Internal audit is an exceptional destination profession. Rising through an organization’s departmental ranks toward a chief audit executive (CAE) post is rewarding and challenging, and the work is essential to the enterprise. At the same time, powerful evidence indicates that internal audit skills empower practitioners to answer even the most unexpected of opportunity’s knocks and excel in leadership posts far outside the traditional boundaries of the profession. Some of Internal Auditor’s past Emerging Leaders are climbing the ladder, some are at the top and exploring ways to expand their spheres of influence, and some use their internal audit skills in strikingly diverse careers.
Thokozani Sihlangu is focused and ambitious. When he was named a 2020 Emerging Leader, he was senior audit manager, Quality Assurance, at Absa Group in Johannesburg. He took a job as senior audit manager with Standard Bank in December of that year, and is now head of Transactional Products and Services Audit. His role is at a strategic level, he says, allowing him to contribute to Group Internal Audit’s strategy formulation — and then customize a strategy for the business unit he leads and execute against that strategic direction.
Sihlangu heads a team of business auditors and data scientists, reporting key audit insights, material audit items, and audit themes to governance committees. Leading it well demands that he maintain excellent relationships with key executive stakeholders, too. His team also provides traditional audit assurance against the audit plan and modern modes of assurance in the form of strategic technology project assurance and data-led audit reviews.
As such, Sihlangu’s long-term career plans haven’t changed, and are right on track. “I am proud that I managed to achieve most of the plans I had for myself when I was in university, which was to attain an MBA and be head of an audit unit before age 35,” he says. “Being an Emerging Leaders honoree was a dream come true, and it has elevated my credibility in the profession.”
Nora Kelani, a 2017 Emerging Leaders honoree, has, as she puts it, “reached the top of the internal audit ladder” at her firm, so now she’s focused on expanding her responsibilities outside the traditional aspects of the profession. Indeed, the internal audit senior manager at Trust Holding–Nest Investments in Amman, Jordan, is working on a Certification in Risk Management Assurance and an MBA. After 2017, her position evolved, she notes, and now she reports directly to the board of directors of the holding company she works with. It owns and supports multiple insurance subsidiaries, a reinsurance company, a bank, and other large investments across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Kelani’s job involves working in, and traveling to, several of the company’s far-flung locations. She served on The IIA’s Global Advocacy Committee from 2018 to 2020 and this year was tapped to serve on The Institute’s Global Advocacy Advisory Council.
Expanding her scope has enabled Kelani to provide a variety of consultancy and advisory services — risk management, governance, information and communications technology, operations, and general business consultancy — to numerous stakeholders in different industries. That capability, she says, proves to her that internal auditors add value in advisory and consultancy functions just as much as in traditional audit tasks. “My career has flourished both vertically and horizontally just as I’d hoped it would and has exceeded my aspirations at certain points,” she says. Moving forward, she wants to seek positions where she empowers others, advocates for governance and internal controls, influences strategies, and participates in setting the vision of the organization.
Derrick Li began his career in internal audit at a large accounting firm before signing on with Vancouver’s South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority (TransLink) for his next career rung, a post as manager, Enterprise Risk and Capital, at subsidiary Coast Mountain Bus Co. (CMBC). Next, he was division manager, Business and Advisory Services, at Metro Vancouver, a separate entity. Li then moved to TransLink headquarters as director, Internal Audit and Performance Improvement. He was there when he received an Emerging Leaders honor in 2014.
Li then moved to a role as executive director, Finance and Corporate Services, at CMBC in 2018. Two years later, he jumped to his current job as chief operating officer (COO) at Lawson Lundell LLP, a large Vancouver law firm. He oversees business, administrative, and financial operations, and serves on the executive committee, focusing on the firm’s growth strategy and execution. “My career has far exceeded my expectations,” Li says. “Making the transition from CAE to an executive was always in the back of my mind, but I didn’t think I would transition this early in my career.”
He adds, “I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be where I am in my career without the tremendous experience I gained as an internal auditor.” In his last role at CMBC, he served additionally as chief financial officer (CFO) and corporate secretary, so he had the chance to interact with internal audit regularly — as an audit client and as part of quarterly internal audit/board interactions. That expanded his perspective: “Internal auditors have a unique opportunity to learn every facet of an organization,” Li says. “They can do a lot more, whether moving onto the management side of things or proactively providing advisory services to management.”
Li says he especially appreciated the variety and scope of his work as an internal auditor. “Every hour of your day could be spent on a different topic and dealing with all levels of an organization,” he says. As COO of a law firm, that’s still true, he adds — and now he can implement change directly.
SPRINGBOARD TO PARTNER
Joseph Harrington has moved from a staff position to partnership at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) since his 2014 Emerging Leaders honor and from providing outsourced internal audit services to heading up artificial intelligence (AI)-related activities. As a principal at PwC Labs in New York, he says, his career has become more technical than anticipated, so his approach is a bit different. “It’s more about how I can leverage technology the best way possible, versus what I know myself and can teach to my team,” he says.
He’s a co-leader in his new post, providing AI and machine learning capabilities to help internal teams deliver services — including audit services — to clients more efficiently and to help clients that use PwC technology to accelerate internal processes on their own. Harrington likes helping clients embed security and control by design.
Using machines presents risks, but they don’t tire or have bad days, he explains. Rather, “they provide consistency, which is difficult to measure when it’s just humans performing vouching or tracing.” And while some biases are unique to machine learning models, he adds, his team can help control for them with an approach that includes humans and technology. “It’s not about a person versus a machine,” he says. “It’s about a person versus a person with a machine.” The latter is more efficient. For example, full population testing — not just sampling — is only possible using machines to kick out anomalies for a person to substantiate or refute.
Harrington joined PwC from a small boutique consulting and internal audit firm, where he provided outsourced internal audit services to banks and credit unions. At PwC, he initially worked in a risk and compliance analytics group that primarily provided U.S. Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money-laundering analytics.
But his career quickly pivoted when the Financial Accounting Standards Board announced not-yet-effective lease-related standards updates in 2018. “When that occurred, I worked with another partner at PwC to build out a natural language processing platform to help read and understand lease documents for our clients, helping them save time and money on properly recording them on financial statements,” Harrington says. That change was a springboard to his PwC partnership offer in 2019.
LEVERAGING INTERNAL AUDIT KNOWLEDGE
Since her 2013 Emerging Leaders honor, Kayla Carter has moved from providing internal audit services to external clients to an internal role focused on driving digital transformation — and from Kansas City to San Francisco. Now senior director, Business Process and Technology, at Protiviti, Carter supports the executive team in executing the firm’s global internal digitalization and business transformation strategy, including streamlining processes across all areas of the worldwide enterprise. She’s responsible for organizational change management for the executives’ initiatives, project governance, and ongoing support of production environments.
“My job is challenging, but in a good way,” Carter says, adding that she enjoys working with colleagues across the globe to make day-to-day tasks easier and reporting and analytics better. Her job is different these days, she notes, but she leverages the knowledge she gained from internal audit every day. “My goal is to help improve and streamline the same business processes I used to audit,” she says. “There is always room to improve and make things better.”
MAKING ORGANIZATIONS STRONGER
|Embracing Leadership Individually|
The Emerging Leaders honor means something different to each person who receives it, just as leadership itself is a personal trait that each individual understands and expresses in a unique way. Some base it on their daily tasks; leaders lead, in other words. Carter says she feels like a leader because she formerly led teams on internal audit client engagements and now helps lead her company through its transformation journey. Sihlangu leads a team of seven in his job and recently joined the IIA–South Africa Chapter’s board of directors.
Others grapple with the nuances of what it means to lead, though; moreover, their examples show that the traits that make a leader may be lasting, but confidence in expressing them may come and go. Harrington didn’t feel like a leader at the time of his honor because he was one of many performing traditional internal audit services. Now, though, he’s filed two patents and helped lead a global team of 300 professionals, many of them deep technologists. “It’s in that pivot to exploiting technology that I now feel like a leader in my profession,” he says; indeed, he’s “one of the world’s leading experts on leveraging data science to deliver business value.”
Li says he felt like a leader seven years ago as CAE, when he managed the internal audit group and was a leader in his local professional community. But being an executive is quite different, he finds. “There is more of a spokesperson or brand ambassador component that I didn’t realize,” he notes. Zitting says he felt like a leader in 2013, but isn’t sure he does anymore, even though his leadership responsibility is bigger. “I find that the further my career advances, and the closer to the top of an organization I get, the easier it becomes to doubt my own leadership or believe I am not good enough,” he says. “I’m sure that feeling only makes us stronger as leaders.”
Dan Zitting, a 2013 Emerging Leaders honoree, is now CEO at Vancouver’s Galvanize — recently acquired by Diligent Corp. — and he says he believes in internal audit as much as ever. “From the minute I started building technology for use in audit, risk, and compliance rather than focusing on being a practitioner, I was in love,” he says. “I am exactly where I would like to be, running a technology business focused on making organizations stronger through technology.”
Zitting started his career at EY in Denver providing internal audit, risk analytics, and U.S. Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 compliance services, then co-founded and helped run Linford & Co. LLC, a New York IT risk advisory professional services firm. In 2010, he founded New York’s Workpapers.com, a software-as-a-service internal audit and compliance management platform that was acquired by the company that became Galvanize.
“Organizations are waking up to realize that their purpose is every bit as important to today’s employees, customers, and investors as their profits,” Zitting stresses. “We should build people, processes, and technology that are as strong in measuring and managing strategy and governance as in managing financial results.” He has never wavered in his belief, he adds, that internal audit has the most responsibility of any part of an organization for building and overseeing those capabilities.
A BRIDGE TO BROADER HORIZONS
Hui Jing, a senior finance manager at HP Inc. in Singapore, extols the benefits of using internal audit experience as a bridge to broadening professional horizons. “I would have never imagined having the opportunity to move across so many different roles and, best of all, to leverage my previous experience in risk, controls, and governance the way I do today,” she says.
When Jing was an Emerging Leaders honoree in 2013, she was an internal audit lead at HP, where she’s since taken on multiple roles in finance — implementing accounting and governance frameworks for new business models, managing unprecedented foreign exchange market volatility, driving profitable business growth, and guiding investment decisions. Now the Greater Asia senior finance manager, she’s responsible for the financial performance of developed and emerging markets in the region.
“Effective data analytics and an increasing reliance on IT systems and controls will shape the future of internal audit,” Jing says. “A great example is the focus many audit functions have today on data analytics and digital transformation.” Because business dynamics evolve so rapidly, she adds, internal audit plays an important role both in preempting business, financial, IT system, and compliance risks and in helping shape the organization’s responses to those that emerge.
A RISK GO-TO PERSON
“Having seen many people come and go, I would say that internal audit is not everyone’s calling,” Jing says. “But having personally embarked on this journey, I feel it is a great way to be exposed to different businesses, processes, and systems.” The profession demands thinking with an open mind and making assessments objectively, systematically, and logically, she adds. Success, she stresses, comes from being viewed by stakeholders as a trusted partner and a go-to person on all matters involving risk.
“I believe a leader should be ambitious, yet authentic and influential, to take other people along on his or her vision and strategy,” Jing says, emphasizing her company’s talent development program and the benefits she’s received from it. “They enabled me to grow from a young talent into the leader that I am today,” she says. Acknowledgment from The IIA doesn’t hurt. “Being an Emerging Leaders honoree indeed opened my eyes,” Kelani says. “While I avoided acknowledging my leadership traits before, perhaps as a way to champion humility, today I totally embrace being a leader with all my heart.”
The key, she adds, is understanding that leadership is a responsibility, and not just more stripes on a uniform or certifications after a name. It comes from inside and must be wielded wisely to be wielded well.