We’re continuing to celebrate International Internal Audit Awareness Month this May by exploring the complex role of the Chief Audit Executive. What thoughts and questions occupy the mind of a successful CAE as they go about their day? Learn more about the key attributes, primary responsibilities, and best practices of top audit function leaders as we take a deep dive into the CAE psyche.
What Goes Through the Mind of a Chief Audit Executive (CAE)?
The mind of a Chief Audit Executive (CAE) is a busy place. That’s not surprising, considering that the scope of the CAE role at many companies has been expanding beyond traditional activities to encompass being a business partner who helps the organization navigate the intersection of strategy and operations. These days, excelling as the leader of the internal audit function involves a diverse portfolio of soft skills as much as it does technical audit skills.
How do CAEs Balance the Multidimensional Mandates of their Position?
Whether you’re already in the audit chief role or you’re strategizing how to get there, let’s explore the internal dialogues CAEs are likely to be having as they handle their complex day-to-day responsibilities.
1. “Who am I meeting with next?”: Politician and Diplomat
Perhaps the most important aspect of the CAE role is to be a link between the internal audit function and other stakeholders in the company, which means a CAE spends their day jumping from meeting to meeting to meeting. The CAE takes on a difficult balancing act. They need to be a detail-oriented expert with the technical know-how to lead an effective audit team. At the same time, they need the soft skills of relationship building to be able to report on management issues to the Audit Committee without irritating the CFO—and vice-versa.
The skills of a politician come in handy when translating between these different groups—having the social astuteness to accurately understand others, and the interpersonal influence to be able to get things done. A successful CAE is a diplomat who can sell the vision of the C-suite to the audit team, get the CFO on board with a resource the audit staff wants, and leave the Audit Committee satisfied with their internal auditors.
2. “Whose language should I be speaking?”: Expert Communicator
A core part of the CAE’s political role is the responsibility to share findings and relevant insights learned elsewhere in the organization with executive management, and to convey management’s goals and expectations to the audit department. The CAE also needs to be able to convincingly communicate with an even broader range of stakeholders—the audit committee, managers of other departments, external auditors, and regulatory agencies.
But communication isn’t just about talking. It’s also about listening—and learning about your audience. A CAE needs to be able to speak the same language as the CEO, the IT person, the Audit Committee, and—of course—the audit team. To effectively tailor their message to these different groups, a CAE must understand what their audience needs to know and why. The most effective leaders also have a knack for delivering a message persuasively. A good communicator in the CAE role can make the difference between creating an adversarial “gotcha” moment that antagonizes management, and presenting audit findings as an opportunity to collaborate on improvements that will positively impact the department in question.
3. “How’s my team doing?”: Team Leader and Mentor
As the leader of the internal audit function, a CAE has to staff their department strongly by retaining key people, recruiting top talent, and developing leaders to create a high performing team. CAEs who actively take on a mentorship role make time to provide their team members with feedback on past performance as well as ideas for improvement in future audits. In these conversations, a leading internal audit department will not just encourage auditors to hone their technical skills, but also strengthen core competencies like critical thinking and communication.
A CAE’s goal is to facilitate an audit department that is hitting those performance metrics while keeping the team engaged and happy. The most talented auditors will grow bored with routine assignments, and may look for greener pastures if they feel burned out on repetitive tasks. A CAE should be conscientious about deploying the right people in the right places, ensuring that internal auditors are challenged and given opportunities to grow. A CAE committed to mentorship will also need to keep up a strong talent pipeline—a sign of a truly successful mentor is one whose team members vacate current roles because they are progressing forward in their careers. By actively seeking to bring out the best in people, a CAE will position the team to improve their performance with each project, and individual members to flourish professionally.
4. “What do I need to learn next?”: Lifelong Learner
A big part of a CAE’s job as politician and communicator is to share relevant insights they’ve learned elsewhere with executive management. To perform this function well, CAEs need to be constantly open to learning new things. A forward-thinking CAE will want to stay knowledgeable about recent developments in the audit profession by proactively reading thought leadership and attending CPE trainings and events. It’s also important to develop a network of other internal audit professionals who can share their best practices.
CAEs can’t just focus on audit knowledge—they also need to stay on top of company trends. Creating an audit department that’s internally relevant requires an intimate understanding of the organization’s larger strategy and goals. It’s up to the CAE to talk to executives and figure out how to align audit activities with company objectives. They should meet with business managers to find out how they spend the majority of their time, and whether those activities are supporting organizational goals. CAEs should also be learning from their audit team members about what resources and tools are needed to perform their jobs to a high level. By consistently educating themselves about both industry and company knowledge, a CAE can synthesize their information into a big-picture understanding of the organization as it functions internally and externally.
The CAE is in a unique position to take a holistic view of their organization—visualizing future risks and opportunities, and anticipating the role internal audit must play in each. If there’s a new initiative in the company, an effective CAE can make sure it’s being implemented with all the right checks and balances. The CAE can help the business anticipate possible adverse effects that could result from changes to people, processes, or technologies. By staffing a high-performing audit department, meeting with a wide variety of people, self-learning to see the big picture, and communicating what they’ve learned back to multiple stakeholders, the CAE is well-equipped to provide actionable insights and valuable perspectives when and where they are most needed.