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Mind of Jacka: Quit Reading This Blog

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Feb 08, 2024

“The common trait of people who supposedly have vision is that they spend a lot of time reading and gathering information, and then they synthesize it until they come up with an idea.”

— Fred Smith, Overnight Success: Federal Express and Frederick Smith, Its Renegade Creator, by Vance Trimble

One of my favorite interview questions…

Wait, let’s back up a little.

Human resources (HR) was never happy with me when it came to interviewing. Their process was to have the interviewee identify the desired traits for the position, and then they would pull from the same prescribed, sanitized, officially okey-dokied, never-veer-from-the-script, questions that every interviewee was prepared for.

“Tell me a time when you exhibited leadership?” “How well do you work under pressure?” “What motivates you?” “What do you think is your biggest weakness?” (“I just work too hard, I’m too dedicated, and will do anything for my boss!”)

You’ve heard ‘em all before. You’ve been asked ‘em all before. In fact, you’ve probably asked ‘em all before.

One time I religiously followed HR’s tried-and-true formula. I defined the traits, picked from their suggested questions, and dutifully asked those questions — worst interviews I ever conducted. First, I was so focused on the “script,” I couldn’t really listen to the answers. Second, any answers I paid attention to revealed little to nothing about the candidates. Their answers were as canned as my questions.

My preference was to ask questions that were, shall we say, somewhat off the wall.

“What cartoon character would you be and why?” “Give me three team building exercises you would use to promote camaraderie among a geographically scattered team.” I even used a deck of cards called “The Creative Whack Pack.” I’d have the candidate draw two cards, read them, and then choose one to answer. (You’d really have to know the cards to understand how this works. If you don’t know about them, look them up.)

One of my favorite interview questions (see, I finally got back there) was “What was the last book you read?” I didn’t care if it was on internal audit or business, a graphic novel, science fiction, or Goodnight Moon, I just wanted them to tell me the last book they read.

I will fess up that this is actually a relatively common question — I found this out while doing research for this piece. (Yes, I know these convoluted collections of sidebars, non sequiturs, and ramblings may not look like it, but I sometimes succumb and do a little research.) But what took this mundane question to the next level was the follow-up. “How can you apply it to internal audit?”

The primary purpose of the question was to see what kind of connection interviewees could make. The secondary purpose (as with many of my questions) was to see how well they responded to the unexpected. And, if possible, I wanted to see how broadly they read. Because the more broadly an interviewee read, the more likely they were to be innovative and creative — two of the main traits I looked for in an internal auditor.

Take a second look at the Fred Smith quote I used in the beginning of this piece, and now let me throw in one of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes.

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”

It is the synthetization of various ideas that generates new ones. Even deep and narrow specialization — often characterized by the single-subject expert — when appropriately combined with inquisitiveness about other areas, can lead to innovation and creativity.

My father was the perfect example of the deep and narrow explorer. He was a professional photographer who lived and breathed the profession. He knew more about f-stops, depth of focus, and other photographic details than most of us know exist. It was a key to his success. However, he had other interests that he pursued in a similar fashion.

One of these was Southwestern archaeology — cultures such as the Anasazi, Hohokam, Pueblo, and Mogollon. His library contained as much about archaeology as it did photography.

At first glance these may seem unrelated. Yet, he brought these two passions together to develop a new approach, photographing prehistoric items in their natural state — sites like Pueblo Bonito, Aztec, Mesa Verde, etc. By combining two of his biggest interests and doing something no one else had done, he was able to make the leap to full-time professional photographer.

There are two lessons to learn from all of the above. The first is that none of this — creativity, innovation, vision — happens without an influx of information. While podcasts, television, and movies can provide such input, the best way to get information is to read. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read to explore. Read to learn.

But the second lesson is to ensure there is a broad range of information coming in from that reading. I worked with someone who said, “The only time I’m not thinking about internal audit is when I’m hitting a bucket of balls.” The gentleman was very smart and added a lot to our department. But his ideas and concepts never quite blossomed the way they should, and I think that was because of that limitation.

I’m not saying don’t read about internal audit. (A good place to start is with the new Standards and the interpretations thereof.) But don’t limit yourself. Reading books on business, leadership, and associated subjects is fine, but go further. Read about another profession, read about science, read about psychology, read mystery novels, read science fiction — read something/anything/everything.

Finally, be sure to take time to let all that information percolate. Don’t try to immediately tie everything you read to everything you are doing. Instead, just let those connections happen. They will pop up when you least expect them. (Remind me sometime to tell you about the idea I got about how to run a conference after reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.)

And, while I like that you have not only read my blog, but that you have lasted this long, I don’t expect it to be a primary source of any kind. There’s a lot out there to explore, and if that means you’re not always visiting me here, well, I can live with that.

(And, for those inquiring minds that need to know, the last book I finished was a collection of science fiction short stories published in 1970 titled Orbit 6. One never knows…)

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Mike Jacka is co-founder and chief creative pilot of Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.