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Building a Better Auditor: A New CIA’s Love of Lifelong Learning

Blogs Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CIA, CISA, CPA, CGMA Jan 23, 2024

As a person who loves both technology and accounting, I’ve always recognized the importance of having the education and experience needed for my role. Earning the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license and Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) credentials demonstrate my commitment to lifelong learning. Like many colleagues, my career has taken several paths, and I have continuously looked for an “and,” seeking out opportunities to enhance my skills.

I have worked in and around the internal audit profession for years. In fact, one of my first roles was working in advisory services for a Big Four firm where several of my engagements involved IT internal audit. In 2021, I transitioned from a career at Oracle to a portfolio role, in which I now serve as a corporate board chair and director, adjunct professor, consultant, keynote speaker, and volunteer leader. In this environment, learning new skills is non-negotiable. That’s why, more than 20 years after passing the CPA exam, I found myself in a testing facility taking the Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) exam.

Why I Took the CIA Exam

I’ve always talked about the role that education has played in my life. Growing up in the inner city of Baltimore, my parents taught me that education can help level the playing field. And it’s true; education has opened doors for me throughout my career. Learning never stops, no matter where you are on your career journey. 

My leadership roles have provided further opportunities to engage with the internal audit function. And as chairman of the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) in 2016, I worked with CPAs across the profession, including internal auditors. My appreciation for internal auditors’ dedication to improving organizations has grown further now that I am an independent board director. Combined with a commitment to lifelong learning, this appreciation inspired me to take the CIA exam.   

When I mentioned to my IIA network that I was planning to take the exam, I am pretty sure they thought I was joking. But they didn’t factor in that I was president of Beta Alpha Psi at the time, where one of my platform themes was to “Reimagine Career Aspirations.” I wanted to show students that new opportunities arise when you lean into lifelong learning. 

Moreover, as a board member, the combination of a CPA and CIA is incredibly powerful. Why? For one thing, regulators have asked boards to provide more effective oversight, and boards rely heavily on the internal audit team due to their integrity, ethics, competence, and independence. Earning my CIA certification gave me the ability to increase my effectiveness and ask credible, challenging questions while also gaining a broader picture of the organization from both an internal and external perspective.  

My Approach to Studying

Once I decided to pursue the CIA certification, I knew I needed to ensure I was putting myself in the best position to pass the exam. Acquiring the review materials and allocating time each day to review the learning content and questions was essential. There is no short-cutting the unlearning and re-learning process. There were topics that I didn’t know as well as I thought. In addition to using the study guide, I meticulously read The IIA’s website for additional context and insights into the profession. 

I wanted to make sure I wasn’t simply guessing the answers, but that I knew why I got an answer right or why I may have gotten it wrong. Just as mastery of the material is important, so is confidence and an understanding of test taking techniques.  

The confidence part was relatively easy because, like many of our colleagues, I know how to analyze and assimilate data and leverage critical thinking and problem-solving skills. But that is not enough. There are many confident “A” students who fail tests. With this humbling perspective, I understood that reading the questions — really reading the questions — and using the time allocated wisely would be critical. Colleagues who have been CIAs for years reminded me that the role and lens of the CIA is to help create and preserve value for the organization. Their reminders helped me distinguish more clearly between the roles of the internal and external auditor. 

The Path Forward

Committing to lifelong learning, whether informally or as a path to certification, is key to developing the skills required to add value to an organization. Internal auditors who invest in their skills and continue to expand their knowledge are better positioned to help their organizations thrive and increase both their top and bottom lines. 

We all follow different paths on our career journeys, and I know that mine may be different from others who have earned their CIA credential. Who knew that after 30 years of work experience, I would finally earn the CIA? Yet, it is an undeniable and invaluable “and” to my other credentials and learning. Across the broader ecosystem of the profession, we help organizations achieve better outcomes. Now I can proudly say that I am a diehard CPA and a diehard CIA, as well.

Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CIA, CISA, CPA, CGMA

Kimberly Ellison-Taylor is founder and CEO of KET Solutions, LLC and is based in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore area.