I was recently speaking with an old colleague who is now chief audit executive of an American company. She was lamenting how “testy” management seems to be with internal audit these days. She observed that before the pandemic, the opening meetings for new audits used to be a positive experience, but that there seems to be more tension in virtual meetings today. I quizzed her about the meetings, and asked her if there are triggers that derail the meetings? She shared some examples of exchanges between her audit teams and management that seemed to raise the ire of those whose areas are about to be audited.
As she shared examples, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own experiences over the years. The opening meeting for an internal audit can set the tone for the entire engagement. Management is often apprehensive that we are starting an audit of their area anyway. If we are not careful about the message we send, the opening meeting will simply serve to reinforce their suspicions about our motives.
If you have been in internal auditing for a few years, you’ve probably seen it happen. When you start your opening meeting, everything is going smoothly. You’ve prepared carefully for the meeting, and you have had cordial relationships with your audit clients in the past. Suddenly, however, your clients are frowning, and communications seem to have become a one-way street. It’s almost as if a door mysteriously closed. Management’s arms are crossed defensively, and they’re no longer agreeable with anything you say. At times, you might not even be aware of why the change took place — you only know that the chance for open communications and sharing of ideas is fading away.
What went wrong? You might never know. But even if you don’t know why the last opening meeting deteriorated so rapidly, there might be a way to help ensure it doesn’t happen again. Every client and situation are different, but here are a few specific statements that I discovered could quickly raise hackles during opening meetings:
It is also a matter of personal preference, but I never took anyone to an opening meeting unless they had a role to play. I also never wanted the audit team to significantly outnumber the participants from management’s team. In the era of virtual meetings, it is tempting to include everyone who may touch the audit in the meeting. It is a good idea for management to meet all the members of the audit team early on but try and craft an agenda to afford everyone a chance to make a contribution. Otherwise, it can appear we are over-staffed and under-worked.
An internal audit opening meeting should be much more than just a moment to say hello at the beginning of a new audit. It is our opportunity to make a strong first impression, to create healthy working relationships, and to motivate our clients to work with us toward positive outcomes. The meeting can set the tone for the entire engagement. Unfortunately, however, an opening meeting can also be a point at which working relationships are damaged. Too often, mistrust is created or other barriers are established simply because of a misplaced word or thought at the beginning of an engagement.
We only get one chance to make a first impression. Let’s make it a good one.