Outside the box: conversation pieces A&R magazine May Jun 22


Q: How can I develop and improve the conversations I have with key stakeholders?
A: The value of professional relationships and the ability of internal auditors to communicate effectively have never been more important. However, this is about more than issuing impactful reports that lead to real actions, important as this is. It’s also about the art of winning friends and influencing people so they not only do what they must do after an audit finding, but also come to internal audit with questions and concerns before things have a chance to go wrong.

These skills are not new to internal audit, but the pandemic and its consequences for face-to-face contact have changed the way we forge relationships and maintain them. Winning people’s trust and ensuring that you are the first person they turn to when they want answers to a tricky governance, risk management or internal control issue requires different skills when all your meetings are via a screen and must be pre-booked in the diary.

Things that might have been mentioned in passing, almost as a throw-away “one last question” moment, may be omitted if people are watching the clock before another appointment or working to a pre-scripted agenda. There will be no short walk to get a coffee or wander through the office to a meeting room and this cuts out the in-between time that can include the moments when you find out who someone really is and what they are interested in.

This may not be an issue with people who have been in post for many years and already know each other, although established habits can create their own barriers to improving relationships or initiating a different kind of conversation – trying to convince someone who thinks they already know you that you can do more, can be tough. But it is certainly an issue when you are meeting stakeholders for the first time and establishing a new relationship.

Internal auditors always tread a fine line between being a constructive friend and “selling” the full range of services that the function can provide, while offering necessary criticism and delivering unpalatable messages. They must also be honest about their limitations when they lack the skills or resources to take on additional or specialist work. It is during the difficult times that the relationships they have developed become essential.

So, while times are good, it’s worth reassessing the people skills across the internal audit team. Specific skills – such as communication and influencing techniques – can be learnt and developed, but there are many ways to achieve the same goal. What works for one person will feel forced and unnatural from someone else, and trust comes from the subliminal messages that convey confidence and integrity. If you don’t sound genuine, even for the best reasons, other people sense your unease and may doubt you.

Ask how junior members of the team are going to learn the skills that people generally gain from shadowing more experienced auditors – how to handle a meeting, how to read a room, how to reassure nervous interviewees and how to remain firm when under pressure to cut an important meeting short or defer to someone with a senior job title. Conversely, junior internal auditors may be more comfortable with online meetings than those with more experience in face-to-face work situations, so the learning may go both ways.

The nature and content of the conversations with stakeholders may also have changed over the past couple of years. Not only have new risks emerged or shifted up the agenda, but internal audit practices have also developed. What was unusual a few years ago may now be mainstream. Some stakeholders may not realise this and will need to be educated about alternative internal audit approaches or more effective ways to achieve value – from agile “scrums” to requiring more assurance from the second line – especially if this involves more input from them.

It’s easy to assume that vital relationships are fine when there are no obvious conflicts, but it’s too late to discover the cracks just as you put them to the test. Asking a few key questions about the team’s people skills and stakeholder relationships could save time and effort later. 

At the same time, ensuring that stakeholders have an accurate view of the developing governance landscape and the ways in which internal audit is evolving will help to build the trust internal audit teams need to take their work to the next level. Time spent on the right conversations now is a sound investment for the future. 

This article was first published in May 2022.