Top 7 Attributes of Effective Internal Auditors

Top 7 Attributes of Effective Internal Auditors

By Richard Chambers, December 14, 2010.
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Richard Chambers

This is just one of the reasons internal auditing is a critical activity, and why it is at the very core of corporate sustainability.

But what - in addition to education, training, and internal audit technical expertise - constitutes a good internal audit activity and solid leadership thereof? What are the essential leadership attributes that position the activity for effectiveness and success?

 What constitutes a good internal audit activity and solid leadership? 

According to a recent study conducted by The Institute of Internal Auditors' Audit Executive Center and Korn/Ferry International, there are seven assets that separate highly successful internal audit leaders from the rest of the pack. I will list these aspects here, in reverse order:

#7 - Unwavering Courage. Because internal auditors often find themselves swimming upstream, they must exhibit strong resolve to withstand the current. They must have the strength of their convictions to do the right thing and to influence their organization to demonstrate integrity, conscience and ethical practices worthy of the stakeholders' trust. This attribute is evident in the internal auditor who puts his or her career on the sidelines, while standing alone against tremendous pressure. Imagine the peace of mind executive management can have when they are confident that their internal auditors have this level of courage.

One of the best known examples Cynthia Cooper, who, in spite of tremendous pressure to remain quiet, blew the whistle on WorldCom and one of the largest financial frauds this country has ever witnessed.

#6 - Ability to Develop Talent. The best chief audit executive has an eye for identifying appropriate candidates and a heart for transforming raw talent into professional proficiency. Carmen Lapointe, a high-level CAE who recently was appointed under-secretary-general for Internal Oversight Services at the United Nations, is living proof of the value of developing talent. She views internal auditing as an excellent "learning ground" for a breadth of experience that prepares professionals for the future.

#5 - Tight grasp of Business Risks. Without an in-depth understanding of the risks that might threaten the organization, the internal audit function could never assess the effectiveness of the controls in place to mitigate those risks. In practice, this does not mean layering more internal controls on top of existing controls, as had often been the practice in the past. Today's internal audit professionals must look beyond the audit plan with discipline, flexibility, and creativity in order to link business risk to market opportunities.

Andrew Dix, CAE of Telstra Corp., the Australian telecommunications giant based in Melbourne, agrees and says that "you need people who can look across the whole organization, and IA is one of the few groups inside the company that actually has the ability to do that."

#4 - Experience. Not only does experience serve as a baseline for future work, but also provides a benchmark for processes, procedures and skills. For example, seasoned professional and Raytheon CAE Larry Harrington has served as a vice president of human resources, operations and finance, and has been a CAE at three companies over his 35 years in business. He indicates that his varied roles gave him perspectives and understandings that literally changed who he is.

#3 - Unflinching Integrity. This is non-negotiable, as it serves as the very foundation of an internal auditor's values and the core of professionalism. Again, WorldCom's Cooper modeled this attribute when she refused to turn a blind eye to the fraudulent behavior of which she was seeing evidence. This is why she was named one of Time magazine's "Persons of the Year" in 2002.

Mark Arning, CAE at New York Life Insurance Company, agrees that it takes someone who is willing to do the right thing for the company and jeopardize their job security. "You must be a person who is willing to stand up alone when things aren't going right, and communicate the message in a timely fashion."

#2 - Communication. Effective internal auditors must be excellent listeners, accurate translators of information, convincing presenters and credible reporters. Without excellent communication skills, an internal auditor would not achieve the rank of a highly successful professional. Former Mirant Corporation CAE Paul Sobel says that boards do not want the facts sugarcoated by their internal auditors. Instead, he says, they need someone who won't pull punches on the important issues, so they can understand the full magnitude of an issue.

#1 - Business Acumen. Internal audit practitioners must have the ability to accurately see and understand the organization and its employees, processes and culture. Coca-Cola's Connie McDaniel says that unless internal auditors have the ability to connect the dots and understand the implications and consequences of business decisions, their job will be very difficult. They must have an in-depth grasp on what makes the organization tick, what its management and board are trying to accomplish, and what challenges and risks lie ahead that might thwart the achievement of goals and objectives.

This insight is virtually the master key to internal audit effectiveness.

Richard Chambers is president of the Institute of Internal Auditors. Chambers heads The IIA Global Headquarters' leadership team in developing the global business infrastructure and framework that supports The IIA's 96 institutes all around the world and advances the organization's strategic priorities. He initiates partnerships with other global groups and works to ensure internal audit competencies are globally consistent and the International Standards for the Professional Practice of Internal Auditing are globally recognized and embraced.

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