Did it really take a crisis to make us better auditors?
23 September 2020
“There comes a time in every life when the past recedes and the future opens. It’s that moment when you turn to face the unknown. Some will turn back to what they already know. Some will walk straight ahead into uncertainty. I can’t tell you which one is right. But I can tell you which one is more fun.”
When I used this quote by Philip H. Knight, the founder of Nike and a fellow CPA, in my 2019 message, I knew it was relevant but I could never have imagined how much it would gain in significance barely six months later.
With the COVID-19 pandemic and its many implications on how we work, what we have encountered since is the real-life version of the Black Swan event I only knew from strategy lessons at business school. The kind of situation we never expected to have to face, the one where we are standing at the abyss and the future does literally opens up.
Yet, when we examine a range of significant historical events, we see that crises and upheaval have always played an important role in bringing change. When we are faced with what seems to be unsurmountable difficulty, we move forward. One might even argue that we need a crisis to overcome our fears, spring into action, and excel.
It appears to me that the above theory holds true for us auditors. When discussing Auditor Proud Day with colleagues last year, conversations were dominated by negativity: fee pressure, difficulty to recruit and retain young talent, ever-growing expectations and the expectation gap in general were recurring topics.
Looking back at the past six months, the picture is a very different one. Once the first shock was over, many of us experienced a speedy adoption of technology, an increase in communication, collaboration across the traditional boundaries of service lines and, most importantly, an almost unprecedented amount of thought leadership and adaptability with one overarching goal: servicing our clients as best we could and helping them through the crisis.
Rather than lamenting the existence of an expectation gap and responding to it with more of the same, auditors have demonstrated that they could do so much better. Many of us, myself included, have been surprised more than once by what I call the ‘silent heroes’: Colleagues who have always been working quietly in the background and who have suddenly risen to the challenge and made a real difference in the lives of their co-workers and our audit clients.
Maybe someone had a particular gift with technology that suddenly became invaluable, maybe a person excelled in quickly adapting our audit methodology to an environment where all of our work had to be carried out remotely, or maybe someone could just speak to team members and clients with the empathy we all so desperately need these days to keep going.
It is truly inspirational to listen to ideas from all over the world and feel the determination not to see our situation as a never-ending disaster but an opportunity to write new success stories together.
The crisis has forced us to modify our audit approach to one with a lot more client focus. Risks are being analysed differently and solutions adapted, business opportunities around cyber security, GDPR, taxation and a variety of attest services represent a true value add for both firms and clients, communication might be virtual but is often more tailored to individual client situations than before. For the first time in many years, I am getting the impression that we might be closing the expectation gap little by little.
Hermann Hesse said ‘I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way, we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.’
In 2020, auditors have done exactly that: Many of us have not only transformed their relationships with clients but also those within our teams, giving relationships a different focus and making them more meaningful. I for one did not expect that we would be able to turn a crisis into so much positive change and, on the occasion of this year’s Auditor Proud Day, this is indeed something to be genuinely proud of.
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