Six Characteristics Leading Internal Auditors Possess

Internal auditors are a rare breed. To perform well in their jobs they must have a set of skills that are typically uncommon in one person. For example, they need to be analytical with laser-like focus, while also being “people-persons” with great communication skills. They need to be rule-followers, while also having the creativity and curiosity to blaze new trails. No one ever said it was easy, but becoming a top internal auditor takes dedication, hard work, and, as Liam Neeson said in the movie Taken: “a particular set of skills.” 

 We recently set out to identify the skills and characteristics good internal auditors must possess to perform well in their jobs. We found that some, like curiosity and integrity, are typically characteristics that are just part of our personality or not. Others, like technological know-how and communication abilities can be learned and honed through professional development and training courses. Others lie somewhere in the middle.  

 This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are many other skills and attributes not listed here, such as knowledge of the business, project management capabilities, and relationship building that are important to thriving as an internal auditor. Yet these are the qualifications chief audit executives, senior managers, and board members cite most often as the key abilities they are looking for in good internal auditors.  

 Regardless of how we acquire them, and in no particular order, here are the top six characteristics internal auditors should possess: 

 1) Great Communication Skills 

It’s no secret that internal auditors need to be excellent communicators to execute their jobs well, however, that requirement has only increased as the COVID-19 pandemic closed offices and employees were forced to work from their homes. Now internal auditors must often conduct audits remotely, interviewing process owners and others through phone calls and video conferencing. It’s one thing to assess body language, tone, and facial expressions from across a desk or conference table, but quite another to read those important non-verbal cues during a Zoom call or over some other digital communication platform.  

 So, while the pandemic has made communicating across the organization harder, it’s never been more important. Operational and strategic risks are growing in complexity and intensity and the speed with which they can emerge has quickened. Since business managers own the risks (not assurance functions like internal audit and compliance) auditors need to be excellent communicators to discuss and come to an understanding of those risks through the line managers that own them. 

 It doesn’t stop there. Internal auditors have many constituencies to serve. From their audit customers to senior management and the board, they must be able to navigate many relationships within the organization and sometimes bridge seemingly conflicting views on what’s important to the company. That takes great communication skills and any internal auditor that doesn’t possess them will likely falter in their roles.  

 2) Unyielding Curiosity 

Good internal auditors ask why? Great internal auditors keep asking “why?” Like a child who follows up one question of “why?” with “OK, but why?” top internal auditors keep asking questions until they fully understand the issues at hand. They are not easily swayed with a pat answer or put off the trail with an explanation that doesn’t quite add up. Their natural curiosity keeps them pushing until they find the answers and explanations that satisfies them—in other words, when there are no more “why” questions to ask.  

 Such intellectual curiosity doesn’t just serve good internal auditors well in the pursuit of fraud and wrongdoing, either. It helps them fully understand how controls, processes, and business units work, so they can make recommendations to improve them. It is their curiosity and the need to know how things work that drive them in their jobs and push them to get to the bottom of things. With the importance of root cause analysis, the curious internal auditor keeps digging until they find the answers they are looking for.  

 3) Technological Savvy 

Increasingly, the job of the internal auditor relies on technological tools, such as data analytics, cloud-based application platforms, and data visualization. Indeed, the internal auditor of the future will likely also need to be an expert—or at least proficient—in such areas as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and technologies still out on the horizon. For this reason, internal auditors who don’t embrace new technologies and learn enough about them to at least begin to experiment with new ways of doing things will be left behind. Read just about any “state of internal audit” study or report, and you’ll find that many of the recommendations for increasing the value that internal audit can bring to the organization relies heavily on embracing and mastering new technologies.  

 While it’s important to embrace the more recent technologies that internal audit is increasingly coming to rely on to execute its duties, a digital revolution is taking place in just about every facet of the organization. To complete audits of nearly any process or function will require a working knowledge of increasingly complex technologies. It’s true too, that the top risks in any organization typically involve areas like cybersecurity, data governance, and information security, all of which require internal auditors to be tech savvy.   

 Other aspects of technology that internal auditors must conquer are those that help automate elements of internal audit, including continuous monitoring and robotic process automation (RPA), that help internal audit free up time to take on higher-level functions, such as providing more advisory and consulting work, that increase the value they provide to the organization.  

 4) Ability to Work Independently and on a Team 

It might seem contradictory to say that internal auditors must be able to work on their own, but then also be good team players, but it’s true, and the remote work scenarios brought on by the pandemic have only made it truer. Internal audit has always required a good bit of independent work, but the amount has increased with remote audits and auditors working from home. The ability to work independently relies on such underlying skills as self-motivation, self-management, and accountability. Without daily meeting in the conference room and the chief audit executive looking over their shoulders, internal auditors must be resourceful and reliable to keep projects humming along. To keep audit plans on track, internal auditors must know their role and go off and do the work, keeping their own schedules in check and having the discipline to structure their own time appropriately.  

 That doesn’t mean they no longer have to be able to work well with others. More recent work models, particularly agile audit, require lots of interaction and coordination. This harkens back to the importance of communication abilities, but good internal auditors are also team players. They must be able to motivate others, display leadership, and understand how their roles fit into the bigger picture. Hence top auditors are able to work alone and equally well as a member of a team. 

 5) Drive to Be Life-long Learners 

I once asked a chief audit executive of a Fortune 100 company: What is the single most important thing you look for when you are hiring a new member of your internal audit team? Without hesitation, he said: “I look for someone who is always looking to learn new things.” He explained that internal auditors must be generalists and specialists at the same time. Their jobs will take them to many places and expose them to new knowledge all the time. They must be eager to learn those new wrinkles. He further explained that the person he didn’t want was someone who already thought they had it all figured out. “That person isn’t going to keep an open mind and continue to advance as an auditor,” he said.   

 The fact that internal auditors get exposure to lots of different aspects and units of the business is certainly one of the benefits of the job, but it comes with challenges. They must be able to constantly digest new information and learn new parts of the business. No two audits are ever the same and without the desire to learn something new, it will be difficult for an internal auditor to approach each new assignment with the sponge-like ability to absorb new knowledge and come up to speed quickly on a process or function.  

 6) Integrity and Courage 

Perhaps above all else, integrity and courage must be at the core traits of a high-performing internal auditor. There will be times when internal auditors are asked to look the other way or ignore some faulty control or management wrongdoing, and they must simply be able to resist the urge. It’s never easy to confront someone who isn’t doing the right thing and bring it to light, but it’s a trait that top internal auditors all possess.  

 Even more challenging is the idea that the individual or individuals who need to be confronted could be senior executives, such as the CFO or CEO, to whom the internal audit leader reports. Those are the situations that require courage.  

As part of the internal audit lexicon we are increasingly hearing about the need for a culture of ethics and “tone at the top.” A good internal auditor can’t push for those things without having integrity and the ability to earn the respect of others in the organization that goes with it.  

One more thought on integrity and courage: We often think of these things in terms of big crises and scandals, where the internal auditor stands up to an accounting fraud that is taking place in the organization or a CEO who is up to no good. Yet it more often integrity and courage will be called up for small things, where someone is looking to cut a corner or isn’t treating others with respect. This is when integrity, along with a good moral compass can help an internal auditor push past a roadblock and get an audit back on track.  

So, call them what you may: characteristics, skills, qualifications, or abilities, but working on these six things will go a long way toward excelling as an internal auditor. Of course, they aren’t enough in themselves to ensure a quick rise through the ranks of the internal audit team. That requires hard work and dedication to the job. But they will certainly put you on the right track.  


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