Your number one rule for professional life
A story of Jacinda Ardern, #consultantlyf, and the importance of perception.
In professional services, and in particular in audit, the number one rule is independence. In order to give an objective opinion about your clients’ financial health, you as the auditor must be free from bias towards that client.
This makes solid sense, though it results in a slightly awkward relationship with clients. They are, after all, employing you, so you’re incentivised to be nice to them so they keep paying you to be their auditor. On the other hand you can’t be too nice, in case you’re perceived to be biased favourably towards them. Like I said — 😬 awkward.
There’s lots of ridiculously specific guidelines about what sort of gifts 🎁 you can give and accept from your client. For example, flowers or a bottle of wine as a thank you present is probably ok, but only after the engagement is over (as then it’s not a bribe). Attending a sports match with your client is probably ok (networking!) but accepting a gift of tickets to the same match might be too much.
The point, though, is that from day one as an auditor you have the audit equivalent of the Golden Rule drilled into you. One must not only be independent. One must also be perceived to be independent. Your client gave you tickets to the cricket, and you agreed with their optimistic valuation this year. Are those two things related? Your client referred you another big audit client, and you helped them fix their share calculations before you signed them off. Are those two things related? Would the locals down the pub say they were related?
Quid pro quo is human nature, and we like to see causality even when it doesn’t necessarily exist (eg. the fundamental attribution error). Unfortunately for people who live in the public eye, perception drives action and reaction just as much as (more than?) objective truth. Was it the wining & dining that scored Emily in Paris the Golden Globe nomination? There will never be a clear answer, but the nomination was certainly tainted by the perception.
“…it’s really, really easy to look dishonest, whether or not you actually are”
One must not only be independent. One must also be perceived to be independent.
It’s easy to attribute this rule solely to characterising independence, but I think the second half — the perception piece — is almost more important, and more widely applicable than just independence.
Why is perception of your actions so important? Because when something eventually and inevitably comes crashing down, it’s often not the actions themselves but the perception of your actions that determines the extent to which you get caught in the storm. (And no, the Big Four professional service firms are not immune to this either.)
It’s a valuable life lesson, especially when you learn it as a new graduate at 23 as I did, before you’ve had a chance to screw things up too badly 😂. It’s also a lesson that certain leaders and organisations are intent on learning the hard way. Refer again to the Golden Globes, where the Emily in Paris nomination raised questions around diversity in the HFPA.
“It’s great to hear that HFPA hasn’t ruled out the possibility that sometime in the future it might possibly make changes to encourage Black journalists to apply. But it’s been nine months since the George Floyd protests opened a new conversation about race in the United States. An organization that truly understood the need to bring in Black members had plenty of time to do so between then and now.” — Minda Zetlin for Inc
Dear HFPA. One must not only be. One must be seen to be.
One would think that political leaders would be on top of this, being in the public eye so often. And yet:
Dear Ted. One must not only be. One must be seen to be.
In this case, Be Seen to Be Helpful. As CNN recognised, no one expects Ted Cruz to personally fix the problems with the Texas power grid. But y’know, he could stick around to offer even performative, perfunctory help. When your actions say “I’m outta here” the message your constituents get is “you’re looking out for you and we don’t matter”.
Similarly down under…
It’s almost comical that Ted Cruz managed exactly the same faux pas that Scott Morrison achieved over a year ago.
Dear Scott. One must not only be. One must be seen to be.
Be Seen to be Helpful.
Be Seen to be a Leader.
Be Seen to be Compassionate. (Not like that!)
Be Seen to be…Competent?
We know you don’t hold a hose, but mate, in a national crisis YOU ARE THE CONTROL ROOM.
Want a contrasting example? From a tragic event that just had its two year anniversary (seems like aeons ago and simultaneously like yesterday), here’s a tale of two leaders and their respective responses to a devastating tragedy.
On the face of it, Scott Morrison’s public response to the Christchurch attack was compelling and sympathetic in sentiment. Here’s the problem: that’s not how it appears to the Australian public.
Dear Scott. One must not only be. One must be seen to be.
This is how we define integrity in public life, and Waleed Aly pointed out the hypocrisy of Morrison’s words against an earlier statement — although he does not name the prime minister, commentators say that it’s clear who he is referring to. Morrison says that his contribution to the alleged discussion in 2011 was intended to “lower the fears about Islam and not elevate them”.
Mr PM, if you wanted to demonstrate your intent to lower fears about Islam and not elevate them, you’ve had many long years in politics to do something about it. When people bring to mind “Scott Morrison” and “Islam”, they remember that he said “the greatest threat of religious extremism in this country is the radical and dangerous ideology of extremist Islam”. They remember his questioning of taxpayers’ dollars being used to fly families to Sydney to attend the funerals of loved ones killed in a shipwreck off Christmas Island.
In contrast, the NZ government provided financial compensation for all families of the Christchurch victims, regardless of immigration status. Jacinda Ardern wore a headscarf in a striking physical demonstration of solidarity with the victims and their families.
Now I’m not saying our PM should have done those specific things of course, but Jacinda’s compassion was believable because it was congruous with how she is perceived to be.
One must not only be. One must be see to be.
As Hamish McDonald said, “If anything paints a better picture of Australian politics today, it is this: After Waleed made that genuine, thoughtful and reasoned contribution on Friday night, a plea for our community to come together, the Prime Minister of our country threatened to sue…In contrast, New Zealand’s Prime Minister invited Waleed to her country to sit down for an interview.”
In the public sphere, it sadly matters less who is right. It matters what perception you give. Integrity is whether your actions match your words and your history.
As auditors, we were forced to reflect on that fact repeatedly. I don’t always get it right, but it’s second nature now to consider both my intent and the possible perception of it. It’s a practice that makes me a better employee, a better manager, a better leader, a better friend…hopefully, a better human. Maybe it will also help you.
Postscript: It should be obvious but in case it isn’t — I’m NOT saying that being seen to do the right thing is more important than actually doing the right thing. Actually doing the right thing is still the most important! What I’m saying is that sometimes, perception is more important than we might think, and reflecting on that can be helpful.