Can professional skepticism and being a trusted advisor co-exist?

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Can you project an air of skepticism that aligns with your role while still being perceived as worthy of being trusted yourself? If you send all the signals that you don’t trust someone else, how can you expect them to trust you? It’s certainly something to ponder.

Let’s start with some definitions so we’re on the same level footing:

Professional Skepticism – “Questioning and critically assessing the reliability of information.” (source: Global Internal Audit Standards, January 9, 2024, Glossary)

Trust – “The firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.” (source: “Trusted Advisors: Key Attributes of Outstanding Internal Auditors,” by Richard Chambers (2017))

Background and personal story

I remember it being sometime in the early 2010s when the concept of being viewed as a trusted advisor became the proverbial holy grail for internal audit professionals. Many of the profession’s most notable luminaries began talking and writing about it, as well as advocating on the importance of the pursuit of trusted advisor status through blogs, articles, conference presentations, and books. It continues to this day. And, in my humble opinion, rightfully so. It is a never-ending pursuit towards a desired level of acceptance that can be quite elusive and can easily change with any shift in organizational leadership.

While I didn’t call it being a “trusted advisor” back during my time as a Chief Audit Executive, I knew I had transcended a special level of counselor status that made me very proud of all the work I had done up to that point to cultivate relationships. I was honest, forthright, and always had the company’s best interests top of mind. What happened that told me I had “arrived?”

It was a particular instance that sticks vividly in my mind to this day. I was focused on my work during a routine day in my office when I heard a knock at my open door. Mildly annoyed at the interruption and the break in my concentration, I looked up and the CEO of the company was at my door. He asked, “do you have a minute?” I was startled and taken aback, as this had never occurred before. Up to that point, whenever the CEO wanted to talk to me about something, he or his executive assistant called me down to his office. So, I stammered out a surprised “of course” (what else would I say?). He closed the door, said, "Can I run something by you?" then sat down and began talking. What we spoke about remains confidential, but it had nothing to do with internal audit, the audit committee, or internal controls. It was about what he was thinking of doing in terms of company changes and he wanted my private perspective. Bingo. Looking back, in retrospect, I guess I had become a “trusted advisor,” I just didn’t call it that. (Yeah, I did a “happy dance,” at least in my head.)

What is a Trusted Advisor, and why is it important?

When you are considered a trusted advisor in the context of internal audit, people of influence (be it someone in a position stature in the organization chart, or because of the mission critical role they play in the organization) look to you for your views, thoughts, opinions, and counsel. They trust that you are being open and honest with them, and that you will provide valuable advice. Sometimes it occurs openly in the normal course of business activities, sometimes it is in a key meeting, and sometimes it is privately and confidentially. This isn’t something that just happens on occasion or with just a small subset of people (although if the CEO, and only the CEO, viewed you as trusted advisor, which would be rather cool in and of itself) but happens often across a broad range of senior individuals. Your advice is trusted to be of candor, utility, and value and, most importantly, is actively sought out.

Some in the profession may raise the objectivity hand, saying that if this happens and your advice is being acted upon that it might (or will) cause you to lose your ability to view things objectively as it relates to that advice and counsel. I guess that’s true, but what a good problem to have!

“But, Wait,” You Say, “I am a ‘Trust, but Verify’ Kind of Person – And I Apply Professional Skepticism!”

The concept of professional skepticism has been around for my entire career. I remember a CFO telling me that he wanted his internal auditors to be intellectually curious and professionally skeptical, and that was more than 30 years ago! And, the new Global Internal Audit Standards, which take effect in January 2025, has a Standard specifically on Professional Skepticism (Standard 4.3) and the term is specifically defined in the Glossary:

Glossary – “Questioning and critically assessing the reliability of information.”

Standard 4.3 – “To exercise professional skepticism an internal auditor must:

  • Maintain an attitude that includes inquisitiveness.

  • Critically assess the reliability of information.

  • Be straightforward and honest when raising concerns and asking questions about inconsistent information.

  • Seek additional evidence to make a judgment about information and statements that might be incomplete, inconsistent, false, or misleading”

(Source: 2024 Global Internal Audit Standards from The Institute of Internal Auditors)

So, in exercising professional skepticism, we should not be taking things at face value, and we should do what auditors do: check, confirm, tick and tie, trace and validate, etc., etc.

On top of all that, we auditors love pulling out the phrase that was used by U.S. President Ronald Reagan when dealing with the then Soviet Union on agreements for nuclear disarmament, “Trust, But Verify.” Which essentially means I can’t really trust you, so I will verify and validate what you say and/or do because that is the only way I will know you are really being fully truthful.

So, dang it. We auditors need to embrace professional skepticism, to question and verify everything because that is the only way we know we are dealing with the absolute truth.

But what message does this send? How do we create trusting relationships while at the same time being skeptical and verifying all with which we are presented? Let’s play this out with two people that are in a meaningful relationship with each other as an example.

Person 1: Can you run to the grocery store and pick up a few things so that we can make dinner tonight? Here’s the list of what we need.

Person 2: Sure, anything else you need while I’m out?

Person 1: No, thanks.

(Person 2 leaves the house. Two hours goes by, which seems like a long time to pick up a couple of items. Note the grocery store is 6 miles away, round trip.)

Person 2: Honey, I’m home.

Person 1: What took you so long? (skepticism at play)

Person 2: The place was swamped, and the traffic was crazy.

Person 1: Well, that sure still seems like a long time, are you sure you didn’t go anywhere else? Let me smell your breath. (more skepticism)

Person 2: Really, I didn’t go anywhere else. It seems like you don’t trust me.

Person 1: No, I trust you. But, since I noted the mileage on the vehicle before you left, give me the keys so that I can validate the odometer. (Trust, but verify)

Person 2: You can make dinner yourself. I’m going out alone tonight. (Door slams, and car engine starts.)

It seems like trusting relationships and professional skepticism, with a level of trust but verify, doesn’t work well for interpersonal interactions. Can we develop trusting relationships and still be doing our skepticism thing in the workplace? And how do you get to be a trusted advisor if you demonstrate you really don’t trust anyone as an internal auditor?

Houston, it seems we have a problem here.

So, can professional skepticism and being a trusted advisor co-exist?

It does appear that applying professional skepticism and being viewed as a trusted advisor are at odds with each other. We know we need to be professionally skeptical, and at the same time we want to be considered a trusted source of advice and counsel. So, can they co-exist? Probably, but it takes a lot of finesse and organizational maturity. Let me explain.

If you go about doing your internal audit work, and your only interaction with people in your organization is when you are auditing them, good luck pal. All they see of you is this person who follows up on everything everyone says, looking for documented proof. Your appropriate professional skepticism just sends the message you don’t trust anyone. So, let’s say you are that auditor who has no time other than to execute your audit project work, day in and day out. And now you are invited to be the internal audit representative on a key project, one that is high profile and supports a major strategic initiative. When you show up to that first meeting, there are two kinds of people in the room, those that don’t know you and those that know you as that annoying, untrusting, skeptical auditor. If they don’t think you trust them, how much will they trust you? I think we know what the answer is … not too much.

As is a common theme in several of my articles, blogs, and social media posts on the profession, if you don’t invest in relationships outside of your normal audit projects with the right people in the organization, they won’t know you beyond the skeptical auditor role. It takes time to get to a level of mutual respect and, most importantly in this context, mutual trust. Saying “I’m from audit and I’m here to help,” is meaningless unless those words are backed by a history of people seeing you truly act and behave in the company’s best interests, and that you want everyone to be successful, not just find what they are doing wrong. If you invest in relationships, the dividend will be that people begin to open up to you. They will start to trust you, and you can learn when to trust them. Your knowledge will begin to shine through, and you can be on the road to trusted advisor status, all while still being that annoying, skeptical auditor.


Let’s conclude that it is not easy for most internal auditors to be simultaneously professionally skeptical and viewed as a trusted advisor. They are fundamentally at odds. But, with a keen awareness of the importance of relationship building outside of normal relationships, a bit of finesse, and a lot of patience, you can be viewed as a trusted advisor while still being stereotypically skeptical. It requires knowing when to lead with trust, a lot of interpersonal relationship acumen, and a skillset and problem-solving capability that is sought after. In the end, you have to behave in such a way that people will want to trust you … and that means knowing when to “trust but verify” and when to just unquestionably trust.

Hal Garyn


Hal Garyn



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