ICAEW.com works better with JavaScript enabled.

9 Traits of an effective Audit Committee

Having an effective Audit Committee is essential for good corporate governance as it leads on financial reporting, internal controls, risk management and external audit functions.

A group of Audit Committee Chairmen and Members, from FTSE 100 and FTSE250 businesses, identified these attributes during a roundtable event held at ICAEW in June 2018, as being qualities indicative of an effective committee:

  1. Intellectual curiosity and professional scepticism
  2. Courageous in making tough decisions
  3. Balanced, ethical approach to whistleblowing
  4. Oversight of key risks (not just financial)
  5. Excellent relationship builders
  6. Ability to build and develop a strong team
  7. Able to challenge the external auditors
  8. Good listening skills
  9. Own the agenda

Intellectual curiosity and professional scepticism

Intellectual curiosity and professional scepticism are necessary attributes in an Audit Committee member. It’s not enough to request confirmation from the external auditors and the executive team as this can provide a false sense of comfort. Members of the modern Audit Committee must understand the business and ask the right questions. Audit Committee members must take the time to visit the different parts of the business, particularly an international business, to scrutinise it and get a good understanding of its workings. They must also remember that they are non-executives and have a responsibility to remain objective.

Audit Committee Chairs and members may have more than one directorship and must be mindful of their time commitment to avoid becoming overwhelmed by any one role. 

Courageous in making tough decisions

The toughest decisions generally concern people rather than numbers. Audit Committee Chairs have to have the strength and courage to tackle any under-performance in the finance team. In some cases, they will need to replace the existing team to ensure that they have a strong team in place to support them.

Other tough decisions are to:

  • appoint new external auditors. If the new auditors take a harder line with the Board then there is the potential for a backlash to be directed at the Chair of the Audit Committee. The appointment of the auditor is a key responsibility of the Audit Committee.
  • re-organise the internal audit function. When an organisation does not have the right skill-sets internally to perform the internal audit function, outsourcing and co-sourcing are the most popular solutions. Proponents of co-sourcing argue that it provides access to the expertise required whilst maintaining independence.

Balanced, ethical approach to whistleblowing

The Audit Committee is responsible for ensuring that the whistleblowing process is balanced, ethical and effective. The culture of an organisation is clearly visible when a whistleblower comes forward particularly at Board level if the reported incident involves a director.

Culture is an intangible yet important aspect of all organisations. It is the responsibility of the Board but is often discussed by the Audit Committee. The Chairman of the Audit Committee needs to create a forum where people can discuss all issues openly. Recent high-profile company collapses highlight the issue of management override and company culture. The Audit Committee Chairman must take a balanced and ethical perspective, scrutinise and challenge any decisions to move away from the market standards in accounting and reporting. 

A culture where people can admit mistakes and learn from them was identified as the ideal. ‘Near misses’ offer good opportunities to learn and improve without blaming individuals. The Audit Committee needs to ensure that its working culture is one where corporate governance requirements were valued rather than seen as a compliance issue.

Oversight of key risks (not just financial)

Large scale IT projects and cybersecurity are often seen as two of the biggest risks facing a company. Solutions to these issues ranged from having a specialist presence on the Board to having a broader expertise on the Audit Committee. The use of advisors to consult on the risks is also an effective solution.

The financial services sector is subject to regulation which requires separate audit and risk committees, which emphasises the need for effective teamwork and communication between committees. When the committees are separated, greater care is necessary to ensure that some issues do not slip through the cracks. Other sectors are not required to separate the audit and risk committees but make the decision based on what is needed in the business. 

Excellent relationship builder

Inviting the Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and the Chief Financial Officer to attend the Audit Committee meetings alongside external and internal audit helps to create an open and transparent culture. It is also important to build strong working relationships with these key stakeholders. The challenge of having the Chairman attend Audit Committee meetings is that there is the possibility that they may take the lead in the meeting.

Build and develop a strong team

The Nominations Committee is responsible for the membership of the Audit Committee. A Board of non-executive directors is selected and then split into committees. While this produces the correct numbers for committee membership, it does not necessarily allocate the correct skill-set. It is necessary to build and develop a strong team from this starting point. 

Working relationships on the Audit Committee are important and difficult personalities need to be addressed in the feedback and performance evaluations. Facilitation skills are key and the Chair of the Audit Committee will use the evaluation process to develop the committee members. 

Able to challenge the external auditors

Business structures and the industries in which they operate are becoming increasingly complex. Auditors are called upon to give their judgement on a number of issues and there is a sense that the broad range of experience and understanding of complex business issues is often only found in the larger firms. 

Auditors can be reluctant to give a qualitative opinion and more junior auditors don’t always fully understand the business. Members of the Audit Committee need to challenge the external auditors to be assured that they understand the complexities and culture of the business and that their judgement is sound.

Good listening skills

Audit Committees often receive large volumes of papers but need to listen to the messages delivered at Audit Committee meetings. Internal audit is widely considered to be a key element in an effective Audit Committee, often acting as their eyes and ears within the business. The Audit Committee Chairman needs to build a good working relationship with the Head of Internal Audit whilst remaining objective and independent. The head of internal audit should sit at the executive committee level, so that they have the status and opportunity to challenge the executive.

Own the agenda

These traits are specifically for the Chairman of the Audit Committee as they will need to plan ahead to ensure that the Committee has time to cover all of the issues on the annual agenda. In particular, the Audit Committee Chair will:

  • Work with the company secretary to arrange the annual calendar of meetings and agendas well in advance, leaving time for new issues as they arise.
  • Take control of each agenda – set out the essential issues to be discussed and manage any additional agenda items as they arise.
  • Ensure a standard approach to papers, for example, requesting a one-page executive summary and clarity on whether a paper was for ratification or noting.
  • Ensure you leave enough time to discuss the outcome with the Chairman of the Board before the Board meeting.
  • Good time management – ensure that there is adequate time allocated to each topic and if more time is required to consider re-issued, revised versions of papers, postponing the meeting if necessary.

Each of these actions will allow the Audit Committee to operate effectively.

Watch our ‘Leading an effective Audit Committee’ webinar here