This is the second in a two-part series looking at internal audit leadership. The first article was from the perspective of a recruitment consultant, while here Rania Bejjani - a head of internal audit - shares her view. 

I believe that a successful internal audit function is one that is sponsored by the ExCo and audit committee, delivers fit-for-purpose value-added business solutions and is perceived as a trusted adviser and partner to the business. 

Bringing that to life requires the chief auditor to build a robust technical foundation, a risk-based plan and methodology and a strong team that delivers quality work. However, what really makes the significant difference and enables the leap into that upper quartile is the chief auditor's ability to create a function that:

  • demonstrates an in-depth understanding of the business and alignment of the audit focus to what matters
  • influences and communicates effectively across the full spectrum of stakeholders and particularly upwards
  • responds to change swiftly and strategically.

This is where the skills of the audit leader come into play. In our current era of fast change, global businesses and increased complexity, technical competence alone is no longer sufficient. Technical competence, objectivity, independence and ethics are naturally important and necessary. However, it is the chief auditor's leadership, emotional intelligence and relationship skills that set them apart from the crowd. Audit is all about people – people in the team and people with whom the team interacts. Relational skills are paramount today. 

The chief auditor must be able to set a vision for the team, deliver results and adapt fast to change. Auditors can no longer afford to think of themselves as a back-office function; instead, they are service providers at the heart of their organisations. It is up to the chief auditor to lead their team as a value-generating service business and articulate that value to all stakeholders highlighting the benefits their service brings to them.  

In addition, the leader’s approach to attract, retain, nurture and grow talent in the team is crucial. The chief auditor's ability to align the team to the vision they have set, to equip them with the relevant technical and interpersonal skills to deliver that vision and to motivate and inspire them is now critical. Just as a maestro brings out the best out of every musician in their orchestra to collectively produce great music, the chief auditor orchestrates their team towards excellence. The more skilled, harmonious and highly performing individual team members become, the more influential and empowered the function becomes and the more positive change they can effect in their organisation.  

The heart of partnerships

The chief auditor would not only look to win the hearts and minds of their team: very importantly they reach out to the business at large. They achieve this valuable connection through skilful dialogue, empathy and customer-intimacy. Getting to know the internal customer, listening to them, understanding their challenges and flexing the style and delivery to reflect their commercial reality and work together towards win-win solutions are at the heart of partnership. Most importantly, emotional intelligence, effective communication and behavioural flexibility are the core platform to build relationships and influence and are now the key differentiating skills of a successful chief auditor. 

Managing conflict

Those relationships are not always smooth sailing though. Conflicts, misunderstandings and differences of opinion do arise occasionally and they put those relationships to the test. In the face of such adversity, the empathy the chief auditor shows towards others, their awareness, flexibility, discernment and pragmatism define the outcome. It takes a skilful and emotionally intelligent chief auditor to evaluate the situation critically, read people's motivations, assess the bigger picture and understand the political dynamics then communicate accordingly to manage and resolve conflicts effectively.  

The extent to which the chief auditor does that successfully impacts on the credibility and respect they – and as a result the function – earn in the organisation. At times, the chief auditor may come under pressure to paint an unjustified better picture of the reality. In such times, the chief auditor needs to call on the highest standards of ethics, objectivity and independence and have the courage to assertively stand firm as necessary. Businesses are also constantly changing and evolving. New products or services are launched, new technologies arise, new markets are entered and new structures and channels are formed.   

The chief auditor's competence is revealed in their ability to keep up with innovations and evolve the function to respond to those changes. The agility, swiftness and business acumen with which they identify emerging risks, shift focus and resources, and retrain the team to accompany the organisation on their change journey are critical success factors. Cultural awareness in our ever expanding global market, sensitivity to local differences and the ability to speak the business's language are also key strengths for becoming that trusted adviser. 

What boards are looking for

This wealth of technical and interpersonal skills is what boards are looking for in a chief auditor. The board also looks for the leader to tell them the risks and challenges found, the linkage and impact of these on key strategic and commercial initiatives and what priority actions are needed. The competence of a chief auditor in conveying those concisely but clearly in a balanced concerted message to the ExCo and audit committee is also highly valued and sought. 

In summary, a paradigm shift is occurring. In today's world being an accomplished accountant is no longer enough to successfully lead an internal audit function. The role today requires the chief auditor to be a strategist, an inspirational leader, a keen negotiator, an outstanding communicator and an astute relationship builder. 

Rania Bejjani – global director internal audit – interim, FirstGroup plc