Effective Kickoff Meetings
By setting a positive tone in their initial meeting with clients, auditors can ensure a successful partnership during the audit engagement.
April 01, 2009
Internal auditors can sometimes overlook the importance of kickoff meetings to the overall audit process. Generally the first formal contact an audit team has with its audit client, kickoff meetings help auditors set the tone of an audit, develop rapport with the client, and get the project off to a successful start. Some audits may never fully recover from a poorly conducted kickoff meeting, so this aspect of the engagement should never be taken lightly.
The kickoff meeting can serve multiple administrative purposes, such as introducing the audit team, explaining the purpose and approach of the audit, establishing communication protocols, and communicating target time lines for the project. Additionally, the meeting can be used to inform and educate audit clients about the role of internal auditing and the value of a well-conducted audit.
Audit Team Preparation
Due to time constraints, or the perception that it is simply a check-off item in the planning workpapers, auditors may be tempted to limit planning for the kickoff meeting. However, the more audit teams can learn about the area in advance of the meeting, the better impression they are likely to make with the client. Some typical sources available to internal audit personnel for review include prior year audits and workpapers, intranet sites, U.S. Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 process documentation, compliance department reports, and contract files. Information about certain topics may also be available on the Internet.
Being well prepared to discuss aspects of the client's operations with intelligence will make a statement to the audit client about the importance of the engagement. Moreover, advance preparation conveys to clients that the auditors are competent to perform the engagement. The audit team should meet in advance to:
- Discuss the high-level objectives and scope of the engagement, and to gather any information about the audit area the team may already have access to or experience with.
- Discuss the client's management team to determine whether there may be any unique characteristics, management style issues, or personalities of which internal auditing should be aware.
- Determine whether the audit client or team members are located remotely so that accommodations such as a conference call-in line or videoconference should be arranged for the kickoff meeting.
Meeting locations should be neutral to avoid giving one party a "home field advantage." Personal offices can sometimes be intimidating so the meeting should be scheduled in a conference room with plenty of seating to accommodate all attendees. Moreover, auditors should consider the number of participants from each party. If a significant imbalance exists, it may be prudent to only include audit team management at the kickoff meeting so that the audit client does not feel overwhelmed or outnumbered.
While audit clients cannot be expected to prepare for the kickoff meeting with the same rigor as the audit team, some guidance should be provided to set clients' expectations and help them prepare to the extent possible. Before the meeting, auditors should send clients a list of general information necessary to start planning the audit — with enough lead time for them to gather at least some of the listed materials in advance. The list typically will include items such as:
- Policy and procedure manuals.
- Business objectives.
- Organizational charts.
- Key business metrics or scorecards.
- Key software applications.
- Process flowcharts.
- Key vendors or contracts.
- Regulatory requirements for the area.
In the meeting announcement, auditors should ask the client to bring items included on the request list. The announcement should also request that clients invite any other members of their team as appropriate.
To ensure sufficient coverage of administrative topics necessary to proceed with audit planning, the agenda should be kept simple and exclude any extraneous items. Sufficient time should be allowed to cover all agenda items. Each item should add value to the discussion and be devoted to a specific meeting objective. Auditors should consider the audience of the kickoff meeting when planning the agenda — as it can involve audit clients at various levels within the organization — and tailor it appropriately. Typical standing agenda items for kickoff meetings include:
- Review of high-level audit objectives and scope.
- Audit process and time line.
- Communications, reporting, and follow-up activities.
- Discussion of business objectives, risks, and key activities.
A standard meeting agenda template can be developed for internal audit department use to ensure consistency. This will be especially helpful for new auditors. Also, consider including the agenda in the meeting announcement to provide the audit client a sense of the topics to be covered.
Conducting the Meeting
To show respect for the client's time, auditors should start the meeting promptly. To facilitate this, they should send electronic copies of meeting materials in advance and have extra copies on hand in case anyone forgets to bring them. Consider using overhead display equipment for presenting the meeting materials to conserve paper.
The meeting should begin with introductions of the audit team members and an explanation of their roles during the engagement. Likewise, audit clients should introduce themselves and explain their respective roles. Auditors should then proceed through each item on the agenda and stay on task. To ensure the meeting does not get bogged down in items that are off topic, it may be helpful to designate someone on the audit team to keep track of time and tactfully redirect the meeting back on course if the conversation deviates too far from the agenda. Someone on the team should be assigned to take detailed notes to allow other audit team members to fully engage in the conversation and direct the meeting without distraction. If an auditor conducts the meeting alone, he or she should be sure to take good notes and type them into workpapers as soon as possible after the meeting to avoid follow-up questions later.
Auditors should end the meeting at the designated time, even if all agenda items have not been covered, to show respect for the client's schedule. If time permits, practitioners may have an opportunity to discuss the operating practices and procedures with the client to begin gathering planning information. However, auditors should avoid asking obvious or rudimentary questions about the process during the kickoff meeting, because it may lead the client to think they are unprepared and have not taken the time to review existing documentation in advance.
Many audit clients still do not fully understand the true role of internal auditing within the organization. And auditors sometimes feel that they are bending over backward to accommodate the audit client with little reciprocation because of a perceived "value-gap" by the client. However, the kickoff meeting presents a unique opportunity to establish a tone of mutual partnership and respect and for the audit team to -communicate assertively its own business objectives and value within the organization.
Additionally, some clients have had bad experiences with past audits, either at other organizations or with previous audit teams. An effective meeting can help define not only the roles and responsibilities for the engagement, but also the opportunities for the auditor and client during and after the engagement, such as consulting engagements, risk management assistance, and guidance for control activities relating to new processes. Auditors should use the meeting to "sell" the audit function to the client as a value-added service by explaining that internal auditing has business objectives that are aligned with the strategic mission of the organization — just like the client. The entire business benefits when both functions achieve their objectives. When both the audit team and the client are respectful of each other's jobs, it can help resolve future conflicts and enhance the probability of timely delivery of information requests later in the audit project. It may also lead to better cooperation between internal auditing and the business unit in the future.