In a recent blog, I shared my thoughts on whether internal audit should be a career path or a career stepping stone for modern practitioners. The answer (of course) is that it depends on the person and the circumstances. The fact is that a great many internal auditors do embrace the profession and cultivate the attributes that make them trusted advisors and agents of change in the organizations they serve. Having worked with thousands of internal auditors during my career, I appreciate the assets that differentiate the great ones from the good ones. But I have also cautioned over the years that an internal auditor’s professional assets can become their liabilities.
Are you one of the best and brightest internal auditors in the profession? Are you dedicated, determined, and detail-oriented? Are you knowledgeable and self-reliant, and so you almost always have the correct recommendations for complex internal audit findings? Great! But be warned: when unchecked, the skills and characteristics that make you great can also limit your success.
These leading qualities would normally serve you well in the internal audit profession. But all of us are fallible, and far too often our “blind spots” are closely linked to our strengths. I have identified several characteristics that successful internal auditors normally possess. However, I also have noted circumstances I have observed when these professional attributes became albatrosses:
Are you the most dedicated auditor in your department? Maybe you work long hours to verify just a few more facts or to interview just a few more people. Normally that’s a career plus. But if your passion for completeness gets out of hand, you soon may find that scope creep gets the better of you and undermines the timeliness of your engagements. There are only so many hours in the day, so try to keep in mind that spending too much time on one audit might delay the results and diminish the value of your work.
Are you widely admired for your industry experience and technical knowledge? If so, you bring important strengths to your career. But nobody’s knowledge is complete, and the more experienced you are, the more likely you may be to rely on past facts even when the situation may have changed. There’s also a temptation for auditors who are viewed as “experts” to try to live up to their reputations by giving an opinion even when they don’t have all the facts. Even the world’s most experienced experts need to ask for help on occasion. Try to remember that asking for a second opinion doesn’t make you seem less of an expert, and the people you ask for help will probably be flattered that you sought their opinion.
Is your work highly accurate? It’s great to have a reputation for professional infallibility. But everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and the danger is that if you are almost always right, it may be difficult for you to admit your mistakes when you are wrong. After all, you haven’t had much practice at it!
Are you extremely detail-oriented? Attention to details is important in internal auditing, but if you are particularly detail-oriented, you may become so focused that you sometimes lose track of the larger picture. Try to remember that too much detail in an audit report can actually detract from delivering the most important messages clearly and concisely. Often, we only need to tell the reader what time it is — not how the clock works!
Are you passionately committed to bringing about positive change? Enthusiasm is important. But if you are particularly determined to bring your audit customers around to your point of view, be sure you keep in mind that they may also have valid points. Auditors need to be able to consider new evidence even when the evidence doesn’t appear until the closing meeting (or later).
Are you intellectually curious? Intellectual curiosity is a prized attribute for internal auditors – often ranked in the top 5 skills that CAEs seek when recruiting new staff. However, like some of the foregoing attributes, excessive intellectual curiosity can “kill the cat.” Seriously, my advice to the overly curious internal auditors is to stay focused on the real risks. Too much curiosity can take you down rabbit holes and extend the time it takes to perform your audits.
Finally, to those of you who are extremely talented and among the best and brightest, I have one other piece of advice. As the old saying goes – “if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” In other words, if you are the best internal auditor in your department, you should ask yourself if you will be able to grow by staying put. It might be wise to look around for a place to grow and develop your skills. But never lose sight of the fact that your assets can become liabilities.
That’s my opinion — you may disagree. If you have a different opinion, or maybe just another example of where great auditors sometimes go wrong, please let me know.