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Mind of Jacka: Two Days Off

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Oct 05, 2022

What follows will probably cause a number of you some uncomfortable stirring. In a way, I suppose, it is a confession of a wrong committed with no corresponding remorse. In a way, I suppose, I'm about to defend situational ethics. And, in a way, I suppose, it may be a discussion of the foolishness of youth, how easy it is to slip when those around you (and in charge of you) set that path, and how easy it is to justify any action.

However, I do not believe it is any of those. I see this as a tale about putting things in perspective, a tale about the foolishness of slavish adherence to rules and regulations, a tale about asking the question "How much does it really matter?" and most importantly, a tale about effective leadership.

Enough preface, let's get rolling.

This story is from the early days — the very early days, the first few months — of my internal audit career with Farmers Insurance.

As is true for most new employees, I had no vacation time. I needed to be employed with the company for one year before I could get my first two weeks. I spent my first six months in Accounting (and the less said about that time, the better, other than the fact that, if you had been there six months, you'd need a vacation, too) and I quickly moved to internal audit (where I stayed for 30 years — so I guess that was a good move.)

I don't know how the conversation turned to vacations, but my boss (don't worry Sue; I won't use your name) was telling me I should visit the Reno/Lake Tahoe area. I lamented the lack of vacation time and, within short order, she told me to not worry; take a couple of days off and call in sick.

The first day of the vacation I called in and said, "This is the call I was supposed to make, right?" She replied, "Oh no. That's too bad. Yes, you need to just stay home and get better." I think I asked, "Do I need to call in tomorrow?" She replied, "Don't worry about it. You just get better." And my wife and I were off to Lake Tahoe.

Now there can be a lot of different reactions to this scenario. And a lot of internal auditors react in horror. A boss broke the rules. A manager in internal audit broke the rules. That manager actually instigated the infraction. How could you? How could she? How could the fabric of our universe continue with such transgressions being perpetrated upon the unsuspecting behemoth known as Farmers Insurance?

And there is the real issue. Seriously, how big a deal was it? In fact, might it have been the right thing to do? It was a small thing that had a huge (positive) impact on me.

At the time, all I thought was that I had a great boss who was letting me take a vacation. But over time, I realized the example that was being set. Her actions showed that small things don't really matter. Her actions showed that a boss willing to support an employee is a boss worth following. And, ultimately, her actions showed my boss had faith in me — faith that I would get my work done, faith that I could be trusted, faith that I would not be the kind of employee who would take advantage, and faith that I was the employee she hoped I would become.

And when they were foolish enough to put me in charge of other people, I used what I learned from these examples and tried to practice the fine art of not worrying about the small things — the niggling imperfections that come from an unnecessary adherence to nit-picking procedures — and to give my employees the leeway to get the job done while maintaining their mental health.

I like to think I followed through on those beliefs. Who knows? But I will note that, a few years ago, a former manager/co-worker told me that it seemed the auditors who worked for me would do anything I asked — would follow me anywhere. I can't know if that was true, but I like to think it was.

I've got lots more stories about how my manager and supervisor (hi, Dave) helped me understand what was expected, supported me in whatever I was trying, and gave me the leadership tools I needed to succeed. But we'll save those for later. Let me just state the top two rules for leadership I learned from the previous story (and continued to learn and practice over the years):

  • Rule #1: Treat your employees like humans, not like cogs meant to fill a space and do everything exactly like it says they are supposed to.
  • Rule #2: Support your employees in whatever they need to do.

I would be remiss if I did not bring up a counterpoint. As noted, I learned I should trust my employees. However, it didn't always pay off — there were those in whom my trust was misplaced. (We don't all hire perfectly, now do we.) But those few failures were easily offset by the large number of successes.

Also, I should note that I realize this can be a slippery slope. But we need to recognize that we are all at various locations on that slope. "Not me!!" you protest. Then, let me ask you this. Do you ever lie? What do/did you tell your kids about Santa Claus? What do you say when your partner asks if they look fat in their clothes? What do you say when someone asks how you are doing? What are the white lies — the lily-white lies — you tell without really thinking about it?

Just because we've seen and touched upon that slippery slope does not mean any of us will fall pell-mell into the abyss. There is no black and white, only shades of grey. And, as long as we understand where we fall in that gradient, and as long as we act accordingly and appropriately, then we can look at policies, procedures, and infractions in the proper perspective.

Yes, I once violated a company policy. And you might be appalled by the action. And you may turn away in disgust. And you may lament that I stole from the company. And you may have any number of negative reactions to such an act.

But, ultimately, did it matter?

And that is the question you always have to ask, no matter what you are doing, looking at, or reviewing. Does it matter?

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

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

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