When Sabrina Abramson stepped into the Head of Internal Audit role at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts just weeks before the Coronavirus pandemic hit, these 9 leadership best practices helped her lead the audit function during crisis. Watch our on-demand webinar, “The Successful New CAE: Best Practices for Interviewing, the 90 Day Plan, & Leading Through a Crisis,” to hear Sabrina Abramson and Chris Patrick (Head of IA at Figure), discuss their experiences starting new CAE roles during COVID-19 and best practices for new CAEs.
My journey to becoming a CAE has been full of surprises and challenges — though having COVID-19 hit during my first months as VP & Head of Internal Audit at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts was certainly the biggest. This article collects some of my personal best practices for leading an audit function based on my experiences with effective leadership and as a leader myself — which proved absolutely crucial for keeping my team aligned and motivated as we tackled pandemic challenges in my first 90 days as head of audit.
Stepping Up to Challenges
I was originally brought on to Wyndham’s internal audit team in 2010 by a former colleague and chief auditor at a previous company, and I was quickly put to the test. Within days of starting my job as a brand new manager supporting the SOX program, my boss, the SOX program leader, and his boss, the chief auditor, left the company for other opportunities. I was asked to step up and oversee Wyndham’s SOX program because of the significant SOX management experience I had at my previous job. In hindsight, I can say with certainty that this series of events was a blessing in disguise, because it set me up for the success that I saw in the future.
Soon afterward, Wyndham brought on a new chief auditor, Glenn, who would become a lifelong mentor. In one of our first conversations, he told me, “I can either challenge you and let you continue to run the SOX program, or I can hire a director with 20 years of SOX experience to do it.” I told him that SOX hadn’t been around for 20 years at that point, to which he responded: “I know. I was just testing you. Let’s challenge you and see how you do.” I truly believe that was a turning point in my path to leadership in a fulfilling audit career.
Glenn had a knack for challenging the people on his team to grow and develop as professionals and leaders. I was soon promoted to director, and Glenn challenged me again when our IT audit leader gave notice a few years later. I thought he was crazy because I had no IT audit experience, but Glen believed in my ability to grow into the role. I took on both IT and finance, then continued to rise up the chain of command to become a VP overseeing all of assurance services. Eventually, in January 2020, I became the chief auditor of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts — several weeks before COVID-19 hit. In a new role and in a time of crisis, I leaned on my core leadership principles to ensure that my team and I stayed aligned and on track in shifting circumstances.
9 Best Practices for Leadership in Audit
Below, I’ve collected some of the lessons that I’ve learned from my mentors like Glenn and my own experiences that I’ve tried to model and pass on to my own team:
1. Walk the walk and talk the talk.
The key to being a good role model for your team is to remember that we’re all in this together. We’re a team with the same objective, which means we are all going to coordinate our approach to achieve our shared goals. Alignment across members in how we act and speak will help us effectively support each other — which builds trust, both within our team and with our external customers.
2. When in sight, take the high road.
Audit is not always seen as the good guy, but any interaction is an opportunity to elevate audit’s reputation. Even when things get tough and you have bad news to deliver that may not be received well, it’s important to stay calm and composed.
3. Voice your opinion, but also recognize that you are part of a whole.
Be vocal when you have an opinion about something, but realize there will be people you have to support who may not share your ideas. For example, if I have an opinion but my CFO feels differently, it’s my job to speak up for what I think is best. We can agree to disagree, but at the end of the day I know that I need to support her opinion and her strategy.
4. Present all issues with a proposed solution.
I actively encourage my team members to voice their opinions by challenging them to explain their proposed solutions to problems. I’ve found that this helps individuals grow, learn to communicate and understand that their opinions are truly valued.
5. Always speak with conviction.
Go into meetings confidently and speak with conviction. This is easier if you’ve done your homework, present the facts and can speak as a subject matter expert.
6. Surround yourself with great people.
I believe who you work with is incredibly important, and I consciously strive to surround myself with a team I look forward to going to work with every day. We pick each other up, we learn from each other, we make each other better. I actively look to build a team of smart, motivated, energetic individuals with diverse approaches and ways of thinking. This helps us to build a culture of teamwork and unity, while continuing to challenge each other and the status quo.
7. Look for the substance through the form.
Don’t be deceived by something that’s polished and pretty; do your due diligence to look through what is being presented to ensure you find the substance. It may not always be there in spite of how “nice” it looks or sounds.
8. Have an open door policy.
I don’t ever want my team members — especially those a few levels down — to feel like they need to have a personal invitation to come talk to me. Always being available for your team and letting them know that there’s no bad time to talk to you is important to being accessible.
9. Be your team’s biggest cheerleader.
The culture of your team starts with the tone at the top. Let your team know that you appreciate them; reward them generously, when you can. Give your team the opportunities to stretch and try something innovative or new. Celebrate them wildly when they succeed, but be the first one there for them to take accountability if they fail. Remind them to work hard and play hard. Self-care comes first…the work will always be there.
Leadership Principles in Action: My First 90 Days as a CAE During COVID-19
Because I moved up the ranks internally at Wyndham before taking on the head of audit role, I was already familiar with the key people and processes from my prior roles at the company — but the pandemic crisis immediately put my leadership abilities to the test.
Working in the hospitality industry, which has been severely impacted by the crisis, meant that audit needed to move quickly to support the business in assessing new and emerging risks, especially in the early days when changes were occurring rapidly. This required a high level of alignment across the team (#1. Walk the walk and talk the talk) to ensure that we were all moving in sync to achieve our team and organizational goals.
The most difficult thing I’ve had to do was carry out the furlough and elimination process for my team. I found it crucial to communicate how much I cared and felt for them when I had to have those heartbreaking conversations. For the rest of my team, I’ve strived to ensure that they stay motivated and know that their contributions are valued.
I’ve focused on being transparent as possible and making sure individuals felt heard and supported. I no longer have a physical office open door, but I’ve been particularly attentive in communicating that I am available whenever my team members need me, especially when we’re remote (#8. Have an open door policy). I’ve encouraged everyone on my team to speak up and share their perspectives, and challenged them to be creative in voicing ways we can address issues, be more effective, and increase the value that audit brings to the table (#4. Present all issues with a proposed solution). For example, as a result of this pandemic, we were no longer able to perform on-site audits. Through team brainstorming, we were able to craft virtual audit and monitoring programs that did not require a physical presence.
I was also inspired by Wellness Wednesdays introduced at my daughters’ school, and started a Mindful Mondays campaign for my team by sending a meme, story, or quote that reminds them to put themselves, their well-being, and their families first. The important stuff happens at home, and now that it’s all happening at home, it’s easy to lose sight of the impact that can have on job performance (#6. Surround yourself with great people and #9. Be your team’s biggest cheerleader). In encouraging my team members to be creative and flexible in dealing with multiple responsibilities at home, I’ve had to first assure them that I trust their ability to manage their own time. I’ve been conscientious in my efforts to ensure that I’m not only keeping my team motivated, but also reminding them of what’s important in life.
Starting a new position always brings challenges, but my first 90 days as head of audit during COVID has certainly thrown more curve balls than I’d anticipated. I’ve been thankful throughout to have built up foundational lessons in leadership throughout my career that helped me step up to be the leader my team needed during a difficult time. My early mentors had a big impact on the leader I’ve become, and whatever your current role I’d encourage you to be mindful of your developing leadership style, and attentive to what you’re teaching your team through your words or your actions every day.
This article is dedicated to my amazing team. I am grateful for each and every one of you, and truly appreciate your continued commitment to the success of our group and our company. I am humbled by the opportunity to lead you, especially through a time like this, and trust that the best of days are on the horizon.