Expertise Beyond the Numbers

Internal Audit: Key Soft Skills Internal Auditors Must Have

The internal audit profession requires a variety of both soft and technical skills that are crucial to maximize project success, as well as overall professional goals. Soft skills can be thought of as the interpersonal or emotional intelligence (EQ) toolkit needed to navigate projects, while technical skills relate to the content specific areas of expertise needed by auditors to understand the industry and processes under evaluation. While they have always been an important tool for auditors, soft skills currently play a significant and highlighted role in the COVID-19 environment where the majority of audit work is being performed remotely. The ability for internal auditors to leverage soft skills will allow them to adapt and ensure project success during and after the current COVID-19 work environment.

The list of soft skills is seemingly endless; however, notable skills include communication (verbal and written), relationship building/listening, and continuous learning/adaptability. While technical skills are a necessity, they alone are not enough to conduct internal audit work effectively. Examples of key soft skills, as well as methods to apply them, are summarized below:

Communication

Communication can be both written and verbal. Auditors at some point will have to deal with the challenge of verbally communicating unexpected news or navigating through management disagreement of a written report. While preparing to communicate with clients, it is critical to understand your audience and tailor the verbal or written message in a way that will resonate most effectively. Understanding the nuance of your clients’ preferences and preferred communication methods may be overlooked but serve as the foundation to a strong relationship.

Verbal

Verbal communication occurs continuously throughout an audit. Planning meetings, entrance meetings, interviews/walkthroughs, fieldwork/test procedures, and exit meetings are just some examples where verbal communication is critical. A challenging communication experience can occur at the end of an audit when formally presenting findings/observations in the “official report”. Regardless of the level of communication that occurs throughout the engagement to keep management involved, the presentation of written findings to executive level leadership can invoke defensive emotions. Internal auditors have a responsibility to verbally deliver and explain these findings in a fact based, objective, non-accusatory way. Further, the message can be softened by focusing on the solution and recommendations rather than the issue.

Written

Written communication occurs through emails and formalized project deliverables, such as workpapers, reports, and slide decks. While management disagreement may not be completely avoidable, one method for minimizing the frequency of disagreement is to write in a factual, precise, and clear manner. Internal auditors should be constantly communicating with auditees throughout the engagement. Any findings or areas of concern should be confirmed, supported, and documented. Audit reports that include language such as “sometimes”, “many”, “a few”, “may”, and “must” raises questions. Instead, provide specific quantitative information which provides management with a clear understanding of the findings and the nature of the observation.

Relationship Building

Auditors have one opportunity at a first impression. Further, each interaction between an internal auditor and an auditee is an opportunity to establish trust, credibility, and to build a relationship. This opportunity begins on day one.

Respect for clients as subject matter experts

Internal auditors should respect the notion that auditees are experts in their line of work. While auditors are not expected to be experts of every industry, we are expected to be process and risk experts. If an auditee believes that auditors are asking repetitive questions or are not listening or understanding information provided quickly, patience may begin to wear thin and the auditor may lose credibility. As a risk management expert, it is the auditor’s responsibility to pair his/her knowledge of risk management with the client’s expertise in the process area under review to provide meaningful insights. To build a strong relationship, it is important that auditors understand not to overstep the boundary of expertise that clients have established through their careers.

Honest and transparent lines of communication

Auditors should be humble, demonstrate respect, listen, and work to establish relationships with auditees. Only when meaningful relationships are formed are auditors able to receive more candid, open, honest, detailed information that will help improve the effectiveness of the audit. Additionally, internal auditors want to be viewed as a trusted resource beyond a specific project or audit. Once a relationship is established, the likelihood that internal audit is proactively contacted when challenges present improves. This relationship can start with understanding the auditor’s role as a risk management expert and the client’s role as the expert in the process under review.

Continuous Learning

The types of audit areas, policies, procedures, risks, controls, laws/regulations, and auditees that internal auditors will review/support throughout their career vary. As a result, auditors should embrace a continuous learning mindset.

Adaptability while using both soft and technical skills

Internal auditors must be able to adapt and learn various processes quickly, knowing when to leverage soft and technical skills to navigate projects. An effective internal auditor should be well rounded and learn to apply these skills in any subject area.

Healthy Skepticism

Ideal personality traits for an auditor include natural curiosity and inquisitiveness. Successful auditors have a healthy skepticism and are able to dig beyond basic, surface level answers, showing a desire to truly understand the business environment.

Non-technical Trainings

While it is important for internal auditors to have adequate technical training, it is also important for auditors to focus on non-technical trainings that address soft skill topics, such as leadership or emotional intelligence (EQ) in the workplace training. These non-technical trainings will provide an auditor a skill that compliments his/her technical skills.

The demands of internal audit professionals in today’s business world has developed beyond that of just an “investigator.” As a result of this transformation, auditors are viewed as strategic partners that should have communication, relationship building, and continuous learning soft skill sets at their disposal to add value while having a “seat at the table.” Due to the COVID-19 work environment, it is especially important for internal auditors to use a combination of soft and technical skills that will allow them to have an independent objective opinion, improve efficiency of operations, evaluate risks, assess controls, ensure compliance with laws and regulations, drive accountability, and encourage change. This is an extraordinary ask, particularly in the current remote work environment. Organizations should ensure adequate training is provided to internal auditors to attract, retain, maintain, and develop their employees and advance the audit function.

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