Honing Your Approach to Internal Auditing: Three Practical Strategies

I began my career as an Internal Auditor at a large credit union one week after I graduated college. All the new information I gleaned from my undergraduate degree inspired me. However, I was nervous about working with those who had more experience in the financial services industry.

As the newest Internal Auditor, it was my job to analyze information and give recommendations for improvement to management. This often involved challenging the systems and ideas that individuals with more experience put into place. But how could I gain the trust of those more senior than I while in essence telling them they needed to change?

After a roller coaster of successes and failures, I realized I needed to hone my approach. By changing my attitude and communication style, I was able to gain the trust of those I was auditing. Additionally, I was viewed as an asset to our company. Once I incorporated a few key concepts into my way of thinking, the Chief Audit Executive began sending to meetings with Senior Management and the CEO solo. The C-suite began to trust my recommendations and implement them with great success. Over the years, I have perfected my approach to help those outside of Internal Audit understand that the goal of an auditor is to help the organization overall.

Let’s take an in-depth look at three concepts that are key to honing your approach to Internal Auditing.

You Catch More Flies with Honey than with Vinegar

Before co-founding The Audit Library, I had many different bosses. Each had a different management style and their own way of dealing with clients. Whether I agreed with their management style or not, I tried to learn from all of them.

I once had a boss who was closed off to our clients. He was always right, and they were always wrong. They were hiding something, and he was determined to find it. This approach colored the way he went into every client meeting, and in turn, the clients were almost always closed off to him.

This attitude did not yield good results, so I made it my mission to show our clients that Internal Audit could be personable and helpful. I decided to approach all my client meetings with optimism and openness (while maintaining professional skepticism). I kept in mind that my goal was to help the organization, not just gather findings to fill my report.

As a result, auditees began to open up to me over time. They shared issues with me because they believed I could help provide insight and guidance. They trusted I would not make them feel like I “caught them”. My objective was to improve the organization as a whole rather than catch someone doing something they shouldn’t. Consequently, people shared more about their work and the potential weaknesses in their processes with me. I was able to “catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”. 

This concept helps increase the value of Internal Audit by building relationships. To find more ideas on how to increase the value of Internal Audit, read Valuing Internal Audit.

Check Your Ego at the Door

When approaching a new audit project, it is important to learn as much about the topic as you can. Auditors typically spend hours researching, talking with others, and building their knowledge base before approaching an audit client. A subscription to The Audit Library can drastically reduce the time needed in the research/planning phase of the audit. With the help of this information, confidence begins to build and build until you feel like you can comfortably communicate various aspects of a topic. 

Throughout your career, your confidence in completing audits and providing essential recommendations will continue to grow. However, your confidence could become arrogance if you aren’t self-aware. There is a fine line between confidence and ego. As the late Bill Walsh, former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and the Stanford Cardinals, would say, ego is “where confidence becomes arrogance.”

Ego is frequently defined as an unhealthy sense of self-importance. In the business world, ego runs rampant. When I mentioned the word “ego,” I’m sure one or two people popped into your mind immediately. There are books, movies, and TV shows about it. Not to get too sidetracked, but if you are looking for a popular culture recommendation centered around egos, I’d suggest HBO’s Succession.

The problem with ego is it allows you to put up walls and over time can chip away your self-awareness. It is another form of the “vinegar” discussed above. Ego can cause a breakdown in the audit process because it can alienate you from those you are auditing. Your auditees will likely be closed off from sharing information with you. I find that when you approach an audit with confidence and leave your ego at the door, you can engage in conversation that will benefit the final result of the audit.

Challenge Ideas, not Individuals

As an auditor, you will inevitably have clients you don’t like as individuals. They may rub you the wrong way, have a different working style than you, have a big ego, or just be difficult to work with in general. They might remind you of a family member you dislike, or your least favorite teacher from school. Even though you don’t like them, you still need to work with them and provide recommendations that will benefit their department and the organization overall.

An important concept my business partner, Olivia, and I often discuss is to challenge someone’s ideas rather than challenge them as a person. When someone you don’t mesh with has an idea or process you don’t agree with, or you do not think is beneficial to your organization, it is important to approach the situation by talking purely about the issue.

Listen to the client, ask them questions, and find out more about why they made the decision. Then, if you still do not agree, approach the issue by specifying why you believe the idea does not work. 

It is easy to play the blame game or to look down on someone because of the decisions they have made in the past. However, remember that your goal, according to the Institute of Internal Auditors, is to make your organization a better business by ensuring that “the organization’s risk management processes, governance and internal control processes are operating effectively.” Challenge the ideas that impede this goal!

Conclusion

By employing these concepts into your audit approach, you will gain the trust of your clients. Additionally, you will be able to formulate better recommendations for management. In turn, they will be more likely to implement your ideas with success. 

Have you employed some of these concepts in your audit approach? Do you have any other ideas on how to hone your approach to Internal Auditing? Please share in the comments below!

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