9 Critical Skills to Enhance Your Audit Career Path
What makes great audit professionals? What career goals for internal auditors align with ideal career paths?
Twenty years ago, answers to those questions were undoubtedly much different than they are today. Back then, a solid grasp of the ins and outs of internal audit could land you high on the auditor career ladder. In 2023, likely less so.
Here is the hard truth: today, auditing skills are table stakes. The stuff we learned in accounting school—planning and fieldwork and reporting—doesn't really distinguish us. It's more or less expected as part of the job.
When 49% of current work activities could be automated using technology, it is ultimately the softer audit skills that will distinguish audit professionals in a highly demanding and rapidly-changing landscape.
Want to improve the career path you are on as an auditor? Here are the top audit skills you should master today.
Help your audit career path grow by mastering these 9 skills
1. Healthy skepticism
Moving past a traditionally backward-focused approach in favor of a more proactive one requires that internal auditors handle their work with a healthy amount of skepticism.
“[Skepticism] is an attitude that includes a questioning mind and a critical assessment of the appropriateness and sufficiency of audit evidence,” writes Dr. Hernan Murdock, Vice President of the Audit Division for MIS Training Institute (MISTI). “It requires being alert to conditions that may indicate possible misstatement due to error, neglect, or fraud, and a critical assessment of audit evidence.”
The best internal auditors trust nothing when reviewing financial documents, and they conduct each review with a discerning eye and a high degree of vigilance—regardless of the specific circumstances. Professional skepticism means audit committees are actively assessing audit evidence and questioning any clue or warning sign that other internal auditors might miss.
2. Critical thinking
Critical thinking skills are important for an audit career path. This type of reasoning requires that audit professionals step outside of their own judgments and biases in order to consider all perspectives, question the validity of each, and reach a conclusion.
As the Global Internal Audit Common Body of Knowledge (CBOK) study notes, “Critical thinking is the most sought-after skill by internal audit hiring managers, but generally, it is learned on the job through dedicated feedback and coaching from internal audit leaders.”
Despite the increasing prevalence of technology, this level of complex thinking is one skill that AI and automation has yet to replace.
3. Business acumen
In the 2018 North American Pulse of the Internal Audit Profession survey conducted by the IIA’s Audit Executive Center, business acumen was ranked as one of the most desirable soft audit skills by CAEs.
Today’s audit practitioners need to know not only the numbers, they also need to know what role they play and why they matter to the business. Internal auditors do the legwork.
In short, audit professionals with the strongest career paths do not just do their jobs with excellence, but their audit plan also connects the dots to articulate the true business impact—which is the information that matters most to other stakeholders. CEO and founder of Leading Women, Susan Colantuono, does an excellent job of explaining this concept in her TED talk.
In any profession, employers want to know that their employees are eager to learn and develop. They value people who go above and beyond expectations to advance themselves and their knowledge.
For internal auditors, the willingness to take initiative and ownership over their own success is crucial for developing their audit skill set. Passionately pursuing professional designations, certifications, and Continuing Professional Education (CPE) proves that they are not content to rest on their laurels, but instead, are eager to expand their current audit skill set and evolve along with the internal auditor profession.
For those on the receiving end, audits can be nerve-wracking, and skilled internal auditors must know how to empathize with the emotions of their clients or stakeholders while still maintaining their composure and remaining prudent.
Not only does this competency set internal audit practitioners apart and allow them to deliver their findings in the most effective way, but it also leads to higher quality audits.
One study published by the International Journal of Auditing in March 2018 found that emotional intelligence, closely related to empathy, actually improves audit quality.
6. Communication skills
Communication skills are a highly valued—yet surprisingly rare—trait in today’s working world.
Case in point: in a 2016 survey conducted by Workforce Solutions Group, communication skills were the top demand of hiring companies, yet two out of three employers cited a lack of these interpersonal skills in their job applicants. This serves as proof that internal audit professionals who are strong communicators will set themselves apart from any job competition.
“Internal auditors need to possess excellent communication skills in order to succeed and advance in the changing, complex international global marketplace,” writes Dr. Gene Smith, an accounting professor at Eastern New Mexico University, in an article published in Managerial Auditing Journal. “Auditors utilize communication skills in almost every situation they encounter.”
And that's just verbal communication. The importance of nonverbal communication, teamwork improvement techniques, and presentation skills are vital for effective audit reporting to the board of directors or key stakeholders. In fact, one survey found a correlation between presentation skills and success at work.
7. Executive presence
More than just a buzzword, executive presence is important for internal auditors who want to foster a positive professional reputation. But what is it? Put simply, executive presence is a person’s ability to inspire confidence.
“Internal audit leaders must inform, educate, and influence stakeholders as well as earn their trust,” explains a release by a Big 4 firm.
According to a recent study from PwC, 9 out of 10 very effective internal audit leaders excel in demonstrating executive presence.
As mentioned previously, the most successful internal auditors are not fulfilled with the status quo—they have an eye for continuous process improvement and how they can advance the internal audit profession in a business that is changing at an accelerated rate. Internal auditors should seek to not only refine their own internal audit skills, but also to understand, adapt to, and leverage emerging technologies.
Even if an organization does not have a structured or formal learning program in place, internal auditing professionals should pursue workshops and courses to independently expand their own knowledge and internal audit competencies.
Curiosity also means that these internal audit practitioners ruthlessly dig into problems in pursuit of an answer and solution. Auditors are excited about a mystery, rather than being discouraged by it.
“We want people who have a passion for truly understanding the business and a knack for remaining inquisitive within environments that can change on a weekly or even daily basis,” explains Kelly Barrett, Vice President of Internal Audit and Compliance for Home Depot.
While some level of skepticism is encouraged, for a thriving audit career path, auditors must balance that with a certain amount of open-mindedness in order to make informed judgments and decisions while conducting their audit plan.
“An open-minded auditor is nonpartisan and able to see the good practices, as well as the improvement areas,” writes Amanda Bradley, GlaxoSmithKline’s Director of Risk and Strategy. “This supports the development of the internal control framework, and means that the auditor is able to challenge on the best corrective actions to put in place because they have seen what good looks like.”
9. Cross-functional training
Of course, internal audit professionals must comply with an abundance of auditing, accounting, and financial regulations. In order to do so, auditors must possess at least a basic level of legal and analytic knowledge.
As the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants states, auditors must “have an understanding of how laws and regulations affect an audit, not only in terms of the work the auditor is required to do, but also to appreciate the responsibilities of both management and the auditor where laws and regulations are concerned.”
Similarly, internal auditors work with a large amount of financial data, so they need to be equipped with the skills to analyze those numbers during the internal audit process. Being able to manage data is a surefire way to stand out in a competitive field and labor market, especially since LinkedIn reports that data science is one of the top 25 most in-demand skills of 2019.
Prepare today to become the auditor of tomorrow
Today, the internal auditing profession is about more than being an investigator—these roles add real value to the business. However, that is far easier to prove if you supplement your technical skills with these in-demand soft skills. Internal audit competencies such as these are key to standing out to leaders within the audit space.
Doing so makes you a more well-rounded internal auditing professional, and it also helps you realize that automation isn’t something to fear. In fact, by automating the manual tasks that take time away from more proactive, value-added, and fulfilling activities, you can become the strategic and insightful internal auditor that your organization needs and start focusing on developing the soft audit skills that matter.
Want to learn more about streamlining internal audits and creating more time for strategic work? The webinar How You Can Use Technology to Revamp the 5 Phases of Internal Audit will help you identify phases and audit processes that can be automated.