Last month’s announcement that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus would cease operations after more than 146 years generated significant reaction across the United States.
For those who had relentlessly protested the use of live animals by the circus, the announcement was met with celebration.
For millions of others, the announcement was met with sadness and nostalgia. They felt that yet another iconic American institution was going away, and that they would never have the opportunity to pass along the magical experience of attending the circus to their children and grandchildren.
While I empathized with the range of emotions being shared, I also couldn’t help but smile. For the announcement reminded me of an expression I have longed used, and also the title of my very popular 2011 blog, “You Don’t Have to Be a Clown to Audit the Circus.”
The theme of that blog was a response to those who push back when we announce or initiate an audit of their business unit by wrongly asserting that internal auditors do not have the skills or expertise to audit their highly technical or complex areas of responsibility. As I observed in the blog:
During my career, I have debated more than a few disgruntled managers who wanted to keep my staff out of their area of operations on the basis of lack of expertise. With very few exceptions, I was successful in refuting their assertions. On those occasions where there was some validity to their concerns, I typically secured the necessary expertise by co-sourcing with a third party. My advice to any CAE faced with such circumstances is to hold your ground and navigate the concerns, as appropriate. As one of my colleagues once cleverly responded to a business unit that doubted her internal auditors’ ability to assess his operations: “You don’t have to be a clown to audit the circus.”
The blog struck a chord with many in the profession who fight the good fight and prevail in auditing new and complex businesses, processes, and controls every day. I don’t know how many internal auditors might have actually used the phrase after my blog was posted. However, I recall one inspired internal auditor who approached me at a chapter meeting in North America to present me with a framed cloth beautifully embroidered with the words, “You Don’t Have to Be a Clown to Audit the Circus.”
The cheeky expression may live on in beleaguered internal audit departments around the world, but the circus will not. Which brings me back to the title of this blog: Now, no one will audit the circus.
Ringling Bros.’ exit is yet another example of how strategic risks can ultimately bring on the demise of products (Ringling Bros. is a subsidiary of Field Entertainment Inc.), companies, or entire industries. Consider drive-in movies, the corner video store, and widespread commercial bus or train travel. I know, I know, these still exist, but as shadows of their former selves.
In the past decade, internal auditors have been focusing increasingly on strategic risks facing their companies. Sometimes, strategic risks, such as the forward march of technology, will prove insurmountable. Yet, many brands have successfully reinvented themselves or their business models rather than disappear. Apple, AT&T, and Procter & Gamble’s Old Spice figured out how to adapt to changing technology and consumer preferences while others, such as Kodak and Blackberry, did not.
As internal auditors, we are in a unique position to view the full portfolio of risks facing our organizations. We should continuously assess whether management has adequately identified strategic risks, communicated with the board about them, and, when possible, designed the controls and corporate strategic responses to address them.
As far as Ringling Bros.’ demise, there were plenty of clues leading up to the announcement. The “Greatest Show on Earth” was still reeling from negative publicity related to its former use of live elephants in shows, struggling with rising production costs, facing increased competition from other sources of entertainment, and hurting from clearly sagging ticket sales. To borrow from my earlier phrase, “You didn’t have to be a clown to know the circus was in trouble.” The lesson for internal auditors is to stay abreast of the strategic risks facing your organization and speak up about the strategies for addressing them.
Finally, it should be noted that the circus as an entertainment genre may not be done entirely. Wayne McCary, a veteran circus producer, recently said in a Wall Street Journal interview that the end of Ringling Bros. “should not be read as the death of circus in America. It does have a future, but what form it takes remains to be seen.” I welcome your thoughts.