Buzzwords are fascinating creatures. They stampede their way into the lexicon like cavalry to the rescue, bludgeon us with constant overuse, and then become reviled as trite clichés used in lieu of actual thought. But closer examination reveals that buzzwords achieve their status because, at some point, they perfectly articulated some important concept.
Empowered, synergy, bleeding edge, think outside the box — once meaningful concepts, they have become little more than collections of nonsense syllables.
Internal auditors are not immune. We are currently overusing an important phrase that, if we are not careful, will lose its power and be summarily dismissed into buzzword oblivion. And that would be a shame, because the phrase
trusted advisor is extremely powerful.
Becoming a trusted advisor is a worthy aspiration. But the phrase risks becoming a hackneyed cliché because auditors have quit thinking about what the phrase really means. Sure, they understand the concept of
advisor, but they lose sight of the key concept — trusted.
As IIA President and CEO Richard Chambers notes in his appropriately titled book
Trusted Advisors, "trust is one of the most underused words in the internal audit vocabulary. … Rarely do we speak of whether [our stakeholders] should trust us."
Many auditors think that if they work on their relationship management skills and try to tell the truth, trust will follow. But trust is much more than building rapport and managing relationships.
Trust comes from actions, not words. It is what others see us do, what others discover we have done, and what others believe we will do. It comes from something as simple as meeting our agreed upon deadlines, and from something as complicated as having the integrity to report what is rather than what everyone wants to
hear. It represents the accumulation of activities that show we either back what we say or turn our backs on our promises, our clients, and ourselves.
Years ago I worked with an executive who I had known since we were both lowly supervisors. On one occasion, internal audit discussed the results of an audit with him and one of his directors, and the director argued every one of our points. Finally, the executive said, "I have worked with internal audit for years. If they say there is a problem, then there is a problem. I don't want to hear excuses; I want to hear how you are going to fix this."
Still, gaining clients' trust in audit work is only table stakes. Do clients trust your advice? That's a nice start. Do they trust you to be a part of the management and leadership team? Much better. Do they trust you enough to turn to you for advice every time something important is happening, confident that you will provide objective and independent information that will aid decision-making? If so, then you are truly a trusted advisor.