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The Internal Auditor as Entrepreneur​

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The Center for Creative Leadership's website recently posted a blog titled "7 Competencies for Freelance Success." Yes, I hate listicles as much as you do and, yes, just like you, I click on them like a Pavlovian research animal when there is even a scintilla of a hint that they might contain information I can use.

In this case, there was more than a scintilla.

The author has presented some interesting and useful insights. But, as I read the piece, I quickly noticed that everything being said about freelancers also spoke directly to internal auditors.

Whaaaaaat??!! Freelancers and internal auditors???!!!!

You betcha. I have long believed that the really successful internal auditors are the ones who come to the profession with an entrepreneurial spirit. In fact, back in the 1990s, I posted internally for an open internal audit position with this headline "Entrepreneurs Wanted!" It definitely got some interesting (if not necessarily successful) responses. (Alas, that kind of thing happens when you try something different. But, as Alanis Morissette sang, "You love; you learn. You cry; you learn. You lose; you learn. You bleed; you learn. You scream; you learn." Which could be its own blog post — and maybe it will be some day — but let's get back to the subject at hand.)

My long-held belief is that, for internal auditors to be successful — particularly in this world of ever-more-demanding executives, behind-every-nook-and-cranny competitors, and moving-faster-than-a-speeding-bullet change — they must embrace the spirit of the freelancer/the entrepreneur/the consultant/the pioneer/the impresario/the crazy-who-jumps-off-cliffs-without-worrying-how-far-they'll-fall-or-what's-at-the-bottom/the whatever you want to call it (and my preference is entrepreneur, so I'm going to use that word from here on out). Internal auditors must be willing to vigilantly look for what is new, obsessively take chances, and unendingly surprise people with the services they provide.

And as proof that the life of an entrepreneur is the life of an internal auditor, let's go back that article.

It starts with the three distinct challenges entrepreneurs can expect to encounter. Those challenges are eerily similar to some fundamental challenges faced by all internal audit departments.

1. "Setting a clear direction for themselves in a career that is distinguished by 'fuzziness and fog.'"

If you don't think we are a profession that is sometimes perceived through fuzziness and fog, just try asking your customer what, exactly, it is that internal audit does. And to make it a little scarier, ask the internal auditors. And then, for a true fright, ask yourself. Now, with a full appreciation of that "fuzziness and fog," can you further explain your "clear direction"? Which leads to ...

2. "Clearly framing the value they deliver to clients so that their talents are recognized and put to use."

We throw around the phrase "added value," but I'm not convinced we understand the original value we provide, let alone how we are now adding to that value. Can you articulate that value without using buzzwords like "assurance" and "mitigation" and "controls" and "risk"? (And, yes, those are all buzzwords. Don't believe me? Ask your clients what those words mean and see if it even comes close to what you think they mean.) And, once that value is framed, we have to find a way to make sure our clients understand the underlying talent we bring to the table and the unexpected deliverables we can provide.

3. "Building a diverse web of relationships to provide guidance, support, inspiration, and opportunity."

Internal auditors are useless without our contacts and relationships. Without a web of confidants and partners, we are powerless to understand what is going wrong, what is going right, and what might be potentially going wrong or right in the future. And it is those relationships that further allow us to spread our message throughout the organization, help the organization be successful, and (to borrow a buzz phrase) be an incubator of talent for the organization.

All the above should go a long way toward convincing you that internal auditors face the same challenges as entrepreneurs. And it should be further evidence that the response to those challenges requires an entrepreneurial mindset.

In my next post, I'll talk about the competencies that were listed in the article and how these so very closely mirror the ones we want to see in our audit departments.

Until then, a little homework. Read through the article and, everywhere you see the word "freelancer," replace it with "internal auditor." See what you think.​

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