While working in internal audit for more than 30 years within corporate functions and professional service firms, one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done is counsel and assist associates with various pieces of their careers. Helping people make good career decisions and watching them develop to their full potential should be an objective of any professional.
The opportunity to serve in this role has allowed me to identify and understand career challenges internal auditors repeatedly run into and help them develop the skills to better manage their careers and avoid these common pitfalls. Mastering 10 skills can help internal auditors better position themselves to take advantage of opportunities and enable them to prosper in today’s work environment.
Differentiate yourself from your peers.
What unique skills and experiences do you have, or are you developing, to differentiate yourself? Too often, internal auditors have not focused on this question and are not able to articulate which demonstrated strengths and key attributes set them apart from their peers. It is not just a matter of stating a skill or attribute — they should be able to give examples that demonstrate they possess that skill or attribute.
Using generic descriptive phrases such as “I’m a hard worker” or “I have high ethics” doesn’t differentiate a person, as many people use them. At any level or position, internal auditors need to continue to build skills and experiences that make themselves more valuable and also set them apart from peers.
Auditors also should practice their interviewing skills. Are you able to clearly articulate what your key strengths and differentiating qualities are? In particular, when you interview, do you know what qualitative skills and attributes you want to communicate to an interviewer? Résumés also should be updated to communicate these qualifications.
Learn to develop and maintain relationships.
One of the most important career skills is the ability to build and maintain professional relationships. Access to a network of professionals is valuable and can be used for a broad range of activities, such as sales opportunities, references, staffing and job opportunities, coaching, and insights on companies and executives.
But building and maintaining a network is a process. Internal auditors should consider who they network with and why, then develop a process to support and reinforce networking activities. For example, practitioners should keep track of when they interact with people or maintain a list of people with whom they need to reconnect.
While social media networks are fine for many purposes, professional networking requires a personal touch and interaction. People in your network need to know you and your capabilities so that when a need arises, they are happy to help.
Set long-term goals but manage your career in terms of “orbits.”
Goals give you something to work toward in your personal and professional life. However, in today’s dynamic work environment, reaching those goals may seem daunting. The uncertainty of constant change presents a challenge in developing a clear path to goals, especially long-term goals. Studies have shown that writing goals increases an individual’s probability of achieving them.
Alex McKenna, a career counselor for senior executives, advises people to think about their careers in two- to five-year increments, which he refers to as “orbits.” When in an orbit, the focus should be on performing well while building skills and experiences that qualify you to move to a higher orbit. That higher orbit could be a higher-level position or a position in a different organization where your skills and experiences would be better used. In that higher orbit, you would look to add new skills and experiences to reach an even higher orbit.
Create your own opportunities.
Rather than just waiting for unique or challenging opportunities to come their way, internal auditors should seek out those assignments. If a problem has been identified, be one of the people to fix it. There are benefits to volunteering for the tough assignments. First, tough assignments grow skills and offer unique experiences. Often, fixing major problems involves developing new approaches or applying new thinking rather than just performing routine assignments. Second, these are the assignments where internal auditors get noticed. Being part of a team that addresses major issues or problems gets the attention of more senior people, which is the attention auditors want.
Learn to focus your time and activities.
The 24/7 work cycle and other complexities can be overwhelming at times and may lead internal auditors to jump from one task to another. At the end of what seemed to be a very busy day, an auditor may be unable to answer the question, “What did I accomplish today?” Time is your most valuable and limited asset. You can’t create more of it, and it easily can be wasted.
So, it’s important to focus on the most important tasks and get them done. Auditors should operate every day with focus, know what needs to be accomplished, and direct energy to that task. Various methods can assist in this process, such as to-do lists, priority lists, or daily reminders. Whatever is used, the most important thing is to learn to instill the discipline of focus in daily activities.
Get a mentor.
With critical or challenging career situations, it helps to have access to someone you trust, respect, and feel comfortable seeking advice and counsel from — someone who also has confidence in you and is interested in your personal development and progression. Internal auditors should look for opportunities to develop real mentoring relationships with someone who can help. These relationships tend to develop over time and can’t be forced. A good mentoring relationship develops itself, and networking and relationship building play an important part. Over time, these relationships can change and evolve. You may even have more than one mentor during your career.
The mentoring relationship is rewarding for both mentor and mentee, so auditors also should look for opportunities to be a mentor. This can start early in a career by giving advice and counsel to newer staff. Mentoring helps develop communication and leadership skills, expands networks, and leads to personal satisfaction.
Always understand the needs of your employer or potential employer.
Too often, employees do not really understand the specific needs of their employer or prospective employer. There may be a job description, but it may not highlight critical expectations or skill needs. This can lead to a misalignment between the unspoken expectations of a superior and an employee’s skills or performance. Such misalignment can prove fatal to a career.
This same concern arises when an employee is approached about another position. Discussion, especially with a headhunter, may focus on things like compensation and title and not enough on the specific needs, expectations, and skills required to be successful in that position. Knowing these things will significantly improve a person’s chances of making a good career decision. And, it will ensure that the new employer is getting an individual well-suited to the job. Fundamental to succeeding in this process is a person’s deep understanding of his or her own real skills and abilities.
Give your employers and co-workers the benefit of your objective views.
One of the attributes that most great leaders value is having employees who will give them good, objective views. In the internal audit profession, stakeholders highly value objective feedback from their auditors. Similarly, peers also value and seek the opinions and views of others. It’s part of the learning process.
Auditors should learn to objectively express opinions and views constructively and with courage and conviction. This also will establish you as someone with a voice. Practitioners should not hide behind auditor independence. Internal auditors are sometimes reluctant to provide their views or recommendations because they said they needed to remain independent. That rationale rarely is one that management executives will buy into. Internal auditors can provide views, feedback, and recommendations without impairing their independence.
Understand the role and nature of compensation.
Everyone wants and deserves to be fairly compensated for their efforts and achievements. Compensation is an important factor in any job, but its nature and impact are often misunderstood from two standpoints. First, while an increase in compensation provides great, immediate, and positive reinforcement, compensation, itself, is not a long-term motivator. The factors that provide long-term job satisfaction include things like challenging work assignments, increased personal responsibilities, and exposure to executives and challenging situations. Long-term, high compensation will not overcome the absence of these kinds of motivators and will not, in itself, make up for a poor job situation.
Secondly, compensation should be viewed as a dynamic process — not just a point-in-time, static measure. At any time, an employee could be offered a position for more money than he or she is currently making. Similarly, market conditions may result in a new hire being paid more than someone who has been there longer. Does your compensation reflect how you have been recognized, how you are progressing, and how you are valued?
If not understood and appropriately handled, compensation can be a major reason why a new job or opportunity does not work out. We all like to be flattered by a high offer; however, the real question is the nature of the position.
Communication may be the single most critical career skill, and it’s important that internal auditors establish a track record of clear and open communication with peers and superiors. This is especially important when there’s a problem with a position, co-workers, or managers. Too often, employees are reluctant to put issues on the table, often from fear that they might be viewed as a troublemaker or asked to leave.
When concerns are not communicated, internal auditors risk making significant career decisions — such as leaving a job — without the benefit of full knowledge. A practitioner may be surprised to find that someone he or she speaks to agrees with and supports his or her views, or that he or she is more valued than previously thought. For example, if a particular job is not working out but management views an auditor highly, he or she may be placed in another position in the organization that is a better fit.
SHAPE YOUR CAREER
It is probably unrealistic to expect anyone to simultaneously address all 10 items on the list. Picking one or two to start with is ideal. Then as these skills are developed, auditors can go back to the list and identify one or two more to work on. Ultimately, it’s about managing your career in a way that helps you succeed and creating a satisfying, rewarding professional experience.