I’ve got this swee-eet deal where I get a bunch of free books. Okay, I don’t get a bunch, but I get them free. Okay, it’s not really that sweet, there’s a catch. Okay, I get the books if I promise to review them. Okay, I get one every couple of months. Okay, I’ve probably gotten ten in the last two years. But – hey! – I get free books. (Don’t worry, my auditing ethics are intact; they don’t have to be favorable reviews and this won’t count as one of those reviews.)
The way it works is that a list of potential books is provided monthly and everyone involved indicates which ones they might be interested in. Then, if your tastes match the style, and there is evidence that you’ve been doing the reviews, you just might get one of the books.
Earlier this month, I got a free copy of Stuntman, the autobiography of Hal Needham. (You can Google the name if you need more info on who he is – but think Smokey and the Bandit.) Why did I select this particular book? Why did I think it might interest me? Danged if I remember. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I have been putting off reading it; I just wasn’t as thrilled about it as I must have been when I first volunteered for the free copy. But, at the beginning of the week, I knew I had made a commitment to read and review the book, so I was going to have to start. (I also knew I would be reading it because of the randomizing method I use to determine which book I’m going to read next. But that process is so psychologically disturbing my wife threatens to divorce me every time I make my selection, so I will spare you.) And so, having put it off as long as I could, I started reading it.
Man, the things I’ve put off in my career. The things I’ve put off because I just didn’t want to do them, the things I’ve put off because they didn’t look like any fun, and the things I’ve put off because the reward just didn’t seem to match the work. But there’s a line I’ve heard again and again from Tom Peters. (It’s probably been said elsewhere, but that’s the main place I’ve heard it). If you really want to succeed, if you really want to show off, take the job that no one else wants. Then do it better than anyone else imagined possible.
If there is a job no one wants, there are usually two reasons: one, it is boring grunt work (sub-reason, there is nothing in it that will make you famous) or, two, it can’t be done.
Grunt work has a bad reputation. The name itself implies hard work that any schlemiel could do. And further implied is that no one will care who does it, just so someone gets it out of the way. Here’s a tale ripped from the headlines of yesterday’s audits about dismissing grunt work. (Apologies if you’ve heard it before.)
Many, many years ago (did I say many, many? I think I meant many, many, many, many…) I assigned an auditor the audit of petty cash that was due. She had worked with us for about six months and she was very good? (How good? She is a director now.) I got the audit back from her and, without putting too fine a point on it, the work was whale dreck. I sat down with her and opened with, “This is not the kind of work I’ve learned to expect from you.” No beat missed, she replied, “I’ve done too many petty cash audits. I just don’t care.” In other words, an opportunity missed – an opportunity for her to show her professionalism, her audit skills, and how she could take a mundane piece of work and turn it into something special. Now, it obviously did not affect her career, but put yourself in those shoes (and, while the world of auditing has changed, it seems there are still a lot of petty cash audits in a lot of people’s futures). Rather than looking at the petty cash audit as punishment (for that matter, any audit which you feel is “beneath” you), look for how you can make it more. Is it an opportunity to identify new risks? Is it an opportunity to identify process inefficiencies? Is it a chance to find the CEO is skimming from the top? Is it a chance to just do something that no one has ever done before? Maybe none of those. Maybe it is just a chance to show that you can do a top-notch, high-quality audit, no matter what the assignment. But all of those are good reasons to do more than phone in a half-baked audit. And, if you do more than “just the audit”, you may impress everyone by making more of the assignment than anyone thought possible.
Now let’s talk about the other reason no one may want that assignment – that it is an impossible task. There is no greater opportunity than the impossible task. If you don’t get it completed, no one holds it against you (shy of the I-told-you-so’s; but you can live through those.) And, if you do get it pulled off, then you’ve just gained three gold stars, the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, and a set of ruby slippers from everyone working around you.
Right now, I’m part of a team coming to grips with some scheduling problems we’re experiencing. (In the spirit of frankness, I will say I am not living up to everything I just preached. I did not volunteer for the project. Apparently someone seemed to think I needed greatness thrust upon me.) I am here to tell you that, in the current situation, it is impossible to solve this problem. So, the team I’m working with is not going to succeed...at least, if you define success as solving the problem. What we have been able to do is come up with workarounds and patches that, while not solving the problem, are making the conditions more tolerable. As good auditors we want to cure the disease; but, for this situation, the fact that we have been able to eliminate the symptoms is an incredible step. And our work is being recognized. Yes, it’s an impossible situation. However, because the impossible was taken on, that situation has become livable.
So, to get started with that “bring on the work no one else wants” attitude, you need to start with the tasks you have been putting off – those tasks that you see as the most disagreeable. There are a lot of reasons you may be avoiding them. But, the journey of a thousand audits starts with one workpaper, and tackling those tasks gets you on the way to accepting the challenges of the future.
But until then, take a look at that to-do list you’ve got (the real one or the one you keep in your mind) and dive into the worst project you’ve got listed. Make it important, make it yours, and make a difference in what you accomplish.