It’s Internal Audit Awareness Month, and a good time to revisit one of the age-old challenges for the profession: Why don’t people believe “we are here to help?”
“We are here to help you!” That phrase seems so innocent, but those six little words are sometimes referred to as “the biggest lie of the internal audit profession.” As the old joke continues, the second biggest lie is management’s response: “We are glad you are here!”
I often write blogs about how internal auditors should be helping their organizations navigate new or critical risks. Surveys continue to indicate that internal audit’s support is genuinely welcomed in many organizations. As management fends off the threats from latest risk-induced disruption, they often welcome help from any trusted source available. Ah, but there is that word again: trust. If internal auditors haven’t been cultivating trust by demonstrating they were “here to help” in the past, then why should management believe them this time?
The great majority of internal audit professionals are truly collegial in their relationships with clients, and their clients really do appreciate their efforts. But clients remain skeptical — particularly if they felt unfairly treated by internal auditors in the past. I believe the risk landscape of the 2020s presents a great opportunity to reexamine how we are viewed and how we can change any misguided perceptions in the minds of skeptical clients.
I first tackled this topic in a blog several years ago. The questions I asked then are relevant today:
Are we viewed as nitpickers? Maybe we’re not concentrating enough on the biggest risks. Are we viewed as time-wasters? Maybe there’s a way we can organize our work to take up less time of those areas of responsibilities we are auditing. Are we viewed as bearers of bad news? Maybe there’s a way we can add more balance to our reports or put a more positive tone on some of our recommendations. But perhaps there is a simpler explanation: Maybe we just need to concentrate more on transforming negative perceptions in every engagement.
I have encountered a great many skeptical internal audit clients during my career. Sadly, in most cases, their skepticism stemmed from how they had been treated by my predecessors in internal audit. I often had my work cut out to convince them that I really was there to help. It goes without saying that first and foremost, we must be focused on the most significant risks the organization is facing. We are hardly helping if we are auditing the molehills while the mountain sits in the distance. But clients still can be skeptical of our intentions — even if we are “following the risks.”
There are five strategies that I have shared over the years to win over skeptical or adversarial audit clients. If practiced on a recurring basis, they can turn even the most reluctant clients into internal audit advocates.
Client relationships are delicate and based in large part on trust built up over time. When the organization is facing a new risk or a crisis, the trust that we have established with management can yield significant dividends. Again, trust takes time to build, but it is never too late. If there is a long history of contentious relationships, we cannot simply show up and say “we are here to help — and we really mean it this time.” Instead, we must build or rebuild trust one brick at a time.
I hope you find my suggestions helpful as you attempt to craft and build trusting relationships with your skeptical clients. Share your comments or drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.