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Building a Better Auditor: Leadership Best Practices

Blogs Tomasz Smolarek, CIA May 18, 2022

Whether you've set your sights on becoming a CAE or just a more assured and competent internal auditor, Tomasz Smolarek has suggestions for good habits to cultivate.​

This post is not about advancing internal auditors' careers from staff to CAE only. It is something more. These are thoughts on becoming a better auditor and a leader. The title means different things in different organizations and should not be the goal per se. There are places where an 'internal auditor' has much more experience and knowledge than audit managers in some other organizations. This is valid for other professions as well.

However, let us assume we are talking about a clear career path, with a role that allows the auditor to build experience and skills, both soft and technical ones. So, what are the key points to consider if you need to advance your career?

1.   Never stop learning.

While obvious and applicable to most current professions, this is particularly important for internal audit. The processes keep on changing, some slower (e.g., due to updates to the accounting standards), while others much faster (e.g., due to IT developments). To provide firm assurance and advisory services, we need to understand how the processes work to assess the risks. Hence, do not assume your knowledge gained at the university or through a professional certification obtained ten years ago is enough today. It is not. The processes managed in the IT environment mean more cyber-risks and different data protection approaches. For example, can we allow ourselves not to think about IoT or cloud computing today?

2.   Keep on updating your approach and audit program.

Because of the ongoing process changes, we need to update the audit program. As a result, the best practices from 2015 may be way outdated today.

3.   Listen and always try to understand the audit clients.

The big difference between the experienced leader and the auditor focusing only on the checklists is that the former tries to understand the audit clients and adequately report the severity of the risks. The fundamental goal of the audit should be providing added value and influencing positive process changes. No matter where you work, there will always be some politics involved in your work. You need to set clear boundaries between what can be allowed and what is a no-go approach. You will meet people trying to impact your work from the very first day of the audit, including the timeline or the data you should have access to. You will probably also meet aggressive managers. And that is why the auditor needs to learn how to stay calm, stick to the facts, and not get influenced by this kind of behavior.

4.   Refine the reporting process.

Remember that no matter how well you do your work, unless you can report on the results, it may not matter. That is the sad truth. Here are a few more tips to keep in mind:

  • The report's length does not necessarily correlate to the quality of your work. Neither do the number of recommendations. 
  • What is the key? The report should be clear and provide accurate information on the observation, related risks, risk levels, and your recommendations for improvements. You should set clear responsibility for the implementation of recommendations and for deadlines. Indicate the compliance, financial, or reputation risks, and quantify these whenever possible. Understand and decide if all low-risk level observations need to be provided in the report. 
  • Objectivity is the key. But objectivity does not mean there is no room for discussion.

5.   Learn from the experts.

It can feel awkward to find a proper mentor when starting out. Why? Because you first need to figure out what you are searching for. But finding a mentor is crucial. While you may get lucky and find a mentor in your workplace, you can also turn to various global associations with local chapters. The IIA is a perfect example. You should be able to easily find the local affiliate and the working groups for the areas you are particularly interested in. There are audit programs, there are experts from various industry sectors, and membership is usually affordable (and employers often reimburse these).

6.   Support your team.

As in any other profession, you may need to change workplaces to become a CAE. Once you become CAE, look at the list above and think about how to support your staff in the best possible way so that they can achieve the same in a few years.

Tomasz Smolarek, CIA

Head of Internal Audit at EMBL in Heidelberg, Germany.

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