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Mind of Jacka: A Holiday Story

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Dec 20, 2022

Let me tell you a story — a story of error and failure and tribulations and overcoming adversity and, eventually, joy and celebration. Let me tell you a true story about the holidays as they were celebrated at Farmers Insurance's Phoenix regional internal audit department.

When Paulette Keller came from Washington to join the ranks of the Phoenix internal audit department in the '80s (and, yes, I'm going to use her name because she deserves so much of the credit), she carried with her the idea of coffee — real coffee, fresh-ground coffee, Starbucks coffee.

Many of you may not remember those before-times — a time when Starbucks was just beginning its global caffeine domination. And at that time, the arid deserts around Phoenix were a perfect metaphor for the arid caffeine landscape within the city. Such concepts as freshly ground coffee beans, coffee shops roasting their own product, and baristas with just a slight attitude were only starting to take root. It was such a vast wasteland that, when I would visit our Los Angeles home office, I would bring back bags of Starbucks coffee for Paulette that a co-worker supplied from Portland. (And the less said about the chili beer I was delivering from Paulette to him, the better. Hi, Jeff.)

In short order, it became a holiday tradition that, on the last day before Christmas vacation, Paulette would bring in an espresso maker and we would indulge in fancy coffees — lattes, cappuccinos, etc. (And, regarding other indulgences that might have been added to the coffee, let me just say that taking the fifth is quite popular these days. And I'm sure the statute of limitations ran out long ago.)

On the day of this story, our manager was out on a three-week vacation, so we used his office as barista central. Why use his office? Well, you see, building services tended to frown on rogue appliances being used within the building, so we thought it best to refrain from overtly flaunting our disregard of such restrictions. We moved everything into the manager's office, began heating things up, and retired to our desks in anticipation of the frothy, caffeiney goodness. As we exited the office, the door shut behind us. [Cue the ominous, foreshadowing music.]

It was time to check on the espresso maker's progress. We approached the door — the locked door, the door for which we had no key, the door separating us from a slowly growing source of heat. Panic set in, as visions of melted sugarplums and burning buildings danced through our heads.

After a bit of dithering and the establishment of aborted plans that included smashing glass, buying stock in Acme fire extinguishers, and converting our dollars to pesos as we escaped to the Mexican border, we resorted to calling building services (the same individuals from whom we were hiding the espresso maker). Luckily, we got one of the nice ones who, in the spirit of the holidays, unlocked the door and said nothing more to anyone.

We enjoyed our holiday tradition that day and into the future. However, for all future celebrations, we made sure nothing wound up behind closed doors.

Now, there are many lessons that could be derived from this heartwarming (thank goodness, not a building-warming) story. Most would be centered on our department's widespread disregard for rules, procedures, and controls. However, I'm not here to talk about locked doors, clandestine appliances, the misuse of a manager's office, or liquids added to coffee. (Statute of limitations, remember?) No, instead I want to talk about the story itself.

That story — while not a story old as time — has been told time and time again within and without the halls of internal audit. In fact, in the time between this being written and posted, the story will probably be shared three times — once in a Zoom call among a group of former and current managers of Famers internal audit, once at a lunch where current and former Phoenix internal audit employees will get together, and once when Paulette and I get together to continue the coffee tradition as best we can.

That story is part of the tradition of Phoenix regional internal audit.

When people talk about building a team, they talk about such things as broad experiences, intersecting skills, effective communication, common goals, and other teamwork-related skills and traits. But true long-term success of a team occurs as the members begin to bond, building traditions and the stories that support them. Some of that tradition will relate to hard work, excellence, relying on others, meeting deadlines, etc. And some of that tradition will relate to the attributes listed above. But the important traditions will be about the people, the foundation for an esprit de corps that develops over time. And those traditions are solidified by the power of story —the tales and fables passed on as the team grows and develops.

When it comes to Farmers internal audit I could share the story of the ripped pants, the game of Pictionary, "Keto, what are you doing?", a trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain, and on and on and on. (I worked there for 30 years; I know a lot of the stories.) And, over the years, each of those stories has been shared within the department. Further, there are people working in the department now who can tell you those stories. Those people were not present when the stories happened, but they are part of the tradition of our internal audit department.

What stories are told about your department? What stories are told within your department? Are they stories that speak about the people rather than the work? And, as the stories are passed on, do they strengthen the traditions of excellence, quality, teamwork, and humanity that you want exhibited by your team?

Understand the importance of tradition and the related stories. And understand the tradition that is being formed within your department, as well as the related stories. And, if that is not the tradition you desire, and if those are not the stories you want told, then do something about it now.

And while we're here, let me tell you another story about the internal audit staff when we…

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Co-founder and Chief Creative Pilot, Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.