We talk to three people about the international opportunities a career in Internal Audit can provide.
If your passion for travel matches your interest in how objectives, risks, controls and assurance interact then you will already appreciate the many opportunities a career in Internal Audit can present.
Many roles offer a life living out of a suitcase, at employers’ expense, in locations beyond holiday brochures. Auditors quickly rack up air-miles and hotel points, enabling upgrades or holidays on the back of their work.
ACCA UK’s Internal Audit Panel asked three individuals to share their thoughts on what it means to be an internal auditor working around the world.
Zoe Holroyd – senior auditor, Mazars
‘When the opportunity arose to work on client assignments overseas, I did not think twice about taking part – it was the perfect chance to experience working with different cultures and to get a first-hand impression of “how those guys do it”.
Our clients are within the hospitality and tourism industry, where the audits have ranged from operational to compliance. To date, I have worked in nine countries across Europe, working at the subsidiary client sites and staying in the local area.
The experiences have been enjoyable and have enabled me to develop communication skills (particularly where there is a language barrier) and gain exposure to meeting with staff at different levels of a business. For example, the contrast between interviewing a hotel receptionist to holding the audit close out meeting with the regional director of operations is certainly a big one, but is also a challenge that I relish and look forward to on a weekly basis.
A particular experience I will never forget was working in Italy for a week, which involved visits to both Rome and Florence; raising an audit recommendation triggered a fiery discussion, making it clear that the renowned Italian passion very much makes its way into the workplace!
I have found that planning the audit is a really important factor, especially when working overseas; not only the time required on site but also transport requirements, travel time – especially when direct flights are not available – and the cost of local accommodation.
I am still studying for the ACCA qualification, and have found that the type of audits I carry out have really assisted with my learning. Vice versa, I have been able to apply knowledge from learning in practice. For example, when recently conducting a foreign exchange audit I was aware of the types of foreign exchange risks and how we can hedge against these, as this is a core topic in the financial management module.
However, there are some aspects of this lifestyle which can prove demanding. For example, around exam time, it can be challenging to balance the audit with travel time alongside having to knuckle down and study in the evening. I’ve found making the most of the airport and flight time has made a real difference in the past, ensuring you have really planned the trip well to know when any free study time might arise!
I am looking to work overseas full time in the future, so choosing the ACCA qualification and taking the opportunity to work across Europe was with this in mind. The practice I have seen when working abroad has opened my eyes to how much the local culture impacts on working life, and the skills I have developed will certainly help with my career progression.’
John Webb – Webb Sight Consultancy
We asked John what he thinks motivates someone to seek a career as a travelling auditor, and what tips he has for anyone embarking on such a journey.
‘One of the joys of working in internal audit is the sheer variety of business and support units that we cover each year and the opportunities this affords to see best practices, as well as to understand the lessons learnt from failed processes. Where else, beneath the C-Suite, is this variety of perspectives possible?
Another delight in store for many is the opportunity to travel occasionally to audit subsidiaries or branches. We will be confronted by innovative solutions, alternative control mechanisms and new ways of thinking, in addition to problems and consequences that we have not encountered (and may wish not to see again).
My tips are as follows:
1. As well as keeping an open mind, ensure that you are particularly well prepared before getting on the plane. Remember that arriving from head office can be a double-edged sword. You may be treated to more attention than at home and find a high level of responsiveness both to audit questions and to the supply of tea and biscuits. On the other hand you may be considered as a representative of head office management, even though you will feel uncomfortable about the implications this has for your independence and possible concerns of your own about particular aspects of group-wide policies.
2. The chances are that you will only be there for a short period of time, so as well as pre-preparing an audit programme and talking to colleagues at home, carefully research:
- differences in business practices and whether there is a higher or lower corruption risk and whether what is acceptable at home, may not be overseas
- local cultures and the impact this may have on how you wish to deal with people, in order to both create a favourable impression and avoid causing offence
- what local risks there might be that you do not face at home
- the extent to which risks may vary from what you are familiar with or the level of impact might differ
- the extent to which you can anticipate, perhaps through background reading, some of these new risk areas (without necessarily having to become an expert). For example, if auditing a financial services branch in the Middle East it may be worth becoming familiar with the key facets of Islamic (Sharia) finance. That way people will appreciate that you have made some effort to understand their daily reality but more importantly, it may immeasurably help your scoping and testing
- local regulators’ websites, which will indicate what is expected from your overseas subsidiary and also which problems are endemic locally and the range of ways in which they are being addressed
- google local hot topics in your sector, as you will add to your knowledge base and the matters to think about.
3. As soon as you can after arriving (and with the co-operation of the local subsidiary), pay a short visit to the external auditors. Half an hour with the engagement manager or partner will give you clear insights into any control concerns they might have and the effectiveness of remedial actions taken or planned. If you ask the right questions, they may also tell you about emerging risks, thematic concerns of the regulators and benchmarking comparisons with their other relevant clients. In one visit to Tokyo it enabled me to borrow one of their experienced auditors who could not only translate documents into English for me but knew which of the documents was likely to be relevant in the first place.’
Neville de Spretter – principal at AdLibero2 Ltd
Finally, we asked Neville for his thoughts on key points to succeed when auditing internationally.
‘There’s no doubt for me that, with 30 years of international assignments behind me, in well over 100 countries in diverse businesses and sectors around the world, internal audit has provided noteworthy variety, significant challenge, and the need for vigilance, flexibility and pragmatism. The challenges have been diverse, both positive and negative, with most relating to how to avoid misunderstandings caused by a lack of knowledge of local language and etiquette.
Amongst many factors, the following always require good planning and preparation before the internal audit visit takes place:
- pace of change
- how you’re treated and how people in different cultures expect to be treated.
There are two areas I’d like to expand upon:
It has always been useful, and in some cases has proven to be essential, to be able to call on specialist support for practical guidance for international work, and in particular on how to avoid the misunderstandings that can arise because of a lack of knowledge of local language, etiquette, perceptions of right and wrong, local negotiating styles, and body language. So I consider the following:
- having a strategy and budget for cross-cultural training and support
- undertaking basic language training
- employing destination-specific briefing
- establishing early contact between internal audit and the host office
- ensuring the provision of in-country support
- researching basic information about the host country's social, business, political, religious, and cultural environment
- having written information, including addresses, about useful amenities and services in the host environment
- having host office specific intelligence, including, for example, how staff communicate with seniors, subordinates, suppliers, contractors, and customers
- understanding standard operating procedures
- accessing business information.
In the past, where I’ve been on longer assignments, and if the organisation lacks expertise in this area, then external consultants have been employed. This has been helpful for understanding etiquette systems for everyday situations, such as greeting people, meetings, and dining socially.
But even here things are changing rapidly, especially as education, business and communications are global – so always try to ensure that the information is useful and current, as well as pertinent to the right demographic. For example, many younger people in business around the world have had Western educations and other exposure to Western customs and are a lot more tolerant of Western behaviour. However, all seem to appreciate the effort taken to understand, take an interest in, and respect local customs and practices, and to speak a little of the local language (even if just to say please, thank you, hello, good morning!).
The legal environment and culture
Having an understanding of the specific legal culture can help avoid adverse consequences. The United Nations Organisation consists of over 180 sovereign states, many with their own legal systems, and often with both religious and secular legal systems.
There are risks embedded and interconnected in the culture of a legal system, too. The way that the legal system operates may exhibit unreliability, partisan support, ponderous progress in cases, and present serious risks to international operations. The legal regime may impact on the audit (for example, contract law, property law, treatment of creditors, data protection, tax, Sharia law and loan interest).
The pace of change in these areas is a key risk, as maintaining knowledge and understanding of country laws and regulations, particularly from one audit assignment to the next, is a major challenge for internal audit.
The application of a risk-based approach, assessing international risks at the level of the audit universe and for in-country internal audit assignments, considering the possible impact of the legal environment and culture, can add useful focus. Planning for the co-sourcing of local expertise can be invaluable.
This all means that having local understanding and using some local language makes the assignment that much more effective and useful. The use of local language combined with cultural sensitivities and empathy, appreciating local ways of saying and conveying messages, appears to be a good formula for successful overseas assignments.’
Expand your horizons
If this has sparked an interest in working internationally then consider how you are going to achieve this. Does your current employer offer such opportunities? If you would need to move roles register with www.accacareers.com to find job opportunities. Also consider building your professional network and engaging with other ACCA members working in internal audit around the world via our Internal Audit LinkedIn group.