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Unsung heroes, navigating career challenges to drive value


Published: 09 Apr 2024

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ICAEW recently hosted a webinar where three experienced internal audit professionals shared their insights on the evolving landscape of internal audit, the skills needed to succeed in this field, and strategies for overcoming common challenges.

This article distils the key takeaways from the webinar, providing guidance for governance professionals and executive leadership on leveraging the power of internal audit as well as tips for individuals making their way as an internal audit professional.

The changing face of internal audit

Gone are the days when internal audit was seen as a mere tick-box exercise, or a re-badged external audit function focused solely on finance. Today, leading organisations view internal audit as a strategic function that adds value by identifying process improvements and efficiencies, optimising operations, and providing assurance on risk management and internal controls in areas from cyber to safety, and from culture to data protection.

As Abigail Harper, one of the webinar speakers, aptly put it, "Internal audit is like a doctor within the organisation, performing health checks on processes and supporting improvement as a trusted advisor."

Embracing diversity and expanding scope

In an environment where unexpected incidents and the manifestation of risk have risen up the board and executive agenda, the need for assurance is critical. It enables directors to determine if risks are being managed within appetite. Risks once considered remote are emerging rapidly. Organisations must embed resilience and align technology with the responses of their people.

Within this context, the role of internal audit continues to expand, with increasing focus on areas such as ESG (environmental, social, and governance), cybersecurity, and data analytics. This presents exciting opportunities for professionals looking to make a meaningful impact and grow their careers in a dynamic field. Internal audit teams are looking for greater diversity in all respects. Functions need to look more broadly to identify and integrate individuals with a range of backgrounds and capabilities.

Essential skills for success

For the individual auditor, succeeding in internal audit requires a diverse set of skills and capabilities. While technical expertise in finance, operations and IT is important for the function as a whole, the webinar speakers emphasised the critical role that inter-personal skills and behaviours provide. Effective communication, stakeholder management, and the ability to influence change are key to building strong relationships with auditees and driving process improvements. Using the example of a medical professional, we would all hope to see a doctor who is transparent about our health issues, but empathetic in their communication of the diagnosis and realistic in prescribing the required treatment.

Radhika Modha highlighted the importance of curiosity and a proactive approach to learning. "Auditors need to be inquisitive about how things work, why they work the way they do, and engage with stakeholders to understand their challenges," she advised. This mindset enables internal auditors to identify potential risks and opportunities without direct experience in the subject area. Navigating challenges and building rapport

Amongst the biggest challenges faced by internal auditors is communicating findings to stakeholders who may be resistant to change or defensive about their business. The webinar speakers shared strategies for overcoming this challenge, such as:

  • Framing findings in a positive light, focusing on the benefits of process improvement rather than pointing fingers.
  • Using open-ended questions to engage stakeholders and understand their perspectives.
  • Presenting facts and evidence to support findings, while being open to additional information that may inform conclusions.

Harriet Lawson emphasised the importance of building rapport with stakeholders through informal interactions, such as coffee chats. "It's easier to have difficult conversations when you have a personal connection" she noted. Ultimately though, internal auditors have to be resilient and prepared to deliver the difficult messages. Its not a job for the feint hearted.

Continuous learning

All speakers agreed that continuous learning is essential for a successful career in internal audit. As the business landscape evolves, internal auditors must stay updated on emerging risks, regulations, and best practices. Seeking out relevant certifications, such as the Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) or specialised qualifications in areas like data analytics or ESG, can enhance credibility and open up new opportunities.

Harriet Lawson shared her experience of taking on a challenging data analytics course to better understand and communicate with stakeholders in the tech space. "It was hard, but so rewarding" she recalled. "I came out with a much better understanding of coding and a greater appreciation for those who can do it."

Leveraging the power of internal audit

While focussed on the needs of individuals in developing their careers, the webinar also provided a wealth of insights for governance professionals and executive leadership looking to leverage the power of internal audit. By understanding the evolving role of internal audit, developing essential skills, navigating challenges, and embracing continuous learning, organisations can build a robust and value-adding internal audit function. Investing in internal audit and supporting the growth of this critical function will enable companies to strengthen their governance, risk management, and internal controls, ultimately driving long-term success.

Building an exciting career

Abigail Harper concluded, "Internal audit is an amazing career if you're interested and want to learn about the broad things that make a business successful." There is an increasing demand for credible individuals and the need to develop recognition of the opportunities that a career in internal audit may bring. It would be great to see this recognised amongst graduates and those at early stages of their career, as well as those that come across the profession later on. Auditing is exciting!

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