any type. We are trained to be professionally sceptical. We don’t take things at face value and we challenge the status quo. All of these things incline us to be less mindful of our clients and colleagues.
When you become a CAE the tables are turned. Suddenly mindfulness is helpful and useful. As a CAE, I have written before on this blog about working out how reports and messages will ‘land’. A good CAE should be able to work out how their work will impact the organisations and individuals in the client organisation. I have in the past become frustrated by what I call fake mindfulness. That is, where people become bland, do not have opinions, are not open and honest with each other and see all feedback as criticism. Often management teams fall into this trap. This is not a good place for an organisation to be in, where honest and open debate is not allowed, promoted or engaged with. Sure not every decision can be endlessly debated and challenged, but equally no challenge leads to organisational atrophy and group think. It can be frustrating as a CAE to see problems that are not tackled all to avoid conflict or uncomfortable situations. Ultimately they can impact organisational culture and performance. There has been much written about the risk taking culture in Barclays and other banks, for example.
So in my view a good CAE must be able to deliver difficult and challenging messages. Some in our profession actually go into the personally brave mode, to tell organisations about serious problems and are threatened, harassed and sacked for doing so.
Yet a CAE must be both brave, honest and mindful. As I have progressed in my career I have come to understand the world is a lot greyer than I previously imagined it. The world is not black and white, right and wrong. Differences of opinion are to be celebrated, endorsed and validated and mutually acceptable. I have also come to understand organisations in greater depth and see people, not processes or systems, as the core of how organisational control works. This means understanding people.
As a CAE I also manage an audit team. This means managing people. People who are generally excellent and committed to excellence, but who all have lives, families, partners, health and social issues, pressures and stresses and different opinions. So the immediate prima facie reaction and consideration of staff issues I have learned is not always massively helpful.
As an example, I travel on planes a lot. At the end of the flight, once the plane has taxied into the stand, those in the aisle stand up and get their bags ready. they queue in the aisle to depart. I have a simple rule that rushing will not help, pushing past others is not useful, and for those by the window, being given a few moments to get up, put your coat on and get your back out of the overhead locker is really helpful. So I am mindful, on the basis of fairness to always stop the aisle queue when I am head of it and allow those in the row in front to get out. As I got up this evening a lady was by the window seat in the row in front. When the others in her row had all gone, she looked at me and paused. I simply gesticulated for her to feel free to get out and get her bag, stopping the aisle queue behind me. As she got up, I noticed she was disabled and walking took great effort. She was so grateful for my courteousness. I did not know she was disabled, she was sat down and had boarded the plane before I had. Yet I felt so much compassion and admiration for her and she descended the steps, with great difficulty, off the plane and then walked to the terminal. Had I not been mindful and courteous I would have felt awful had I pushed past or been grumpy to get off the plane.
So it is with audit clients and with team members. We should always try to anticipate or seek to provide space to understand that people are complex and have all sorts of things going on in their lives. This is not a charter for a less demanding or lower standards audit, but more a recognition that the world is complex and not simple, and that other, perhaps more plausible or difficult explanations, may emerge for issues risks or performance difficulties.
As another example, my audit teams travel internationally. They are away for up to two weeks, working and socialising with their colleagues. Now this is difficult territory. For in that space in the evenings my teams are neither fully in work, nor fully at home. They can be tired, stressed, sometimes ill and missing home. So we, as an audit team, need to cut our colleagues a little slack. Sometimes people are grumpy or relaxed and don’t stick to the same style they would in the office. This is fine as long as colleagues are mindful and understanding.
Whilst being mindful of others does not come naturally to us as auditors and I think modern management mindfulness, practiced to becoming organisationally bland, is unhelpful, I do think we should mind the gap between our training and our practice. Do you?