Internal auditing is often promoted as an ideal training ground from which to launch your career within an organisation. A key selling point is that it exposes you to many business disciplines from finance through to purchasing, production and sales. This cross-organisational involvement gives internal auditors an insight into the business as a whole that few other careers can offer, outside of joining a well-structured graduate trainee scheme. 

Normally, in tandem with pursuing a professional accounting or auditing qualification, after a few years an internal auditor will have a set of skills and business understanding that will equip her or him to move out of audit and into other another position, be it finance, operational management, risk or a project oriented role.  Indeed there are numerous examples of internal auditors rising through the ranks to become CFO or CEO.

While this traditional view of how an audit trainee may progress still holds true in many instances, internal auditing has moved on considerably in the past ten years and it has now clearly established itself as a profession that can offer a challenging career in its own right. We have seen internal audit teams develop from a more generic group of reviewers to an increasingly diverse team of professionals with specialist skills in specific business and technical areas.  This has been particularly noticeable in highly regulated businesses such as banking and financial services, where the complexity and detail needed to understand risk and its mitigating controls can require very specific skills. 

Broadening across all sectors

This is a trend, however, that is broadening across all industries and so we may see requirements for specialists in areas such as outsourcing, project management or data analytics. To a certain extent such changes have opened the auditing profession up to non-audit specialists who can bring very specific talents gained within another discipline to contribute to the audit team. 

This may be seen as increasing the competition for certain roles, but the more forward thinking organisations have for some time organised secondment schemes that will rotate auditors out into the business and specialists back into audit, so broadening the skill base of all involved, which will in due course enhance their future marketability in the job market.

While the increased requirement for specialist skills in some areas may limit the opportunities for those that don’t have them, perhaps a more common concern amongst job seekers is that they are limited by the industry specific experience that is often requested.

As a recruiter, my clients frequently ask for candidates who can demonstrate experience gained in their particular sector, or even sub sector. Some industries are demonstrably more demanding in this requirement than others, including banking, insurance, the oil industry and telecommunications. Some of this may be down to genuine necessity, where lengthy training may be required to understand the risks of that industry which a line manager hasn’t the time to give.

Often it may be due to regulatory pressures with teams closely scrutinised to ensure they have the competencies a regulator may expect. Most often it is because there may be a relatively large pool of auditors servicing a particular industry and, given the opportunity to ask for industry knowledge, an employer simply will do so because it is likely they will find it.

It is not surprising that an internal auditor seeking a new role in a different industry may become disheartened, feeling stuck in the sector that they are currently working in. But is industry experience really the key competency that chief audit executives are looking for? Many recent surveys, including our own, would suggest that, while industry knowledge is a factor that is considered, it is rarely at the top of the wish list.

Top competencies

The Institute of Internal Auditors has compiled a list of top competencies required by internal auditors. By a clear margin the most relevant competency is ‘communications skills’ and while most recently this has been followed by ‘knowledge of industry and regulatory skills’, close behind are ‘problem identification and solution skills’, ‘business and commercial acumen’ and ‘IT frameworks, tools and techniques’. 

This said, a similar poll by the IIA in 2012 put ‘analytical and critical thinking’ in top place, ‘communication skills’ in second and ‘industry-specific knowledge’ down in seventh place. It is clear that modern internal audit roles require a whole suite of skills and many of these are highly transferable.

This is backed up by a recent survey in our Internal Audit 2018 Market Report. Employers were asked to state the greatest challenges they faced in recruitment.  While 39% stated the biggest challenge was finding suitable technical skills, a significant 29% said that finding those with appropriate interpersonal skills was most difficult.

Moving between industries will be easier for candidates who can demonstrate a range of skills outside of industry knowledge, ideally those highly prized by chief audit executives. Karen Connell, audit director at Prudential, in an interview for the report noted that the key things she looks for in a CV are ’examples of senior client engagement, people leadership, committee presentations and innovation'. 

Also, she was not tied to relying on industry experience so long as candidates could demonstrate a good appreciation of risk and that she could get a sense of their motivations and passion for what they do.

Be well prepared

This leads on to an important point for those looking to change sector. If candidates are going to outweigh any relevant industry skills with other transferable skills then they must be well prepared. They must understand what skills will be relevant to the role, either by having studied a job description or having reviewed a company website to glean any information available. Many interviews may be guided by the organisation’s values and applicants should be clear on what these values are in advance.

But it is not enough just to relay your appreciation of values, or to explain that you have strong communication skills, business acumen, people management or problem solving skills. Employers will want you to give them real examples of when you have utilised these skills and any issues you faced or overcame in the process.  They want to see that that you appreciate that they are important skills to have and that you know how to use them in the workplace. 

In the same way, if the ideal candidate has industry skills that you are missing, then you must be able to demonstrate how you would compensate for this: what experiences do you have that can offer an alternative approach; show how you have undertaken training in the past to cover gaps; or how you have assimilated quickly to new environments.

Despite the trend for auditors with industry specific skills, many employers will place greater value on those auditors who can interface with stakeholders on different levels. In these cases, skills such as the ability to influence, emotional intelligence, change management and relationship management will be highly sought after. For candidates who are well prepared and ready to demonstrate their transferable skills to prospective employers, moving to a different industry sector is certainly possible.

Tim Sandwell is a director of Barclay Simpson, international specialists in internal audit and corporate governance recruitment. Download their internal audit market report 2018 now.