Internal Auditors as Agents of Change​

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Many new internal auditors believe that, when a report is issued, their job is done. In reality, being an effective internal auditor ultimately hinges on one's ability to be an agent of change. Intern​al audit effectiveness depends not only on having the right advice, it also depends on whether management takes actions on issues that we identify. It's true that implementing internal audit recommendations is management's responsibility, not ours. But, unless we convey a compelling case and help to create a sense of urgency about making needed changes, our work often will be in vain.

Creating a sense of urgency to implement change can be surprisingly difficult. Even when recommended action plans in internal audit reports seem reasonable, too often other priorities seem to take precedence where management is concerned. The more we point out an immediate need for action, the more strongly some people seem to resist. The challenge is psychological: Changing your mind can be difficult, and some managers tend to disregard internal audit recommendations simply because they have already made a mental commitment to an alternative path. People don't always like to be told what to do, even when the advice is good — and especially when the advice comes from "outsiders," such as the internal auditors.

If managers must occasionally battle an inclination to ignore internal audit recommendations, internal auditors may need to battle their own natural inclinations in order to help management stay on track. It takes time and effort to create buy-in, motivate action, and establish a sense of urgency. Despite the need for these actions, some of us would prefer to spend our time analyzing data and performing other internal audit tasks with more tangible results. But mitigating these inclinations can be important because our work adds no value until the moment that management acts on our advice.

Even before we make recommendations for improvement, we can set the stage by creating a receptive environment in which people want to make needed improvements. It is important that the results of our work create a sense of urgency, and that begins with conveying the risks that current conditions create and emphasizing the value of the changes we recommend. At times, we can help a client envision positive results simply by asking questions such as, "What risks do you envision if conditions remain unchanged?" or "What do you see as the optimal solution?" It's easier for managers to resist the inclination to procrastinate when they can envision the consequences of inaction and they feel like they are partners in identifying the solutions.

Creating a sense of urgency is not enough: We also must maintain the momentum. Carefully designed management action plans can be a catalyst for change, because they reflect consensus and commitment, reinforce accountability, and articulate a timeline for change. Internal auditors often urge that immediate action be taken, but while there may be significant risks associated with the conditions we observe, it's difficult for clients to stay motivated when faced with unachievable milestones. Although our reports may communicate action plans, the plans should reflect a consensus with management. From my experience, management's propensity for implementing action plans correlates with their sense of ownership and milestones in the plan that are realistic given other priorities and risks that must be managed.

Even when an action plan seems to be perfect, there will be times when things come to a standstill. When our clients fail to take appropriate, timely action, they may especially need our attention. An encouraging word often can help get a stalled project back on track. People love to win, and if part of the action plan has been accomplished, recognizing management's achievements in follow-up audit reports and acknowledging the benefits of actions completed frequently do more to inspire additional action than simply emphasizing repeat conditions. In addition, I often have found that a friendly reminder about an upcoming follow-up audit can work wonders in refocusing management on prior commitments.

Our role in driving change to correct previously identified issues can be even more important than bringing new ones to light. Ultimately, the value of internal audit is a function of the outcomes it generates — not just the outputs, such as more audits and findings, when earlier ones haven't been addressed.

Successful internal auditors don't just tell clients what they need to do. They inspire and motivate them to action. Being "agents of change" shouldn't just be an impressive sound bite in our mission statement. We owe it to our clients not just to provide them with observations and recommendations, but to help motivate them toward bringing about positive changes that will enhance the organization.

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