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​What Will Internal Audit's Future Leaders Look Like?

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It is a safe assumption that every profession will change dramatically the deeper we go into the 21st century. Technological innovations, the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence, and geopolitical and macroeconomic pressures virtually guarantee it.

In most cases, the changes will redefine how professions deliver value. In others, change will diminish or eliminate professions altogether. For the internal audit profession, I believe the next 20 years will offer a great opportunity for transformation that will bring us closer to becoming indispensable to effective risk, control, and governance.

I recently blogged that internal audit will have to undergo a radical mindset change to achieve this goal. We cannot afford to rely on how things have always been done if we are to navigate a disruptive landscape and meet growing stakeholder demands. Innovation and transformation will require visionary leadership, trial and error, commitment, and courage. This alteration — likely to be more evolution than revolution — will invariably redefine the profile of the typical internal auditor.

Each year, Internal Auditor magazine recognizes a group of men and women as "Emerging Leaders" in our profession. These are individuals who possess many of the characteristics and attributes that are essential to leading the profession in the years ahead. The magazine is currently accepting nominations for 2018, and those selected will be announced in the October issue. As this process unfolds, it is hard to resist contemplating what internal audit's future leaders will look like. Here are six characteristics that I believe will be fundamental to those who will be directing internal audit functions by the year 2030.

Genetically Risk-centric. Early last year, I wrote about "Leadership at the Speed of Risk." I noted that truly risk-centric leaders must be able to "decipher a vexing risk/reward puzzle that can include disruptions in global supply chains, geopolitical instability, cybersecurity threats, and technological breakthroughs that can morph yesterday's state-of-the-art into tomorrow's quaint curiosity." As I noted in the blog post, those who lead at the speed of risk 1) are risk aware, 2) possess risk intuition, 3) accept risk, and 4) possess risk courage. Although still a rare breed, tomorrow's internal audit leaders will need to possess risk-centricity in their DNA.

Tech Savvy and Tech Fearless. Technology has always been a two-edged sword. Advances that make work easier, increase productivity and efficiency, and add convenience also can eliminate jobs, make supporting services unnecessary, and disrupt competition. The next generation of internal audit leaders will have to understand innately how technology can impact and change organizations and still have the courage to embrace and adapt to technological change.

Incessantly Curious and Professionally Skeptical. Asking "why?" is fundamental to the work of internal auditors, and a desire to dig deeper will be as important as ever in the future. Intellectual curiosity is one of the characteristics I single out in my book, Trusted Advisors: Key Attributes of Outstanding Internal Auditors. In the future, this will be more than just a trait of the best; it will be table stakes to get into the game. However, tomorrow's internal audit leaders will need to walk a fine line when it comes to skepticism. The axiom "trust but verify" will become critical for successful internal audit leaders.

Ethically Far-sighted. Ethical resiliency is another of the character traits I identify in Trusted Advisors. The pace and unforeseen consequences of change will make having an unshakeable ethical foundation imperative for internal auditors of the future. Beyond this, however, they will need to understand and anticipate how technology and other factors that change our world impact and influence ethics within the organization and within themselves.

Intellectually Honest. Seeking the truth, regardless of whether it agrees with one's personal beliefs, should be a principle by which every internal auditor lives. Yet, rapid change and pressure to be agile and innovative will test our ability to remain so. True leaders will not give in to pressure to compromise intellectual honesty for expediency.

Not Your Grandfather's CPA. According to the 2018 North American Pulse of Internal Audit survey, accounting and finance remains the most recruited academic degree for internal audit. However, IT-related degrees, such as data science or information systems, are now a close second. Demand for accounting and finance backgrounds will continue to decline as the scope of internal audit work changes, and I suspect IT could overtake the traditional finance backgrounds by the end of the decade.

In the future, internal auditors will increasingly come from nontraditional backgrounds, from engineering to chemistry, as demand for specialized skills grow in parallel to changing demands on the profession. This is especially germane as sustainability and enterprise risk management play greater roles in governance.

Cosmopolitan. Macroeconomic and geopolitical pressures are here to stay. Despite efforts at isolationism, demands of the marketplace, global warming, population growth, limited resources, and other factors make it impossible for any nation or industry to be an island. As such, internal auditors of the future will have t​o be cosmopolitan — familiar with and at ease in many different countries and cultures.

Those are just some of the ways that tomorrow's internal audit leaders will distinguish themselves. Many are already achieving them and other new job skills and outlooks. Since Internal Auditor magazine began identifying some of our profession's rising stars in 2013, alumni have been contributing to shaping internal audit's future, including two who serve on The IIA's North American Board, as well as others who are members of The IIA's Young Professionals Task Force.

As always, I look forward to your comments.

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