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​Five Personal Investments for Career Success

A commitment to excellence and self-improvement can sow the seeds for a great internal audit career.​

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​In my nearly 40 years in internal audit, I have worked for diverse organizations with immensely talented individuals from all corners of the globe. The experiences gained during those years taught me many valuable lessons about the profession and those we serve. Fortunately, I discovered early on how vital it is to make investments in my own career future. Warren Buffett said it best: “Investing in yourself is the best thing you can do.”

In my professional journey, I found that investing in personal growth can be grouped into five areas, and I encourage all internal auditors to consider these strategic investments in their own career.

1. Pursue Excellence

Don’t settle for being good. Pursue greatness in everything you do.

The internal audit profession is constantly evolving and adapting to the needs of a dynamic business environment focused on emerging risks and economic challenges. In this climate, internal auditors have an obligation to their stakeholders not to settle for just being good. The needs and challenges they face demand greatness from professionals who must identify emerging risks and align with the changing goals of the board and senior management.

Throughout my career, I was never willing to settle for good. I determined that whatever the challenge, whatever the requirements, whatever the goals set before me, I wouldn’t just meet them. I would do whatever it took to exceed them. It’s this mind-set — an unyielding personal mandate — that can propel people to great success.
As the business world evolves, internal auditors must pursue new skills and attributes. Beyond developing technical skills required by the rise and impact of new technologies, they also must nurture a broad range of nontechnical qualities.

Surveys, including The IIA’s Pulse of the Profession, have shown that the top five skills CAEs look for in their internal audit staff are:

  1. Analytical and critical thinking.
  2. Communication skills.
  3. Data mining and analytics.
  4. General IT knowledge.
  5. Business acumen.

These surveys suggest today’s internal auditor needs a more robust skill set as more is being demanded of the internal audit function. Gone are the days in which accounting or financial skills were the sole focus of many internal audit job descriptions. Today’s successful internal auditor demonstrates an understanding of the key issues of relevance to the organization, while keeping an eye on the horizon to forecast tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities.

Other nontechnical skills that will serve internal auditors well are effective communication, excellent business relationships, and shrewd negotiating for partnering with audit clients to reach reasonable and effective solutions to emerging risks.

2. Invest in Continuous Learning

Approaching every new experience with an open mind and a passion for learning will expand internal auditors’ effectiveness. Throughout my career, I found ways to continue learning. During the first three years in the Internal Review Division of the U.S. Army, I completed several different training courses to help me perform my job at the highest level.

Later, as director of Internal Review for the Army, I wanted to attend the Army War College — a course in strategic studies that prepares senior military leaders. I made the case to the chief of staff and the commanding general to support my application, and they agreed.

I pursued similar learning opportunities at my subsequent positions as deputy inspector general for the U.S. Postal Service and inspector general of the Tennessee Valley Authority. In the end, I understood the complexities behind how nearly 40 percent of the world’s mail is handled and how electricity is produced.

Without a passion for continuous learning, internal auditors are less likely to be effective in their jobs. They should become a sponge for knowledge and supplement the training they receive at work with some of their own dollars.

3. Make Your Own Breaks

Internal auditors should look for opportunities to broaden their footprint in their career field. Opportunity often arises from personal investment in career growth. As 17th century philosopher Francis Bacon asserted: “A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds.”

I am a big believer in making your own breaks. Throughout my career many of the opportunities presented to me came as the result of my own efforts. I didn’t knowingly cause these opportunities to present themselves, but my pursuit of excellence got the attention of the people who offered those opportunities to me.

For example, because I wanted to put my MBA degree to best use, I taught accounting and other business courses at the community college near Fort McPherson in suburban Atlanta, where I was positioned in the internal review division. I continued to pursue my passion for training by joining the faculty of the Government Audit Training Institute. It was one of those classes that got me noticed by the right people and led to my position with the Postal Service. It so happened that an acquaintance of the Postal Service’s new inspector general was in a class I taught. The acquaintance reached out and told her, “This is somebody you should look at.” The next day she contacted me, and I went for an interview. I got a job offer soon after.

Similar opportunities came my way because of my own unrelated efforts to grow and develop in another area of my career. I have always wanted to be involved in associations related to the financial management and internal audit professions. Serving in these associations allows me to partner with others and provide valuable input in service to my profession.

I became active in The IIA for several years, including serving on the Government Relations Committee and Standards Board. By 2000, I was chairman of the Standards Board, where I became acquainted with then-IIA President Bill Bishop. He asked me to join the headquarters team as vice president of The Institute’s Learning Center, which included oversight of all the training, education, and certification programs, plus The IIA Research Foundation and bookstore.

Internal auditors should recognize the potential they possess to create new opportunities beyond the specific job they were hired to do. They can find ways to increase their visibility in the audit profession by actively providing voluntary service to others.

4. Be Relevant to Those You Serve

During my time as director of Internal Review for the Army’s FORSCOM command, one of my commanding officers was a general who had a reputation for being difficult to work for. He told me bluntly, “I don’t like auditors.”

My only response was to tell him, “Well, I’ll do what I can, sir, to be as helpful to you as I can. I’m your auditor, and I will help you in any way I can.”
I took his comment as a challenge and worked hard in the following months to figure out how to persuade him that I could be of value to him. I got the opportunity a short time later.

Shortly after his arrival, a group of soldiers at Fort McPherson were deployed quickly for an unexpected military operation. All of their personal belongings had been left in their barracks. Instead of going to the general and asking what I should do, I took the initiative.

“You know, sir,” I said to him, “all of these soldiers who just left have their personal belongings sitting over in their barracks. What if we did an audit to ensure that all of their personal affairs and belongings are secure?”

He immediately said, “That’s a good idea.”

From that time on, he began to soften toward the internal audit function. I would have been of no value to him if I just audited the stuff I normally did, the things on those traditional lists. But going to him with a solution for a new risk — something he cared deeply about — really made the relationship connection.
Internal auditors should continually look for ways to increase their value to their leaders. They should challenge themselves to find creative ways to gain the leaders’ support, especially those they believe do not really value internal audit’s work. Become the team member they just can’t get along without.

5. Develop Courage in the Face of Adversity

Rising above the fear of failure can be the greatest motivator for success. We have all heard the story of the incredible fortitude and tenacity of Cynthia Cooper and her audit team in the face of the enormous adversity they confronted to expose the fraud at WorldCom. Most internal auditors may never come up against adversity of that magnitude, but most will encounter adversity that demands inner strength and tenacity. There may be times when audit engagements turn contentious. There may be times when an emerging risk threatens the solvency of an organization, and management will likely turn to the internal audit team for analysis and strategies to resolve the issues. Determine now to stand courageously in the face of such obstacles and pressures.

There have been several times during my career when I needed that kind of courage. One stands out in my mind above others. During the time I served as director of Internal Review for the Army at the Pentagon, I encountered what I later came to view as “the audit wars.” The auditor general for the Army wanted to expend the scope of his operations to directly oversee internal review. But I shared the view of other Army leaders — that allowing internal review offices around the world to report directly to commanders, the equivalent of their CEOs, made for a stronger model.

Although it was a stressful time for me, I proposed a period during which his audit team and those that I oversaw would run identical tests to determine what success each team could achieve. At the end of the agreed-upon test period, the supremacy of the existing model was readily obvious. Had those on our side of the debate not been courageous enough to stand for a test to prove the efficiency and skill of our team, it’s likely that the Army would have eliminated a valuable resource used by military leaders around the world.

The Road to Success

The time is now for internal auditors to make investments in their own career that will successfully equip them to become more relevant and valuable to their organization. Greatness for today’s internal auditors will be defined by the skill set and technical sophistication they possess to adapt to the needs and expectations of their stakeholders. While internal auditing’s fundamental principles and standards will always be the foundation of an internal auditor’s career, it is passion for remaining focused on the needs of stakeholders that will lead the way to success.

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