An introduction. Sometimes you sit down to write at the computer or at the typewriter or at the pad of paper or at the papyrus or at the stone and chisel and, in spite of your desire to make sense, something strange comes out. Such was the case a few months ago with the piece that follows. I worked on it off and on and then, a few days ago, when I realized it was finished, I also realized that it was really a holiday piece. You may not agree, but, trust me, it is. Please accept the following as a present for whatever you are celebrating this time of the year.
Somewhere in the middle of the endless, wind-battered openness that is the plains of North Dakota there is a ten-story building. Nine of the floors of that building are vacant. The tenth floor contains an office. You get to that office by exiting the elevator (an elevator which goes to only one floor) and walking along a corridor with no windows and only one door. You open the door, enter, and see an office which is impossibly large for the size of the building. Your eyes are first drawn to the floor-to-ceiling windows which look out on an eternity of vast emptiness. There is no city. There are no buildings. There are no people. There are no roads. There is no civilization. There is nothing but waves of grass and the occasional tree dreaming it is part of a non-existent forest.
And, of course, there is a ten-story office building.
I cannot tell you any more about the location of this building. I have no memory of how I got there. I have no knowledge of the path I’d taken. I remember travails and trials. I know there was pain. But I cannot bring forth a single image of the journey – it has all been flensed from my shattered memory. The only things I know for sure are the open plains, the ten-story office building, and the faint hint of a concept that might be called North Dakotan.
And, in the vast emptiness of that impossibly expansive tenth-floor office, sitting at a simple desk that evoked wisdom and power, I first saw the Auditing Guru.
I was searching for answers to questions - questions about internal audit - questions for which no one seemed to have answers. No, that’s not true. They had answers. But their answers smacked of emptiness – wind-howling emptiness like the plains of North Dakota. The answers I was getting were glib. They were platitudes mouthed without thought to the questions, the concepts, and the impact. They were self-replicating redundancies that had the forethought of a dashed-off email and the depth of an evaporating puddle. I came to the Auditing Guru because I needed answers – answers that I could take back and use to make me more than I was – more as a person, more as an employee, and more as an internal auditor.
As with everything else – as with the location, as with my travels, as with every other part of my masticated memory – my trying to recall the vague recollections toward describing the Auditing Guru would be a fool’s game. I cannot even tell you if the Auditing Guru was a male or a female. Only because the phrase comes easily to me will I use the pronoun “He”. But it is meaningless and provides no insight. I feel as though I have his image in my head. But then I try to transfer it to something firm I can grasp – a picture, a description, words, etchings, drawings, painting on the smoke-filled cave walls - and I cannot do so. He is there. You know he is there. But you can’t really say what you have seen.
I can only say that he is a genius, and he is knowledge, and he is the standards, and he is beyond the standards, and he is the pinnacle of the profession, and he is the perfection of internal audit, and he was the answer to questions I hadn’t even thought of asking.
But, I asked my questions anyway.
I asked what the ideal department size was. He replied “What is the sound of one auditor auditing?” I asked him what the difference was between continuous monitoring and continuous auditing. He replied, “Who is responsible for the distinction?” I asked how long someone should work perfecting a final audit report. He replied “If an audit report is issued in an office and no one is there to read it, has an audit been completed?” I asked where the line was drawn between audit work and original work. He replied “How many auditors does it take to screw in a light bulb?” I asked how it was possible to balance risk and control. He held his two hands before me – exactly parallel – and asked if I could tell the difference. When I said no, he put his hands back to his side and said nothing more.
I asked him these questions, and so many more. And each “answer” he gave only made the enigmas of internal audit that much greater. Each answer was not so much an answer as a further exploration. I was frustrated. And yet, I could tell I was getting what I was truly seeking. Not the answers I had expected; rather, his answers. The results weren’t apparent to me yet. But I was gaining the knowledge I had come seeking, and I was learning more than I realized I needed to know.
My time was almost up. I have no idea how I knew the end was drawing near. Maybe it was a subtle move in the way the Auditing Guru sat. Maybe it was the lengthening rays of the setting sun. Maybe it was that I finally noticed acolytes impatiently glancing at their watches. Maybe it was the signal from my smart phone. But I knew I had time for one more question.
I finally asked the question I had really come to ask, the question at the heart of my suffering. “There is so much we do in Internal Audit that seems to be for nothing. We have findings, but they do not learn about control. We identify risks, but they continue to do risky things. We explain the ramifications of their actions, but they continue to bend and break the rules. We work, but we never seem to really get anywhere. Why? Why do we do it? What is the purpose of it all? I see no hope. I see no end. I see a constantly churning wheel of audits and findings and actions that always come back to the beginning. Why do we do it? Where does it all lead?”
He looked deep within my soul.
“Peace on earth,” was all he said.