The IIA’s Financial Services Audit Center recently hosted a well-attended and highly successful inaugural Financial Services Exchange in Washington, D.C., bringing together legislators, regulators, and internal auditors whose work focuses on financial and insurance services.
I found it interesting that one of the guest speakers made a passing reference to internal auditors “checking boxes,” prompting a collective wince from some in the crowd of more than 400 internal audit professionals. It reminded me of an incident a few years ago when a member of U.S. Congress, who upon meeting me, referred to internal auditors as “bean counters.” In response, I gently suggested that, “We used to count the beans, but today’s internal auditors are more apt to be examining how the beans are grown, how they are harvested, and how they are taken to market.” My response elicited an approving nod.
The disparaging characterizations of what we do are enough to drive any member of our profession crazy. I’ll be the first to admit that internal audit has historically struggled to explain what we do, but we should be well past the point where we are incorrectly considered “box checkers” or “bean counters.”
Why these stereotypes or stigmas persist is beyond me. In my extensive travels around the world, I have heard the same lament from dozens of colleagues. We all agree it is a problem, and we shake our heads in disbelief. But, at some point, we need to move beyond just complaining. There is a solution, and it involves each of us becoming vocal advocates for the profession and the contributions we make. We simply have to correct these misconceptions.
This may not come easily for some practitioners, who may consider the idea of being a cheerleader for internal audit as unprofessional or unbecoming. But it is a bigger strategic mistake to allow awareness gaps to fester than to risk being seen as “sales professionals.” Any resistance to explaining what we do and why serves only to strengthen uninformed views and stereotypes.
In the past, I’ve described the critical characteristics of a modern CAE. The three most relevant to this conversation: curiosity, creativity, and initiative.
A natural curiosity and desire to dig deeper is a good trait for any internal auditor. Successful internal auditors need to ask probing questions to gain the necessary understanding of why things work the way they do. We should take this same attitude into a conversation with anyone who mischaracterizes us as “bean counters” or “box checkers.”
We need to ask — in a civil way — why do you believe this? How did you come to this conclusion? My sense is that simple unfamiliarity with the profession is at the heart of such misconceptions. If so, challenging these misconceptions is the crucial first step toward correcting the fallacies.
Just as good CAEs know they must educate management, audit committees, and boards about what internal audit really does, so should every auditor endeavor to educate the public. Back in 2012, I wrote a blog that described five classic myths about internal auditing. The top myth was that internal auditors are accountants by trade. That myth contributes mightily to the “bean counter” stereotype. But it can be overcome by telling others about internal audit’s growing scope of work, which now encompasses so much more than assessing the adequacy of financial controls.
Internal auditors thrive on challenge and problem-solving. The most successful among us are able to think outside the box and identify root causes of complex problems or deficiencies. This innate creativity can be applied to better communicating the essence of our work. We must be willing to try new approaches to explain the profession and the value it brings to organizations.
Successful internal auditors also are self-starters. On their own, they seek out opportunities to improve their organizations and eagerly take on the role of agents of change. But in order to be true agents of change, we must also carry our message to those outside the profession. We do a great job of preaching to the choir, but the choir is already converted. To continue the analogy, we must become proselytizers for internal audit’s cause.
I urge internal auditors to share the messages in this blog widely. Changing deep-seeded misconceptions takes time. But that should not discourage us from making every effort to correct them. Our goal should be the point when someone asks, “Why would anyone call an internal auditor a bean counter?”