The odds are you’ve seen the video of Susan Boyle. She’s the 47-year-old YouTube sensation who came onto “Britain’s Got Talent” and, after suffering the slings and arrows of Simon Cowell and friends, knocked ’em dead (as they say in the trades). In fact, you may be so sick of her that you haven’t even read this far in my post. But there’s a point to be made here — a point that I’ve started seeing others make, but I have to give credit to NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” for opening my eyes two weeks ago.
How many of you auditors out there (the rest of you can pay attention, too) saw this video and were as shocked and amazed as the rest of the world that this dowdy (and that’s the word everyone is using) woman displayed such a beautiful voice? Okay, a sizable show of hands. And how many of you also laughed and said, “Look at Simon making such a fool of himself?” I still see a large number of smugly raised hands. Bad news. There’s a good chance you have acted the same fool as Simon. Why? Because, before she opened her mouth, you bought into the belief that you have to be beautiful to be a successful singer.
“Wait a minute,” you’re saying. “It was on television, so I assumed they put her on to make fun of her.” That’s a nice try. However, wouldn’t it have been just as likely that they would set up just the situation that occurred — the entire world shocked by this voice from this woman? Trapped again, weren’t you?
Let’s talk for a second about preconceived notions and approaching all aspects of business with an unbiased attitude. If we walk into an office in disarray, we might suspect there is the opportunity for problems, but we cannot assume that problems actually exist. If the department head dresses in a three-piece suit and expects all his minions to dress similarly, we might suspect there is an overriding sense of professionalism within the department, but we cannot assume there are fewer problems in the operation. We are to enter any engagement armed only with the knowledge of what we know for sure, not with the suspicions of what we think our first impressions mean. I know this, you know this, every first-year auditor knows this.
Yet, we all see Susan Boyle and are amazed by her incredible voice. Would we have been as amazed if she were beautiful? Would we have been as amazed if she were not beautiful, but was thin? Would we have been as amazed if she were younger? Of course not. Would we have been as amazed if the voice came out of a leopard? Of course. What’s the difference? The facts in the first situations have no bearing on the quality of the voice — the facts in the last one do. And so it goes with any engagement; success means focusing on the facts that actually have a bearing on the operation. A messy office? Dressing nicely? Good to know. Both are indicators of something. But they are not indicators of controls within the process.
But, how many of us auditors, forgetting our business training, sat slack-jawed in front of the television listening to Ms. Boyle? How many of us forwarded it to our friends with the e-mail subject “You won’t believe this!!” (At this point I must admit I can be smug. I knew what was going on before I watched the video. And I’m sure that, even if I hadn’t known what was going to occur, I wouldn’t have been as surprised as the rest of the world. And I’m also sure I could have passed the CIA exam in one try if I had really tried.)
This may seem a trivial example, but it is the everyday life events like this that will sneak their way into your work. Can’t happen to you? How many of the frauds, swindles, and scandals that we have seen over the many, many years can be traced back to accepting something at face value without exploring the underlying truths? I remember a presentation from a fraudster more than 20 years ago. He explained that part of the reason he was able to get away with it for so long was that he approached the auditors as a professional, gained their confidence, then bought his way through the engagement. (And I don’t mean pay-offs — I mean a couple of innocent dinners and a few dozen free donuts.) A smile and a little food, and the auditors became biased. And the other side of the coin is just as true — how often have we wasted our time on audits because it just looked like something was wrong?
You’re right; sitting at home with the television on and the mind off is no testament for how any of us will act in our business life. But we still need to switch our minds on just enough to pay attention — pay attention to what is happening in front of us, and pay attention to what it may mean to the quality of our work.