It didn’t take long for me as a young internal auditor to realize how important it was that meetings with clients go well. Actually, we called them “auditees” back then. There were typically two critical meetings in our internal audit engagement process: the entrance conference and the exit conference. The entrance conference set the tone for the engagement, and it was very important that we put the clients at ease and inspire confidence and trust. The exit conference was even more important. If we didn’t deliver the right message about the results of the audit with the right tone, we would likely meet resistance and wouldn’t inspire enthusiasm on the part of the client to implement needed corrective actions.
Of course, there were other meetings that took place throughout the course of an engagement where interaction between the internal audit team and clients was equally important. It was often in these meetings that we first surfaced issues or problems that would make their way into our final report as audit observations or findings.
In the four decades since I sat in my first meeting with an audit client, I’ve participated in more such meetings than I could ever count. Some went exceedingly well, some were very routine, and a few were downright toxic. I still vividly recall the first tension-filled exit conference in which a senior management official lost his temper with those of us on the audit team. At one point, he screamed at the audit team leader that she was “incompetent” and “didn’t know the first thing about auditing.” The meeting was so unpleasant that I seriously asked myself afterward if this is a profession I wanted to stay a part of.
As the years passed, however, I grew to love internal auditing. I also came to appreciate that a key to effective and productive meetings with clients is the ability to “read the room.” I learned to minimize the risks of toxic meetings by thoroughly preparing my message, staying on point and knowing and “reading” and adjusting to the reactions of other meeting participants. There is no fool-proof way to avoid a negative meeting, but the burden is as much on the internal auditor as it is with the client.
Much has been written on effectively reading the room during meetings. A 2018 Harvard Business Review article offers some of the best advice on reading the room during a meeting. Of course, the world has changed a lot since the article was written, and most of our meetings these days are undertaken virtually. I still find HBR’s advice to be sound whether I’m reading the room or reading the screen. In the HBR article, Rebecca Knight offers the following tips:
Observe – As HBR notes: When reading the room, it is critical to pay close attention to people. “If you’re relying [solely] on their words, you’re only getting half the picture,” says Annie McKee, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. McKee recommends, that you do “a quick scan of the individuals,” noting “who’s next to whom, who’s smiling, who’s not, who’s standing, who’s sitting, and how much space is between people.” Next, try to pick up on “the almost invisible clues on how people are feeling” by looking carefully at “their facial expressions, posture, and body language.” I have learned the same is true of online meetings. I pay attention to when people log on, whether they exchange pleasantries, and certainly whether they keep their camera on or off.
Control how much you talk – As we all know, the word “audit” is actually derived from the Latin word audīre “to hear.” Yet, when we get into meetings with clients, we often monopolize the conversation. Karen Dillon (coauthor of How Will You Measure Your Life?) notes that “You can’t observe if you’re spending most of your time talking. You need to listen.” She advises to “be conscious of how much you are saying.” I find this to be particularly true of online meetings where it is all too easy to monopolize the conversation if you are not careful. I’ve recently hosted roundtable meetings using Zoom. As the facilitator, I am learning to discipline myself to ‘pipe down,’ in order to elicit input from other participants. As Dillon notes there is “no shame in silence.”
Interpret your observations – In the HBR article, McKee advises that after you’ve “tuned into the emotions and energy in the room (you) try to make sense of what you think you know.” She recommends “generating multiple hypotheses about what’s going on…What’s happening in their lives? What’s going on in their jobs? What do you know about these people?” In one of my audits, I had a meeting with a contracting manager in which I pointed out several significant control failures we had discovered during the audit. To my discomfort, he broke down sobbing, and told me that if we report that, he will likely lose his job. I later learned in a casual conversation with one of his colleagues that his wife was very ill, and that he was tending to their small children at home in addition to managing his work obligations. It enabled me to interpret the meeting I had with him in a different light.
Check your hypotheses – Once you’ve developed a few theories for what’s happening in the meeting, HBR recommends that you validate your interpretations. “You can do this by continuing to gather further information — though you should continue to be open to what you’re seeing and sensing so that you don’t fall prey to confirmation bias” advises HBR. McKee suggests that you follow up in private to confirm any suspicions. “When you’re in one-on-one conversations, you might say something like, ‘In the meeting I saw you furrow your brow when discussion turned to the xyz project — how do you feel about it?’” As the deputy IG at the US Postal Service, I found myself often following up with Postal management on things that were said or implied by them in meetings. They would often be much more candid in one-on-one discussions, and it fostered a better relationship for future audits.
Put your perceptions into practice – As internal auditors, we have likely all been in one of those meetings where tension fills the room. McKee advises that if things are starting to become tense or heated, you “take the opportunity to shift the emotional reality of the room…Use humor,” she suggests. “Or empathize with the group — make them feel okay.” We know the “pecking order” on the client “side of the table.” If we can diffuse the tension with the senior management official in the room, others will often follow his/her lead. McKee advises that we keep an eye out “for any positive signals” — the executive in the corner who’s smiling, for instance — and concentrate on those. Importantly, continue to pay attention to what’s not being said. “Most people are just waiting to talk,” she says. As a result, “we may catch most of the words, but we miss the music.”
Reading the room is such an important skill that I could dedicate an entire chapter in a book on the subject. As it is, I’ll close this blog by sharing some principles that HBR urges us to remember when reading the room:
Things we should do:
Things we should not do:
As I’ve noted, the shift to online meetings is leading to a new body of knowledge on how you read the screen. I welcome feedback on this skill as well on reading the room.