Let's start with something that is obvious, but often forgotten. You cannot achieve lasting success in any profession without a basic (and sometimes more-than-basic) understanding of the skills that are the foundation of that profession. Picasso changed the world of art by changing the perspectives of art, but he first had to learn light, shade, and texture to draw and paint basic forms. Stravinsky wrote the "Firebird Suite" which caused riots in the streets, but he first had to learn how notes come together to create the sounds we recognize as music. William Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch to critical acclaim and readers' constant confusion, but he first had to learn how words wind themselves together into thoughts readers can understand. And each of the above had to fundamentally understand how to use the tools of their trades: a paint brush, the musical staff, a typewriter.
Any internal auditor who has dreams of being successful and, may the audit gods shine down with as favorable a light as that shone upon the individuals mentioned above, helping drive the future of their profession, must first understand how we do our jobs in the first place. What is a risk? How do controls work? What is process analysis? How do we interview? What is a report? How do we test? What the heck is an internal auditor, anyway?
With that in mind, any of the comments that follow, as well as any comments from my previous blog post, are in no way meant to indicate that spending time, effort, and money on training to obtain the basic skills of internal audit is a waste. Quite the contrary. Without those basics, nothing more can be accomplished. No, what I'm talking about here is how to go beyond the basics — how to train, learn, and practice audit skills at every opportunity — even when you're not in the middle of an internal audit.
Oh yeah, my last blog post.
A week ago, I talked about opportunities for us to hone our internal audit skills, opportunities which do not require extensive classes or even on-the-job training. I then expounded on our opportunities to pay attention as we live our lives and analyze the world around us, looking for things going wrong and things going right.
But observation and analysis represent just one set of skills that can be honed outside the internal auditor's natural environment. Let's talk about another significant area within internal audit: communication. And, in particular, the skills of interviewing and report writing.
First up, interviewing skills. Successful interviewing includes, among other things, understanding the objective of the interview, effectively documenting what has been learned, and knowing when to shut up and listen. (That last is seldom, if ever, expressed in that fashion.) Most of us learn these skills through classes, on-the-job training, or shadowing others to see how they handle the interviewing process.
But there is more we can do. Interviewing might be defined as "structured talking." And one thing most of us do is talk. In other words, any time you are talking to anyone you are doing an impromptu, unofficial interview. And if we are doing that much talking, that much discussing, that much communicating, it would seem that we should be able to harness those efforts in ways that will make us better interviewers.
In any conversation, take a moment to review the skills that are so important to good interviewing and then apply them. In a conversation with your partner, a conversation with your kids, a conversation at a cocktail party, a conversation at the bar, a conversation where you are being introduced to someone, a conversation where you are catching up with someone — any and all conversations — reflect on what makes up a good interview. Take a second and make sure you understand what you are trying to achieve. Pay attention to the structure of the conversation/interview. How does it start, how do you make the person feel comfortable, what information is transferred, and how does the meeting come to an end? Once it is all over, do you have an understanding of the important points that came from the conversation. And, perhaps most importantly, did you know when to shut up and listen? (That last was added at the unspoken request of my wife … and every partner to every internal auditor out there.)
And another idea. Want to get even better at interviewing? Set up interviews — literally request an "interview" — with people you already know or people you'd like to get to know better.
I know, not exactly brain science. But it is really that simple. Just start setting up and doing interviews where the stakes are not the success or failure of the interview or of an audit. Start with people you know — friendly, nice people who will give you the benefit of the doubt. Then move to tougher territory. For example, look to others in the organization. Explain that you are trying to become a better interviewer. And then ask if they would help you by allowing themselves to be interviewed. Set up the interview with objectives such as how the individual got to a leadership role, their thoughts on leadership, struggles they face, the risks they face (see what I did there?), or any conversation about the human being behind the leader. It will provide practice, but you will also be building rapport.
Which leads us to how you might document these conversations. Which leads us to our next topic, writing.
Writing reports seems to rate as the skill where every internal auditor fails. (I'm not convinced this is true. But the crowds attending report writing courses and the complaints from all levels of internal audit would beg to differ, so I'll save that argument for another time.) But how does one practice writing reports?
Well, as hinted at by the conclusion of the section on interviewing, the first thing we need to do is drop the word "report" from that thought. In other words, we all need to practice writing — plain, old, ordinary writing. Do you ever put together expressions of personal opinions, do you ever post on social media, do you keep a journal, do you ever write just to write? Go back to the interviewing example above. Look at the example of analyzing processes from the previous blog post. Once all is said and done, write down what you have discovered.
Write just to write. Almost every course on professional writing advises new and experienced writers to spend at least part of each day — a short part, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, an hour if there is time — just writing … anything, everything, writing nonstop just to get in the flow of writing. And internal auditors should do the same. No, the flow and words used will not match the business needs of most internal audit work. But it will get you in the practice of putting words on paper/on the screen/on whatever medium suits your needs.
One suggestion. Many successful executives cite the approach of spending the evening pulling together their thoughts regarding what the next day will bring. They write out what to expect and how to approach the day. It allows them to plan and then set it aside — fall asleep — until the next day. Bang! Another chance to write. A practical application that allows for writing without judgment, but with purpose.
Another suggestion? Internal Auditor magazine is always looking for articles. And its website is always looking for writers for the magazine's new Your Voices blog. Try writing one, just to write it, and see what happens.
Actual audit work is the best way to learn how to do actual audit work. But the tools that make up that work are all around us. The next time you're standing in line, think about why that line is there and how it might be made better. And look at why that line exists and whether it is an effective control. Strike up a conversation with someone else in line and start the interview. Learn about the person, their thoughts on the situation, and what they have to say about it all. And then, when you get somewhere you can put those thoughts together, write it all down.
After a while, observations, analysis, and clear, concise communications will be the norm. But just like Carnegie Hall, you'll have to practice to get there.
And, as I was wrapping this up I thought, "That's that. It is a good representation of what can be done outside the normal confines of internal audit." Then I metaphorically slapped my metaphorical hand to my metaphorical forehead and thought, "You literal-metaphorical idiot!" Because, in all this, I forgot one of the most important skills we can practice day, night, and every time in between.
Coming attractions: The most important skill and the easy way to practice it.