Internal auditors tend to be very good at most managerial tasks. We understand the importance of budgets and schedules, and we believe in developing clear policies and procedures. We undertake regular planning activities, we require periodic performance evaluations, and we institute strict quality-control mechanisms that help ensure the value of our work.
Internal audit training programs are typically designed to teach each of these tasks, and most of us learn these lessons well. But even in larger internal audit departments with extensive training and development programs, it’s not unusual to find that, in one area, we sometimes pay scant attention: and that’s to leadership skills.
I believe we are hurting our professional development by ignoring this subject. Whether you are an audit intern or a seasoned executive, it’s almost impossible to be effective without strong leadership skills. Many of us aspire to be in charge of an internal audit group or to take on other leadership roles in our organizations, but even the most junior auditors are often called upon to lead specific tasks.
To be sure, even the best leaders make mistakes. But there are a few areas where we seem to stumble most:
- Not being a role model. Actions speak louder than words, and a leader’s actions can be subject to intense scrutiny, with even the smallest lapse damaging audit productivity. If a team leader is late to work, takes a long lunch hour, and then leaves early, for example, it won’t be long before the entire team views these behaviors as acceptable. Failures of integrity are unacceptable, especially for audit leaders. We “lead from the front” specifically to enable others to observe and emulate our behavior. In our profession, an attitude of “do as I say, not as I do” never works.
- Focusing on the negative. It’s true that internal auditors are charged with assessing situations and identifying where things have gone wrong. But that doesn’t mean we should focus solely on the negative. The best leaders (and the best internal auditors) are known for catching people doing things right, not for criticizing needlessly.
- Not being goal-oriented. Almost any of the other rules of effective leadership can be broken, occasionally, but it’s impossible to lead effectively without setting a direction. Strong leaders know that goal-setting is more than a once-a-year process that happens only in conjunction with employee performance evaluations.
- Not making time for the team. Effective leadership is about relationships. It may be tempting to concentrate on your own workload first, but when a co-worker or an audit client really needs to talk with you, it’s time to temporarily set aside what might have been your priority and give them your full attention. Being a leader means sometimes putting others’ needs ahead of your own.
- Failing to delegate. An inability to delegate is one of the most common mistakes made by new audit supervisors. It’s only natural to sometimes think no one else can do the work as well as you can, but you will accomplish more if you get help from others. If you are new to audit supervision, you’ll quickly find that leadership and supervision take quite a bit more time than you might have expected.
- Poor communication. To be truly effective, we need to master both written and oral communications. It’s not enough to write the perfect audit report; a leader must be receptive to clear and positive face-to-face communications. If you prefer to work independently, this might be an area where you need to try a little harder to become more effective as a leader.
- Focusing on tasks, rather than results. Internal audit schedules are almost always all-consuming. But if you are energetic and ambitious, your natural inclination may be to add just one more test to the audit program or one more audit to the annual schedule. Keep in mind that audit resources are typically limited, and every additional test will likely take time from other audit activities. The best leaders don’t just inspire people to work harder, they look for ways to save time on unnecessary tasks.
- Resisting change. If an internal audit department continues to do things the way they have always been done, it is being led on autopilot, not by a great leader. Instead of avoiding change, the best leaders work to inspire change, and they help to create an atmosphere in which employees are willing to take chances on new ideas.
- Not investing in personal development. Leadership skills rarely come by accident. Like auditing, effective leadership requires a complex skill set, and the most successful individuals never stop working to improve upon these skills. I recently read that the average American reads only one book a year, while the average CEO in the United States reads four to five a month. The best leaders are always looking for new ideas and ways to become more effective. When it comes to developing leadership ability, persistence really does pay off.
- Failing to make it fun. Nobody wants to follow someone who makes the workday unpleasant, and the best leaders actively strive to make work pleasant. As an audit leader, you need to be able to laugh at yourself, find the “funny” in uncomfortable situations, and help your co-workers and clients do the same. If you enjoy your work, let it show. It’s not necessary to be great at telling jokes or entertaining others; a good leader just needs to share a grin at the right moment.
That’s my perspective. You might have other tips that can help internal auditors become better leaders. If so, please share them here.