Most auditors have had at least one. If you’ve been auditing for as long as I have, perhaps you’ve had a few more. But very few auditors can say they’ve had many.
Every internal auditor can remember a truly great audit project they’ve been a part of. A great audit project can entail successfully fulfilling a difficult audit committee request or identifying a substantial problem area or fraud that executive management was completely unaware of. One sign of a great audit project is if your audit customer, or even better, your CEO, derived information from the audit findings that allowed them to enable significant and positive change.
If one were to look closer at a successful audit project, you might find it succeeded because of the involvement of someone who provided the audit team with a constant, accurate source of information that revealed the the audit customer’s inner workings, politics, decision-making processes, and control breakdowns and process issues not likely to be found through regular audit procedures.
These “Audit Coaches” and their influence can often be traced throughout many successful audit projects. Audit Coaches help auditors identify areas most important to their process, provide feedback on whether control observations are as high-risk as the audit team may initially perceive them to be, and give actionable insights on where to find those higher-risk issues.
Great Audit Coaches are usually found among auditees or the individuals who have the highest influence or authority in an audit process. They can be a Vice President, a General Manager of a remote office location, or individuals interested in becoming involved with the audit project to identify change opportunities or to independently validate information previously shared with executive management.
Perhaps the reason great audit projects don’t occur more frequently is because many audit teams don’t understand how to develop relationships with potential audit coaches, or how people become coaches to audit teams.
The relationship between an auditor and audit coach is akin to the relationship many people have with their best friends and most trusted colleagues. Understanding what makes people friends can help auditors develop relationships with audit coaches and create more opportunities for truly great audit projects.
Below are some ways audit teams can develop relationships with audit coaches.
Find Intersecting Activities
The cornerstone of every great relationship is two people having something they both like and enjoy in common. The cornerstone of developing relationships with audit coaches is identifying common interests or intersecting activities that allow the auditor to understand their auditee’s personal interests and create shared bonds.
Intersecting activities facilitate rapport and allow your audit coach to see you as a friendly colleague rather than a police officer or someone who is going to air their dirty laundry to their bosses. Shared bonds help relieve the stresses associated with being audited, and turn meetings between auditees and auditors into conversations between equals.
Most people have outside interests and hobbies and can share professional experiences and backgrounds. Intersecting activities can be both personal and professional. Usually a combination of the two will increase the chances of developing a relationship with an audit coach. Examples of intersecting activities include:
- Similar life experiences (e.g. recently married or engaged, both have young children, or young grandchildren)
- Similar hobbies (e.g. both are runners, like to invest, or have experience taking cooking classes)
- The auditee used to be a former auditor (good), a former auditor at your company (better), or a former auditee that you got to work with (great) 1
- Both parties used to work for the same former employer
- Both parties have significant, long-standing experiences at your current company
- Both parties are at similar experience levels within the company (e.g. an IA manager and a product line manager)
- Both parties have a deep understanding of the company’s products, services, and strategies, and have a visible passion for the success of the company
Identifying these intersecting activities doesn’t require a lot of effort. Many of us have probably been taught to ask questions about pictures or unique artifacts in someone’s office as a way to break the ice. Intersecting activities can also be identified through social media accounts or by asking co-workers about the person you’ll be meeting.
Share the Same Level of Understanding
While intersecting activities are the foundation of developing audit coaches, they will not get the job done alone. Each intersecting activity has its own unique language and has different levels of understanding. To have a more meaningful conversation about an intersecting activity, you need to have a deeper understanding of its language and details.
For example, just because you both have audit experience doesn’t mean you have the same type of audit experiences. The relationship and rapport of two people, one a current internal auditor and one a former external auditor, will never be as strong as two people who have worked as audit managers at Fortune 100 companies who were responsible for managing 4 - 6 audits at any point in time, and spent a large portion of time traveling internationally to complete their work.
Similarly, those who share an interest in running will never be able to commiserate or share war stories to the same level of detail as two people who have experience running marathons or who at least can appreciate the strategies and commitment required to train to run one.
The level of detail and understanding improves your conversations and directly impacts whether someone will become an audit coach. People form deeper bonds when the flow of communication is natural, comfortable, enjoyable, and the detail of understanding is mutual. And if you don’t understand the nuances and context of your intersecting activity, a little research and planning to have these conversations can be just as impactful.
Catering to Psychological Drivers
Process and department leaders most likely earned their current roles because they helped solve business problems or improve their team’s success. The work needed to earn their promotion was likely driven by their need to improve their well-being, avoid pain, or improve their self-preservation or self-gratification. Influencing auditees to share privileged information with you will require understanding and catering to these psychological drivers.
An audit customer’s well-being is related to their will to survive. In a business setting, this relates to their job security. Auditors who can provide assurance to the audit customer that the audit is in the spirit of continuous improvement, rather than making them look bad, may gain additional insight and explanations to bring back to the audit team.
Some audit customers may experience significant pressures to meet quotas, deadlines, or budgets, and these pressures are affecting their job performance and personal lives. Having a competent, sympathetic, and non-judgemental audit team may elicit information very relevant to the audit and help eliminate the negative aspects of your customer’s situation.
Audit customers may also be open to sharing more relevant and impactful information with auditors because it validates how well they are doing their job or can corroborate information previously shared with executive managers. When sharing information this way, audit customers may seek opportunities to earn the respect of their peers or protect their position within the organization (i.e. self-preservation), or even make themselves feel superior to others (i.e. self-gratification).
Turning Audit Customers to Audit Coaches
In the ACFE’s 2018 Global Study on Occupational Fraud and Abuse, the number one way frauds are detected are through tips and information obtained from people associated to or near the fraud. Tips constituted 40% of identified frauds, whereas Internal Audit only accounted for 15% of the total identified frauds.2 Similarly, truly great audit projects are less likely a result of testing procedures auditors perform than they are related to the type and quality of information auditors receive throughout the course of the audit project.
Chief Audit Executives and their audit teams can greatly benefit from proactively working to develop audit coaches for every audit project they perform. While not every audit project will be able to develop an audit coach in the time allotted, audit departments that have documented procedures in planning, fieldwork, and even reporting to improve relationships with their audit customers will be able to get better information about the areas and entities they are auditing, and improve the assurance they provide to the Board and executive management.
Customers can become your coaches for many different reasons. They may like you or other members in your audit department, the audit results can make their lives easier and give their team a better chance at achieving their goals and objectives. Audit Coaches may also benefit personally by advancing their career and stature within the organization – and possibly even earn more money.
Without focused efforts and intent by audit teams and CAEs to develop audit customers, audit projects are less likely to transform from good to great, and opportunities for internal audit to enable positive change in their organizations with the resources assigned to them will be wasted.
Work Smart, and Audit Happy!
1 The reason why AuditBoard has been so successful the past five years may be because over 80% of our employees, whether in marketing and sales, product development, or customer success, have significant audit, controls, and compliance experience.
2 ACFE’s Report to Nations 2018 Global Occupational Fraud and Abuse Survey.