As someone who has been a part of the internal audit profession for almost four decades, I have had the privilege of working with many outstanding leaders in our field. I’ve learned that the best are those who inspire others to lead. In this sense, I would say that a good leader is also a good follower.
When people think about leadership in internal audit, they often stop at the chief audit executive (CAE). But really high-performing internal audit departments are populated with a number of leaders, and successful CAEs are the ones who inspire leadership qualities in others.
Leading isn’t just about making decisions and moving the organization in a certain direction. A strong organization requires the depth of multiple leaders. So how do we foster leadership in others?
Look for potential. It has been my experience that we tend to find what we look for. A leader who is good at inspiring others knows it’s crucial to first determine their potential. I’ve written before about “blind spots” within the context of ethics. It is easy for CAEs, with all that is on their plates, to become so focused upward on the needs of the audit committee, and outward on organizational risks and vulnerabilities, that they overlook the developmental needs and leadership potential of their staff.
Share your experience. Some say experience is something you get immediately after you need it. I believe it is incumbent upon those of us who have been in the profession for a while, and who have the battle scars to prove it, to share our experience with those who would benefit from it. They may not take our advice — some lessons are destined to be learned fresh each time — but we should at least try to impart what we have learned in the trenches, in addition to the Common Body of Knowledge and things they are likely to get from Sawyer’s Guide For Internal Auditors and the International Professional Practices Framework (IPPF).
Create opportunities. Leadership takes practice, and that means putting potential leaders in charge of critical, high-profile projects and important engagements. During the course of these projects, CAEs should ensure that the stature of their leaders is enhanced by affording the opportunity to brief other senior executives and the board on the progress and results of the projects.
Let them lead. This is potentially the hardest part for many of us. In a profession that is based on control and risk mitigation, there is a natural reluctance by many CAEs to delegate responsibility. As a strong believer in Ronald Reagan’s maxim “trust, but verify,” I would never advocate a completely hands-off approach. But a little autonomy can go a long way.
Recognize leadership. Positive reinforcement is critical to building effective leaders — not just because they must feel valued and appreciated, but because it will instill in them an appreciation for how to cultivate leadership potential in others. A true leader’s legacy does not end with a single generation of leaders. It is enduring.
Finally, let me close with the words of the iconic former chairman and CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch:
“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”
How do you inspire leadership within your organization? I would love to read some of your strategies.