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Building a Better Auditor: Audit Generalist vs. Specialist

Blogs Mahmoud Hassan, CIA, CISA, CISM, CCSA Aug 14, 2023

The decision to pursue a career as a generalist or specialist is a common dilemma, particularly for people in the early stages of their professional journey. While there's no definitive answer, considering where you are in your career, as well as the industry in which you work, can significantly influence the path you should take and help you make an informed choice.

Early Career: Embracing Specialization 

If you are at the beginning of your career, my recommendation is to become a specialist. Specialization grants you a competitive advantage by allowing you to develop expertise in a specific niche area. This focused approach narrows the field of competitors in your chosen domain.

For instance, if you start in a commercial bank's internal audit division and you have a business background, you can choose to specialize in areas like credit audit, support and control audit, or treasury and financial risk audit. By honing your skills in one of these areas, you enhance your marketability and competitiveness, compared to being a generalist auditor with only surface-level knowledge in multiple domains. Specialization in the realm of IT audit also presents a compelling array of advantages, especially when considering the diverse pathways available within this dynamic field. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, you could select a specific trajectory that aligns with your passion and aptitude. Whether you choose to specialize in network audit, cybersecurity assessment, or application development review, each path promises unique insights and rewards.

Mid-Career Level: The Hybrid Approach 

At this stage, I recommend a hybrid approach that combines generalist and specialist skills — what might be called a specialized generalist. Integrating multiple complementary skills makes you stand out and creates a unique value proposition for potential employers. For instance, if you specialize in financial and operational audits, you could enhance your expertise by adding data analytics, process mining, content creation, or public speaking skills. By thoughtfully combining your core expertise with a carefully curated selection of complementary skills, you position yourself as a versatile professional. This strategic approach not only enriches your career but also propels you toward leadership roles where your well-rounded expertise is in high demand.

Leadership Role: Embracing Generalization 

Aspiring to manage the internal audit function calls for a generalist perspective. Leaders in this capacity need diverse skills and a well-rounded knowledge base across various disciplines. The responsibilities of overseeing an entire internal audit function necessitate a broad understanding of different areas, rather than deep specialization. Consequently, aspiring leaders should focus on developing a range of skills they can adapt to a variety of challenges and organizational demands. Some of these more generalist strengths include a holistic understanding of the business and risks, the flexibility to adapt to a swiftly changing business environment, the ability to cultivate talent, and the skill to make strategic decisions.

Here are some steps to acquiring new skills:

  • Assess strengths and interests: Begin by taking stock of your skills, strengths, and areas of interest. Reflect on the specialized skills you've acquired thus far, as well as the generalist competencies that have served you well. Consider what excites you and where you see the most potential for growth. Then identify complementary skills that can augment your specialization or generalist knowledge base.
  • Invest in continuous learning: Embrace a mindset of lifelong learning. Seek out training programs (such as ones provided by The IIA), workshops, mentors, and online courses that can help you develop the new skills you're targeting. Many online platforms offer courses in a wide range of subjects, allowing you to learn at your own pace and tailor your learning journey to your specific needs.
  • Apply skills strategically: As you acquire new skills, find opportunities to apply them within your current role or projects. This hands-on experience is crucial for solidifying your understanding and showcasing your proficiency. For example, you might integrate data analytics or process mining into your audits to uncover valuable insights.
  • Embrace cross-functional collaboration: The specialized generalist thrives in cross-functional collaboration. Engage with colleagues from diverse backgrounds and leverage your array of skills to contribute meaningfully to various projects. This not only enriches your experience but also exposes you to different perspectives and approaches.

These principles apply not just to internal audit but also to other professions within the business realm, including risk management, compliance, or finance. Remember, your career path is dynamic, and continually adapting your skills to align with your goals is key to success.

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Mahmoud Hassan, CIA, CISA, CISM, CCSA

Mahmoud Hassan is chief internal audit officer at Neoleap Financial Company, a subsidiary of Alrajhi Bank, in Saudi Arabia.