Daniella Cohen : out of the comfort zone

It comes as a surprise to learn that Daniella Cohen used to be shy of new people and large social occasions. The winner of the 2018 Audit & Risk award for Best Newcomer has tackled big projects in her first couple of years in internal auditing, including coordinating a benchmarking review of 30 health service clients, assisting senior members of staff on European engagements and taking on responsibility for championing her organisation’s internal audit software system internally. She has worked with customers internationally and has garnered accolades from managers. Yet she found attending the awards ceremony daunting.

How then did she get into internal auditing – and acquire the confident communication skills and the mature, professional approach that have won her such praise? And why did she choose to enter a profession that requires constant interaction with people in sometimes challenging circumstances?

Growing up

“Growing up, I was always anxious about how I came across – particularly because I had a lisp. It made me uncomfortable talking to new people and I refrained from large social gatherings. Having a career that predominantly involves meeting clients and interacting with large groups of people helps me to push myself further and I see myself becoming more confident after each assignment,” she admits. “I know clients need to see that I am responsible and professional, and this makes me go in with confidence and a positive, enthusiastic attitude. They have to trust me to work with me. Learning this, along with the characteristics of a good auditor, has helped me personally as well.”

Cohen has come a long way from the “introverted, hard-working” university student who studied accountancy at Nottingham Trent University. There, she was so shy that she stopped attending lectures and seminars and studied from the library using online material provided by the lecturers. Her lucky break came in her third year, when part of her final grades depended on her taking part in a group presentation to an audience that included several large firms. She was anxious, but knew that she had to do it to get the degree she deserved.

She prepared her work thoroughly. Fortunately, she and another in the group also familiarised themselves with the overall project, since a change in events meant that they ended up covering areas not originally assigned to them. They got through the presentation and were rewarded when a manager from RSM approached them and asked them to apply for jobs. Within a month, both had got good degrees and jobs at RSM as internal auditors. They still work closely today, despite being in different offices.

“Each time you do something challenging like this you get more confidence, so it’s easier the next time,” Cohen says. “That night was a turning point for me. I like to be aware of future events and to plan ahead, so having to cover for other team members caught me off guard. Completing the presentation well and gaining graduate jobs from it was incredibly rewarding. I’m still afraid of public speaking, but RSM has given me lots of opportunities to add to my experiences gradually and to practise my communication skills.”

Although she was initially accepted as a trainee accountant at RSM, she then switched to the internal audit qualification and loved it. In her nomination for the Audit & Risk award, her managers praised her mature outlook and calm, logical thinking, as well as her ability to see the real issues clearly and to prioritise her workload. However, for her, the most important element has been her increasing confidence at communicating ideas and understanding the importance of working together with her clients to add value to their organisations. Clients often comment that she looks young for her 24 years and some have underestimated her abilities and authority. “Winning the award provided evidence that, while I am not yet qualified, I am well on track to becoming a member of the Chartered IIA.”

A self-confessed perfectionist, Cohen says that internal audit has taught her valuable lessons about working productively with other people and accepting different approaches. “I now know that you can never be an expert in all areas, and you can only add real value if your client believes in you and trusts you. To gain that trust you have to demonstrate that you are professional and that you can be trusted and you have to ask them for their help and input. It’s a two-way process. The more they trust you, the more help they will give you and the more you can help them.”

She has also found that people like to be asked to contribute. Asking for more input from clients not only gets them involved and gives her vital information, but also encourages them to see themselves as part of the process, not just as subjects of, or receivers of, reports. Last, but not least, she says she has found that it is better to tell someone that something will be a day later than expected, or that she doesn’t know the answer, but will find out, than to rush into a response that is incomplete or inaccurate.

Champion performer

Cohen has also become a champion for RSM’s internal audit software, promoting it to reluctant users and to new recruits. This was another giant step out of her comfort zone, since she herself had avoided using it wherever possible. However, when the colleague who understood it best left, the manager asked Cohen to take over.

“I actually said no at first, which was something I never thought I would say to a manager,” she admits. “But the manager was persistent, so I went home and read the manual cover to cover and since then I’ve used the system every day.” Not only that, she trains new recruits about how it works and why it is an essential tool and she collates improvement suggestions, adds some of her own, and communicates key findings about usage, feedback and any changes that are being made to it.

“I’ve realised that it’s important to use the system properly because it helps to generate our reports. If we don’t use it to its full potential this affects what we provide to our client and, in turn, how consistently we operate as a team,” she explains. “However, I understand why some people hesitate to use it because I shared their views.” The experience has also made her engage proactively with senior managers and develop her relationship with them, which has increased her confidence and given her exposure throughout the firm.

Health checks

Another important milestone for Cohen was when she was asked to get involved in a benchmarking project for 30 health service clients. “I was looking into insurance work for risk management and it was the first time we’d benchmarked this area, so I had nothing to base my work on,” she explains. “It was a sector that was fairly new to me and I had to draw on everything I’d done in the past in this area and pull together all the figures and data I could find on our system from other relevant clients. The main part of the project was data collection and analytics and I had to go on two training courses to learn how best to collect data and present it effectively in reports.

Fortunately, she had a week to prepare before she embarked on the project, so she talked to her manager about what he wanted her to include, undertook some CPE hours and put in a lot of background reading. “I went into the project with a clear list of the data headings I wanted to include, which helped me to focus on the target areas. Concentrating on what you want to gain from the work is essential, as it is easy to go off on a tangent; there’s so much to explore, especially in large activities like this one.” she says. “I was allocated three weeks for the whole project, but this preparation meant that I completed it in just over two. Converting my findings into graphs and tables to present them effectively gave me a chance to put my training into practice. In addition, I sent my managers all my working notes, so they could see where information came from and how I’d reached my conclusion.”

Cohen colour-coded the key risks in her working notes and her methods, which meant that, when she was challenged about findings, she could trace back every piece of data, or comment, to its source, even though clients were anonymised in the published version. “We set ourselves a target of replying to all client queries about the report within two hours and this was appreciated,” she recalls. “The project taught me loads about advance planning and structuring and recording data so that it can be accessed quickly and accurately.”

In the end, nearly all the clients published Cohen’s report on their websites, which she believes shows that they felt it added real value. “This project was internal audit in a nutshell – it covered so many important elements of internal audit and used all my auditing skills,” she says. “I also learnt there’s no set way to do an assignment. Everyone has their own way of doing it.”

Right place, right time

Winning the Audit & Risk award not only recognised Cohen’s success, but also brought material rewards. She admits she just felt “stunned” when she found that she’d won and overwhelmed by all the people at the event. “The day after the winners were announced my LinkedIn notifications went mad – I had 250 contact requests and several job offers in my inbox,” she says. “While this was all flattering and slightly surreal, at the moment I think I’m in the best place for me and for my career. I want to finish my CIA exams and become a Chartered member of the institute and I’m getting so many opportunities here at RSM.”

She is also certain that internal audit is the right career for her. “It seems contradictory that I’m someone who likes to plan ahead and know what’s coming, and in internal audit you never know what’s coming next and you constantly have to create relationships with strangers and work on topics on which you are not an expert. However, knowing I am familiar with the foundation knowledge of the topic area and able to apply the principles of internal audit makes the job less daunting,” she says. “I’m so proud of how far I’ve come and internal audit has helped me grow a lot. I know I’m in the right job because when I get out of bed I look forward to seeing what each day has in store. Every day is very different from the one before.”

The manager’s view

Daniella’s positive and personable presence is felt every time I am in the office. She engages with everyone at all levels across the team, contributing to the team’s morale and effectiveness. At a team level she has taken on roles beyond her key responsibilities – being a local champion for our in-house internal audit methodology software, picking up the technicalities quickly and readily being able to help both peers and managers. Daniella has also been heavily involved in developing, promoting and delivering the local trainee induction programme, providing valuable feedback on how to improve on previous years, through consultation with her peers.

On a practical level I have been impressed by Daniella’s engagement with clients. Her telephone manner is professional, but friendly. Her line of, and approach to, questioning is sophisticated, and gets the needed information from her interviewee. Having overheard several of Daniella’s phone conversations it is apparent she is able to think on her feet and applies logic constantly – essential skills for an internal auditor. I’m so impressed, I am embarking on some reverse mentoring, so I can learn from her approach and apply her skills.

I’m sure if Daniella’s enthusiasm and positivity could be bottled, we would RSM brand it and share it among the entire firm. There’s certainly enough for everyone.

Anna Simmonds, RSM senior manager

This article was first published in November 2019.