Last week, Jon Taber, had me on his podcast. Use the following link to listen or read on for the show notes and transcript.
Do not live down to people’s low expectations of you.
That’s Mike’s message.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. To bring awareness to the profession I interviewed Mike Royal.
Mike is a former Director of Information Technology Audit, with more than 25 years of experience. He is blind, but as he well puts it, that is a small part of who he is. Listen in to the interview to hear Mike’s story, learn about not only his audit career, but how he became a water ski World Record holder, traveled the world, all the while not limiting himself.
Jon: Welcome to the Audit 15 fun podcast. My goal for this podcast is to bring relevant internal audit topics to the table at least every 15 days. October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and to bring some awareness to the profession this month I have as my guest, Mike Royal. Mike is the former Director of IT audit at Anadarko Corporation and is currently based in Houston, Texas. Welcome Mike, to the podcast. It’s a pleasure to have you on.
Mike: Thank you Jon.
Jon: Absolutely, so you were featured earlier this year in an IIA article, which is how I found out about you, and I thought your story was very interesting. So, can you walk us through the initial journey in your professional career?
Mike: Yeah, I’ll do that. I’m gonna start by asking a question that I get quite often, and that is, Mike have you always been blind? And like many audit answers, it’s complicated, right. So, I was born with an eye disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa. I’ve been night blind my whole life. At age 18 I was considered legally blind. This meant my peripheral vision had worsened to a point that I could only see down a little tunnel that was less than 20° in diameter. And that, from a visual field standpoint, is considered legal blindness. This occurred right after I graduated from high school. I decided I was going to continue as planned and study Accounting. I didn’t know how fast the remaining vision would worsen, but I went to the University of Nebraska at Omaha to study Accounting. I started out in that field and then in my sophomore year, I saw on a bulletin board a new major was being added called Management Information Systems, so I ended up double majoring in Accounting and MIS.
I also started in my sophomore year working about 35 hours a week for a farm management company called Farmers National. They are in Omaha. I started out that summer as a temporary worker just to get some crop hail type work done. I ultimately ended up as a Senior Programmer Analyst once I finished up my degrees in my undergrad. At the end of my undergrad I really only switched from being a full-time student and virtually full-time worker to a full-time worker at Farmers National , and then started attending MBA courses at night. Again, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
At the same time, I could still see within that little field I talked about in that tunnel. I had 20/20 or maybe more like 20/30, 20/40 vision. I don’t know if many of my professors even knew I had a vision problem. They might have thought I was a little awkward if I bumped into something I didn’t see, or something like that, but I never went to them and asked for any accommodations. I really didn’t need any. I could still see what was on the computer screen, I could still see enough to read the books. So, while I was legally blind I was faking it. And, while faking it, I’d walk around and I would have a collapsible cane in my backpack and I bumped into things. I’d be rushing home from work when it was getting late at night and I would bump into things. I look back and think how stupid that was, but at the time that is as far as I was in my blindness journey, if you will.
So, fast forward to May 1993, and that’s when I got my first dog, my first guide dog. And, that was very much of a game changer for me. I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time, but looking back, the dog is what helped me, I guess in today’s terminology, to self identify as a blind person. No longer could I hide a collapsible cane, a 60 pound black lab would not fit in my backpack. So, from this point forward I joked that I went from a sighted person who did not see so well to a blind person that saw a lot. Let me explain. So, before people would just think maybe that I was a little clumsy and maybe I wasn’t paying attention because I did not have a cane or dog. Why is this sighted person acting like he is? Then, when they saw the dog, most people would think total blind or black. And for me that was not the case. People would ask, how does the dog know when to cross the street. I would say well, when I tell it to cross the street. And, I know when to cross by reading the sign. Because at the time, if I stared at the walk, don’t walk sign I could tell you when it changed to walk, but I would not see the curb down, the cars on either side of the crosswalk, or anything like that. So, that’s how the mobility really helped me out.
So, that was in May 1993. That was a big game changer, getting a dog. I decided I would finish up my MBA full-time. I’d saved up enough money I could do that and graduate in December 1993 with my MBA.
During that time, I would like to share a couple interview processes I went through. The first one was with a bank there in Omaha. And, I remember spending about 80% of the time during the phone interview circling back as the recruiter would state once again “I don’t know how a blind person could do this job”. And, I’d have to explain. I was on target to graduate with honors earning an MBA, I had graduated from undergrad with honors, while working full time since my sophomore year. The only accommodation I would need is I would use my dog for mobility. I can still see the screen, I can still read books, I can still see printouts. And we would go on to another question only to circle back to “I don’t know how a blind person could do this job”.
Well, I guess I made it past that as I got to the full day of interviews. About the third one was with a gentleman, I forget the relationship but his , brother, cousin, or son or someone else in his family is blind. I thought oh my word, we really just did not go there did we, but sure enough we had. I rolled with it, made it through that round of interviews.
And then ultimately, I got invited back to interview with a panel on the board. I was told there were two positions available and there would be three of us interviewing. I guess at the the end of the day the other two candidates were most qualified because I never got an offer from the bank.
In contrast, when I interviewed with the Union Pacific Corporate staff which was headquartered in Omaha, I did the on campus interview with the director of IT Audit. He was there and explained to me how they were going to start this IT Audit group and he had just got named as the IT Audit Director. And, they were looking to bring on two, three, or maybe four people to start the IT Audit function at Union Pacific.
I was invited in for the full day of interviews. I remember leaving thinking that everything went really well, except I was not sure if I was interviewing for the Financial/Operational Audit or the IT Audit position. And, ultimately when it came to it, I got offered both. Ironically, I accepted the Financial/Operational one for the first year. I had already done the computer stuff at the farm management company. So, I would give the financial side a try.
At the end of my first year, they asked me to lead an IT Audit…the IT Auditors were doing some cool hacking stuff… to bring more structure to the IT Audit group. So I did my first IT audit. I fell in love with it and that is what I continued to pursue for the next 25+ years.
So, I think that gives you an idea how I got into the profession.
Jon: Yeah yeah, definitely, so you started your career at Union Pacific in Omaha. Spent a few years there and then you progressed to your career and ultimately became a Director of IT audit at Anadarko corporation.
So thinking about your journey in internal audit, you know you’re 20+ years that you dedicated to the profession, can you think about what were the biggest challenges that you had and how did you overcome them?
Mike: Yeah, I think, the challenges primarily centered around not living down to peoples low expectations. I always set high expectations for myself and I think, well higher than what people thought were achievable.
When I talk to a group of high schoolers or younger professionals, I stress, that at the end of the day, the only person that can sell you short is yourself…so don’t do it. And, that is something I always was trying to live by and made sure I always delivered a very good product at the end of the audit assignments. And, did the best I could in everything I pursued.
Another area of a challenge, if you will, is determining when to self-advocate, and when to just let something roll. If I wanted to, I could probably get really upset about something virtually every day. I just tend to figure it’s not worth it and I’ll pick my battles.
Let me tell you a story about taking the Certified Internal Auditor Exam. So, this was in the early 2000s, my wife was incidentally pregnant with our first child, so of course I’m starting to get all nervous as I soon will be a new dad. At this point, back to my complicated vision story, I couldn’t see the screen anymore. I couldn’t read anything on paper. I no longer could magnify items or use a fat enough pen. And, I am thinking, I have a child that I’m going to be needing to support as well.
I thought maybe taking the CIA exam would help give me some confidence. So, I contacted the headquarters because at the time… the exam was given like twice a year at some testing centers. I called to explain that I was blind and I use job access with speech (JAWS) synthesizer. How could I take the exam? What are these testing centers like?
Well, the initial thought was, I don’t have any idea how you can do it. We went back and forth a couple times. This was about 10 years after the ADA was passed. I made sure and threw out some terms like how about we could come up with a reasonable accommodation that would not cause an undue hardship. And, ultimately what we did is they had me send a demo version of the software to headquarters and they loaded it on a test machine. And if I could get down there I could take the test off cycle at the headquarters. So that’s what I did.
I started studying and going through various course work and practice tests and I kept coming across a lot of questions, like the “K” , should report to the Audit Committee, or the “K” should interact with management. I forget the exact questions, but they always referred to “K”…and getting ready for today I came across a “K” Bulletin on the IIA website. Well if you haven’t figured it out by now, my synthesizer pronounces “CAE” as “K”. I took the exam and never heard “K”. There were several Chief Audit Executive type question, but each time Chief Audit Executive was spoken out. Because the person who loaded the demo software figured that the use of “K” would be confusing so they did a find and replace to make it easier for me, and they also went so far as to change a couple questions that were graphically intensive and substitute those with a similar question testing the same concept, so at the end of the day it was a win-win for the IIA and me.
And, about six months to a year after I passed I saw that the IIA started to allow “K” (the chief audit executives) to take the test, similar to me. Well, I don’t think they made them wear blindfolds and use a screen reader but they could come take the test off-cycle at the headquarters. So, again it turned into a good win-win story, I believe.
Jon: Yeah absolutely what you said at the beginning “not living down to peoples low expectations” that’s, that’s very powerful.
So, one thing that we did was we had a pre-interview before we did our recording. You mentioned that you’re really passionate about mentoring and you know obviously you rose through the ranks so you know manager director, so can you kind of explain to the audience maybe what was different about your mentoring style and maybe even likely better during your career?
Mike: OK yeah, my mentoring style was pretty simple… I never would ask anybody to do something I would not do myself and live by the motto, work hard play hard, and come up with a creative solutions to any challenges we may come across.
As far as uniqueness to me, I think it came into play when on audits in Guatemala City; Doha, Qatar; and London. At the time, London required a quarantine and I couldn’t bring a dog. I did not take my dog with me to these locations. and so I ended up using sighted guide most of the time. I would have my right hand on a co-worker’s left elbow and walk about a half step behind. it was a pretty efficient way to travel, but for them no one wanted to run their boss into something…not a good career move. And, other times, I would be reviewing materials or get some graphic or flowchart or other visually intensive information and I would ask one of my team members to come help me understand it without use of the visuals.
I am not sure of the word here, I mean I think, that made me a little more vulnerable or a little more intimacy between me and my team members.. again, I’m not sure if that’s the right word. But, whatever it did I think it made me very approachable. I do not think anyone ever thought poor Mike or pittied me for these things. It was something we needed to do and we got it done.
To make sure they did not look at me in a pitiful type of way, for the last 12 years of my career, I brought them out to what I would call Mike’s Ropes Course. So, I live on a small ski lake and I would go out and show them my latest tricks or what I was doing…then I would toss them the ski rope and say let’s see what you got. If I couldn’t be the best in the boat amongst a bunch of auditors, I did not deserve to live on my lake.
So again work hard, play hard, and… do whatever we have to do to get the job done.
Jon: Yeah absolutely, work hard play hard and definitely you play hard because you also competed at a high-level in some professional competitions. You participated in waterski competitions and marathons, and in the Boston Marathon, which is not an easy one to even qualify for, so can you just tell us a little bit about your experiences in those competitive competitions?
Mike: Yeah, thanks Jon for the opportunity.
I guess, I neglected to say from my sophomore year to …April 1993 when I ran my first Boston Marathon, in addition to going to school and working virtually full-time, I was running about 80 miles a week. I ran my first marathon in 1988 and got hooked…My mentality is a little bit: start running doing a few short distances, now you’re going to run a marathon, if you can do the marathon next you will qualify for Boston. So, I had to get an age group qualifying time. It took me from 1988 to the fall of 1992.
When I finally made that cut in a marathon… in the process of signing up…I got the entry form from the Boston athletic Association and looking it over …again at this point, I still had that Tunnel vision that I could read the print myself… I saw there is a visually impaired box. What the heck is that? So I called the BAA and they said I needed to be legally blind. Remember, I met that qualification back when I was 18 years old, and finally made an age cut time when I was 25 years old.
At Boston, they line you up at the starting line based on your time and I had been training with my stepdad up to this point. His qualifying time was a little slower so he started a couple shoots behind me. The gun went off and I could not even move because it was so crowded. Fortunately, a few minutes, maybe five to 10 minutes into the race…he found me and I had to run most of that Boston with my right hand on his left shoulder. Which is not the most efficient way to run.
Post that race I’ve learned you can use a 18 inch tether and that’s how I continue to run. Sometimes, simple solutions to what seems to be hard problems, again.
Ultimately, I ran a solid time on a very hot day. I get home and a month after the race I get a crystal plate in the mail engraved with third place visually impaired division. I guess I should have known that when I check the box I would be competing against other visually impaired runners. I missed the opportunity to stand up there with some of the great runners of the time.
I kept trying for about the next seven years to make a cut time that would get me to the Paralympics. I never could make it at running to that level.
But then early in the 2000s, my Dad lost a three year battle with cancer. And my sisters decided I should bring dad’s boat back to Houston with me. So my wife learned to drive a boat and we started skiing a little bit. Then, soon there after I learned of competitive water skiing… since the early 2000s that’s what I’ve been doing.
I made my first World Championship Team in 2009 – because water skiing is not an Olympic sport so it’s also not a paralympic sport – the world championships is the highest level competition…it takes place every two years in the odd year….I’ve been on the team, except I missed the 2013 Team, since 2009 and we didn’t have it in 2021 because of the pandemic.
So, the last time we had world championships was in July 20 19 in Skarnes Norway, which is just outside of Oslo. For 20 years, I was trying to win the World Championships. It was pretty cool. In the finals I had the worst qualifying score for the finals so it was up to me to go put up a score that the others would have to chase. I managed to go off the dock …tied the world record, which is always something cool to do but to do it in the Finals of the World Championship for your first gold metal while your family was on the dock…[Mike gets choacked up[…]We’ll see if I can repeat in 2023.
Back to if you are going to play with me, we are going to play hard.
Jon: Yeah, 2023 Mike Royal here we come. You mentioned at the beginning, Blind Canine Sports so can you just tell us about some of the projects that you’re currently working on and some of the projects that you and your family are active in?
Mike: You mentioned that article…it grew out of me contacting The IIA in late 2021…I needed some Ethics CPE …I needed to get the course in a more assessable format. In the process, they ask me to write a blog article…I continue to work with them on their Learning platform. The next course I took allowed me to click and get the assessable format without having to contact them, which was a step in the right direction. I have another article…being considered for the blog or magazine article.
My wife, Wendy, is… raising her sixth guide dog puppy… working to start a group with Magnolia High School near our house…hopes to have puppies at the high school next year.
I am going to put a plug in for my website: http://www.mikeroyal.com. It is sub-branded Raising Awareness and Funds for Blind Canine Sports.
Yes, I am blind, it is part of who I am but not all of who I am. Dogs have made a huge impact in my life, the ones I used as guides and the puppies Wendy raised. And athletics or sports is always something I pursue at the highest level. The Contact Information link highlights the three guide dog schools I have been associated with, a couple of sporting organization, and the 2023 team is introduced on the site. As far as raising funds, go hit the button and donate.
More important is the awareness, what I found equating awareness with informed…throughout the years most of my encounters have been positive…before I got my first dog, I thought, blindness would result in jokes and negative stereotypes and that is why I was hideing my blindess. Since then, it has opened more doors than it has closed. Again, part of who I am, not all of who I am. But, what I have found in some situations where someone is not aware of guide dog laws or how a blind person could run a marathon, or whatever it might be it is more the other person is uninformed. Typically, if I spend the time like I did with the IIA, we can come up with a creative solution. Most of the time it is not that complicated and might even help others. On the awareness, I like to be as informative and do these type of activities as much as I can and if it helps pave the way for someone coming after me that would be great.
Thank you for having me.
Jon: Yeah absolutely Mike. mikeroyal.com to learn more about Mike’s story, and there is an article on The IIA’s website I believe it’s from February or March of this year. Really good to connect with Mike, help the cause and raise awareness, and do not live down to people’s low expectations.
Thank you so much Mike
Mike: Thank you, Jon.