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​How Do You Answer, "What Do Internal Auditors Do?"

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​Shortly before the onset of the pandemic, my wife and I moved to a different part of Florida. Living in a new community can be rewarding because you meet new people and make new friends. As you get acquainted with others, the inevitable question arises: "What do you do for work?"

Obviously, I could say I am a CEO or an association executive. But I still instinctively (and proudly) proclaim that "I am an internal auditor!"

The first reaction is often a joke, such as "please don't audit my taxes," or "I'll bet you are popular at work." I can't help but remember a live radio interview I did several years ago. The host opened the interview by saying, "Meet an auditor at a cocktail party, and you might decide you suddenly need a fresh drink."

While the radio host was clearly engaged in a bit of levity, there was more than a grain of truth in his portrayal of our profession. We've all heard the jokes depicting us as tedious, intimidating, or even boring. Obviously, we don't want people running for the punch bowl each time we are introduced. There has to be a better way.

Fortunately, I think the solution could be simple if we are aligned and prepared when the question arises. You've probably heard of an "elevator pitch," a 60-second (or shorter) speech to a new acquaintance about who you are and what you do. An elevator pitch is typically used when trying to land a job or close a sale, but I think it can be a great tool to mold or change perceptions about the internal audit profession.

Obviously, in a pandemic, we aren't riding much in elevators these days — certainly not with other people. But that doesn't mean the question isn't still out there: "What do internal auditors do?"

Answering it shouldn't be a chore. Among other things, we help improve operations, give advice to CEOs and others, and thwart nefarious fraudsters. I've never seen an auditor leap tall buildings in a single bound, but other than that, there's not much in the business world we don't touch at one point or another.

As author and business management guru Tom Peters said in his presentation at an IIA International Conference a few years ago, "Internal auditing has got to be the coolest profession in the world!" If you're an internal auditor, you may very well agree with that statement. But how do we convince others?

Delivering the perfect elevator pitch doesn't happen by accident, or we'd all be doing it. But embracing a few proven techniques can rapidly improve your ability to make a strong first impression about yourself and your profession. Follow these tips, and you might find yourself invited to a few more (socially distant) gatherings ... or maybe to an executive suite for a more serious conversation about internal auditing.

When I first blogged on this topic in 2014, I offered eight tips for delivering a strong, crisp elevator pitch on what internal auditors do.

  1. Grab their attention with the first sentence. First impressions are important, and the easiest way to keep your elevator pitch from sounding canned is to start out with an opener that's so interesting your audience starts asking questions. I'm a believer in The IIA's official Definition of Internal Auditing, but there's a time and place for everything, and this is not the time to quote formal definitions. Consistent with the title of my upcoming book, we can even describe ourselves as "change agents," when discussing internal auditing with someone completely uninformed about the profession.
  2. Short and simple is better than impressive and complicated. I will never forget listening to a job-hunting elevator pitch a few years ago. I'm still not sure exactly what job was sought, but it sounded something like "multi-predictive analyses of the bilateral effects of modulating the quantum singularity cache fluctuations." The lesson here is to make the complex simple, not to baffle your audience. So, leave the audit jargon back in the internal audit department. "We improve operations and protect assets" is much more compelling and clearer to an uninformed audience than "we provide overall assurance on the effectiveness of internal controls and risk management."
  3. Put it on paper. Write down everything you'd like to say, then edit it down to the essentials. Read it out loud to yourself and adjust the words until it flows smoothly. Then commit it to memory.
  4. It can't sound rehearsed. Although you absolutely should memorize key points, your pitch must never sound rehearsed. Relying merely on rote memorization won't work in any case. You need to be able to make on-the-spot adjustments to fit each specific situation. Without careful preparation, this might be more difficult than you'd think. The elevator pitch won't be the same for a Rotary Club member as it would be for a bridge club member.
  5. It's not all about you. Elevator speeches make a first impression, but they can be used for other goals. If you perfect this skill, you also can use it for job hunting or forming key business contacts within your organization. Whether your elevator pitch is about internal auditing or your favorite hobby, it should be tailored to the audience's needs, not yours. You want them to remember you as someone who cares and who can help, not as someone with an ego.
  6. One is good, two are better. I've been talking about a 60-second elevator pitch, but these are not just for elevators. You can use this technique over lunch, in airports, or even standing in line at that punch bowl. You need to be prepared anytime, anywhere. And, after you have perfected your succinct elevator pitch, it can't hurt to have a longer version ready, or to be prepared to give more information about anything you already mentioned. Two speeches really are better than one.
  7. Enthusiasm is infectious. If you love internal auditing, let it show. With the right attitude, building confidence and enthusiasm can be easy. But it also can be difficult to garner support for internal auditing or confidence in your abilities if you don't display these qualities yourself.
  8. Be ready to keep the conversation going. Try to end your elevator pitch with an invitation to give your audience more information. If you leave the door open, your one-minute pitch might result in an invitation to the CEO's office for a longer chat. If time permits, you should ask your audience about their profession. You might learn you have something in common, or that they are part of an organization that could benefit from a strong and effective internal audit function.

About two years ago, I posted an item on LinkedIn about our profession. It struck a chord, generating more than 50,000 views, 750 likes, and scores of comments. This is what I posted on LinkedIn:

The next time someone asks:

  • I am an internal auditor!
  • I serve my organization to protect and enhance its value.
  • I model integrity, objectivity, confidentiality, and competency every day.
  • I improve risk management, internal controls, and governance in my organization.
  • I follow The IIA's International Standards when providing assurance and advice.
  • I am respected and admired, because I am a guardian of trust!

I eventually shared my "internal auditors' creed" in a 2019 blog post "Internal Auditors: What Is It You Do?" I elaborated on the six points I made in the LinkedIn post as follows.

  1. I am an internal auditor! This first line should be self-explanatory. We should be proud and confident about what we do. Few professions offer the opportunities to contribute to the success of our organizations like internal auditing does. I wouldn't try to rebrand myself by referring to myself as a risk management professional or a "change agent." I am an internal auditor!
  2. I serve my organization to protect and enhance its value. We're not here just to guard the doors and make sure people don't walk off with the assets. We're not here just to make sure others are not breaking the rules. We're here to make sure our organizations achieve their objectives: creating value for shareholders/stakeholders.
  3. I model integrity, objectivity, confidentiality, and competency every day. These are taken from the four elements of The IIA's Code of Ethics. This is what we stand for as a profession, and it is something every practitioner should exhibit with every engagement and every interaction.
  4. I improve risk management, internal controls, and governance in my organization. This is at the heart of the Definition of Internal Auditing, articulated in the International Professional Practices Framework. The definition speaks to adding value and improving an organization's operations. We do this by improving risk management, internal controls, and governance. Simply, we make our organizations better.
  5. I follow The IIA's International Standards when providing assurance and advice. All professions have standards. They are what sets them apart. That is why we must follow The IIA's Standards, to ensure the quality is there. I also urge internal auditors who have earned IIA certifications to proudly speak out. One should not be shy about proclaiming, "I am certified by The IIA to demonstrate the proficiency I have for carrying out my responsibilities as a professional internal auditor."
  6. I am respected and admired, because I am an agent of change! This is a wonderful claim for any professional to make. Every internal auditor may not be respected and admired as a change agent, but that should be their aspiration.

Whether you are inspired to share the motivational language of the creed, an elevator pitch can be a one-minute wonder that showcases your personality and enthusiasm, leaving listeners asking for more. It also can be a lost opportunity. The choice is yours. Be prepared, or in the words of Benjamin Franklin, "by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail."

Once again, if you have a suggestion for a great internal audit elevator pitch, please share it here. Quite a few of us could benefit, so I look forward to your comments.

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