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"Strictly Come Dancing" judges

So what’s made me think or be inspired this week? It was another week where a single comment hit home. In this case – ‘as a leader you are being judged even when you’re at the company coffee cart’. It got me thinking because it is so true. As a CAE you have a number of audiences, the audit committee, senior management, middle management, operational management and of course, the audit team itself.

These are hugely different audiences. Now of course all CAEs know they are on view at the audit committee. Most CAEs, and I am sure I am no different, carefully manage the diet and messages of audit committee to ensure that I meet their expectations and future expectations. It is a set piece meeting. So of course I phrase things carefully, consider potential options and questions for response. I have also got into the practice, over the years, of having a pre-meeting so I can assist the audit committee chair to achieve their objectives for the meeting. I know how difficult being an audit chair can be – I’ve done it myself.

So, senior management. Of course one is thoughtful and prepared when speaking to them. First to meet their assurance expectations and needs. Second to provide a suitable challenge and support, working within the management risk appetite and agenda. Third to provide a space to have open, honest, candid, but also safe, conversations.

So for middle and junior management the CAE tries (I think) to have a more honest conversation. Again the messages are tailored, to support, but challenge, the management team. This is about understanding the risk challenge and narrative, but also about the extent to which a challenge can be raised. Here I try to really understand how it really  is. Otherwise internal audit can seem like the parachuting in of head office, ivory tower, 20:20 hindsight, so called ‘experts’. I like to think of internal audit as being more of a set of battle-worn realists who can translate between different layers of the organisation (not that I, or my team, always get this right).

So how do I feel judged as a CAE? What does this mean? It means you have to be all things to all people. It means you cannot be intemperate, or be too bold and strident in the way you express yourself. At the same time, however, I believe good leadership requires you to be authentic and human. I’ve written before about how difficult is it to balance self disclosure and authentic human behaviour with being a leader. There’s a great Harvard Business Review blogpost about it, see: http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/06/instantaneous-intimacy-skillfu/

I think the answer, certainly when leading audit teams, is to foster human understanding of each other. For at the heart of my audit approach is a recognition that humans are complex, difficult, challenging and make mistakes. They make these because the world is difficult, complex and full of trade offs. So just as I believe that we as auditors should accept the human frailty we audit we should also accept each other as human beings that need support. This is particularly in my current team where we travel as teams and are often overseas, looking out for each other is not just good practice, but a necessary part of working together.

So perhaps audit teams do need to cut their CAEs a little slack, for one cannot be inspired by an automaton, but teams also want to feel that they are not ruled solely by a CAE’s whims and personal views, for therein lay the bonfire of process and equity. How do you, as a CAE, cope with being judged (even when buying a coffee)?