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​Defining Moments in an Internal Audit Career

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Each summer, I take an opportunity to share some of my more popular posts that remain relevant to today's internal audit practitioners. This was originally published on Aug. 17, 2015.

In a few days, I will celebrate a personal milestone. It was August 1975 when I graduated from college and took my first job as an internal auditor at Trust Company of Georgia, a major regional bank in Atlanta. It is hard to believe it has been 40 years. In some ways, it seems like only yesterday. Looking back over four decades of service in and for our profession, I think about the key moments that defined my career. I also realize that there are a handful of moments in every internal audit career that will define the experience for the professional who lives them. I believe these events deserve special consideration by internal auditors, because each is an inflection point that can influence the future course of our professional lives.

While everyone's internal audit experience differs, I believe there are certain defining moments or events that are far more common than others:

1.  Your First Internal Audit. First impressions are important – both the impressions we make on others and the impressions that are made upon us when we try something new. Nobody knows completely what it's like to be an internal auditor until the day they "get their feet wet" during their first audit. This is the time to be a sponge: Listen carefully to those who are leading your engagement and absorb the lessons that will inevitably materialize. For example, you will learn that advance preparation is critical. The more you plan and prepare for your first internal audit, the better equipped you will be to handle the engagement efficiently and effectively – and the more likely you will be to make a good impression on your management team and the client. Not only will you learn how to plan an engagement, you will also learn how to document the results and the evidence required to assess root causes and formulate recommendations. As important as those lessons are, they often pale compared with the lessons you will learn when you write your first findings or report.

2. Your First Contentious Response.  No matter how accurate your conclusions or how skillfully you present your audit findings and recommendations, it probably won't be long in your internal audit career before someone vehemently disagrees with you. As I mentioned in a previous blog about the dilemmas we all eventually face, the first time that management takes strong exception to your recommendations, it is likely to be a significant emotional event. The temptation is often to lash back or become intransigent, but neither of these responses will serve you well. I learned early in my career that these were the times when I most appreciated the guidance of seasoned members of the internal audit function who had more experience with contentious audit results. Their established working relationships with management were often instrumental in resolving disagreements, and their advice was invaluable.

3. The First Time You Discover a Fraud.  If you are a career internal auditor, it's very likely that, sooner or later, you will unearth evidence of fraud or other deliberate wrongdoing. This will probably be a moment of tremendous excitement, but identifying potential fraud can also bring a feeling of anxiety or dread. Perhaps the incident will involve someone you know well, or perhaps far-reaching consequences will be momentous for your entire organization. Depending upon how the organization handles such incidents, long work hours may lie ahead for you. And depending on the circumstances, it may be work that's unappreciated or even actively obstructed by management. Remember the internal auditors at WorldCom who had to work secretly at night to put a stop to wrongdoing?

Depending upon your mindset when you tackle your first investigation, you may decide that fraud examination is the most exciting and rewarding part of your career – or you may decide that it is a stressful and thankless chore. Either way, you'll be glad that you had enough knowledge of the indicators of fraud to identify the problem successfully.

4. The First Time You Are Told to Hold Back or Stop an Audit. Nothing is more frustrating than discovering a significant problem, but then being told to ignore it or focus on other issues. If it comes from management, the issue will have to be resolved by your superiors (including the chief audit executive). However, it is more common to be told by internal audit leadership that you need to redirect your efforts. Such direction is rarely intended to suppress major fraud, waste, or abuse. Rather, the direction is often provided by our bosses to get us back on the right track. Like young puppies, new internal auditors are prone to obsessing with the first bones they unearth – often unaware of the much bigger bones that lie below. Articulate your concerns, but be patient, and follow the guidance from your internal audit leaders.  

5. The Moment You Take a Leadership Role. The job of a chief audit executive is very different from that of a staff internal auditor, but as internal auditors, we have opportunities to demonstrate leadership every day. Sometimes, leadership opportunities involve a formal management or team leader role in the internal audit function, or supervising a single part of an internal audit engagement. Other times, you may have the opportunity to coach or motivate others on the team to work harder to generate audit results or bring about positive change. Regardless, you will find that leadership is an essential component in being an outstanding internal auditor.

6. The Moment You Must Decide on Your Career Path. For many of us, internal audit is our chosen profession. For others, it may be a stepping stone. From the earliest days in my career, I found that the versatility, challenge, and sense of accomplishment of internal auditing made it the right choice for me. But many talented internal auditors eventually decide that they want to move in a different direction. Fortunately, internal audit experience can serve as excellent preparation for a variety of career options. But as I stated in a previous blog on how to know when it's time to go, if you are considering leaving the internal audit profession, I urge you to reconsider. Internal auditing is in the midst of one of the most exciting eras in its history. If you do elect to leave for another opportunity, you should always hold open the option of returning. As I relayed in my book, Lessons Learned on the Audit Trail, I did leave the profession once. I returned three years later with a refreshed perspective and was better equipped to deliver value as an internal audit professional.

As always, I value your comments and opinions. What have been the defining moments in your career?

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