Internal Audit Leadership – My Time Has Come, Am I Ready?

By Hal Garyn

Most anyone in internal audit will ascend to the audit leadership ranks given time. For some, it happens quickly (perhaps too quickly?), and for others it might have been a long time coming. Perhaps your time in internal audit has not been the more logical progression of staff to senior to supervisor to manager, etc., and you have transferred in and/or out of internal audit. But, at some point in time, a leadership role is beckoning, be it as a supervisor, as a manager, or as the Chief Audit Executive (or equivalent).

We’ve all heard the stories, and maybe even witnessed it a few times, of the great salesperson who becomes sales manager … and they fail miserably in the sales management capacity. But wait, they were the star salesperson, right? Well, the skills and talents employed as the “doer” do not always translate well to being the person guiding, directing, and leading others. We all know this intuitively, yet it still plays out far too often.

Being a good audit leader is about technical skills, sure. But technical skills alone don’t make you a great audit leader. And, quite frankly, you will use those technical skills less in a leadership capacity (if you are doing the job right and delegating as much as is logically and logistically possible). Being a great audit leader combines those technical skills with all the necessary “soft” skills. Those “soft” skills include being a good listener, being a good questioner, being sympathetic, compassionate, and insightful … knowing when to guide and when to model behavior. Knowing how much rope to give a person, and knowing when people are “over their heads.” And, knowing what it means to be an executive and manage up into the governance structure.

Look, no one wants to be micromanaged, and we don’t want to micromanage others. Who’s got time for that, right? But let’s be honest too. Executing an audit plan cannot leave much to poor performance amongst the audit team members you are managing. So, knowing when it is time to step in, and take firm control of the situation is important too. This is not easy stuff. But it is part of the job.

Importantly, when you ascend to a management or leadership capacity in internal audit, you need to rethink your approach to your own professional development. Yes, some portion of your development time and energies need to be dedicated to honing your technical skills and knowledge, but don’t overweight that and give short shrift to enhancing your leadership acumen. Add reading, courses, and studies to your professional development plan to improve your internal audit Leadership (with a capital “L”) skills.

The most important takeaway: Don’t think you can do it alone. Yes, you can emulate the great leaders that came before you, and you can mimic what you think they got right and avoid what they got wrong. But, being thrust into a leadership role is something that takes a mind shift only you can make and having help with it is on you. Mentors, coaches, and role models also factor in strongly. Remember, as a leader, the mistakes you make affect others, sometimes for their entire careers.

And a call to action: Are you focusing solely on your current job, or are you spending time preparing for your next job? (That “next job” doesn’t necessarily have to be at a different company.) Does your professional development plan have stuff in it to help prepare you for, and propel you to, success in the next role?