I have been to the cinema to see the film Belle. So as not to spoil it for you, it is about a black lady and her role in British society in the 18th century and the challenges she faced. This is not just within a society that still tolerated the abomination of human slavery, but also one that was highly status and class-oriented.
The point that struck me about the film, and it is a good film all round, was the stand taken by Belle and her guardian, the then Lord Chief Justice, against slavery and the prevailing views of society at the time. I pondered whether this required extreme courage on the part of the Lord Chief Justice, and risked his professional status, standing and respect.
That then brought me back to being a CAE. I recalled how hard it has been in my career to take a view that prevails not just against an organisational and senior management view but also against the underlying professional view. I have done this is the past over health and safety, where I came up with what I thought made much more sense as a delivery model, splitting delivery of health and safety oversight from delivery, but leaving expertise in each camp.
I have also done so in less obvious and dramatic ways over all sorts of issues. I have believed in the assessments I have made, but not to the point that I think I have all of the answers, but more a belief that the challenge is of value of itself. The strong objectivity that internal audit has I often take for granted and don’t really understand why others cannot see things afresh.
I had a good example recently the other way that taught me how this happens. I was trying to explain my audit approach in plain English. A member of my team wrote an excellent paper, another reviewed it, I then attempted it again. A member of the management reviewed it and had a go, and just used a simple clear way to explain it. I was surprised at my inability to see beyond my audit technical bubble.
So if it is a natural thing for us to lose our own objectivity does this make, coming back to my original point, the CAE’s job to really, fundamentally, challenge, difficult? Yes, I think so. It is very difficult to take an alternative view, as humans I think we are naturally conflict avoidant; hence group think and other phenomena.
So should a CAE raise a challenge to convention, really go against the prevailing view in a fundamental way? Yes, definitely. It behoves a CAE to do this, because they are best placed to do it. I’ll let you into another secret, in a number of cases, when I have done it, I have not only made a lasting difference to my clients, but actually provided cover for others, of the same opinion, to have confidence to express it. Yes I have been proven wrong in cases, and I cannot foresee the future, but no organisation can truly say, working through a challenging opinion, responding and justifying it, is not of value in itself. For at the very least, it can make the status quo more justified and grounded in analysis and consideration, and that, for almost all organisations, is no bad thing.