Skills for internal auditors in a post-Covid world

It’s become a truism that the ‘new normal’ as the world emerges from Covid-19 lockdown will not, and cannot, be like the old normal. But what does this mean for internal auditors? What skills will be most in demand and what can you do about it if you do not feel that you have enough of these at the moment?

As in other areas of the wider economy, many of the skills that are going up in value and demand (and those that are going down) reflect longer term trends that have been exacerbated by the crisis. A strong suite of technical auditing skills now puts more emphasis on so-called ‘soft’ skills and less on some traditionally prized abilities to sift and process information, although independent judgment, logical reasoning and analysis will always be important.

IT auditing is becoming an increasingly specialist preserve that is beyond the scope of most internal auditors, however many employers now expect all internal auditors to have a strong grasp of the basics of data analytics and of what analytics programmes can do for audits and assurance. This IT-savvy must go hand in hand with a wide imagination about the potential uses of the technology and how it can be employed more effectively.

What is new, however, is that ‘soft’ skills and IT experience are no longer nice-to-haves. Whereas a few months ago, there was a shortage of internal auditors in many sectors, now employers are likely to be able to pick and choose. The post-Covid landscape is likely to be bleak for many sectors and internal auditors will not be immune. There will be redundancies and people will need to look more broadly at their CVs, personal skills development and, possibly, at the options available to them in a wider range of sectors.

Russell Bunker, director at Barclay Simpson, says that the highest demand is currently for “experienced internal auditors operating at the delivery level”. Fewer organisations are hiring senior audit managers or trainees, he says. However, he added that a number of fixed-term or interim job opportunities are emerging and there are new jobs appearing as a consequence of an increase in co-sourced internal audit work. Some of these trends may be short-lived, of course, and may reflect temporary bans on permanent hiring.

So, what are the key skills internal auditors will need to thrive in the short and longer term?

1. Communication is key

Emotional intelligence may not have always been top of the list for internal auditors, but it’s hardly a new requirement. Internal auditors have to be great communicators – if you cannot talk to people – and, just as importantly, listen to them – you can neither learn from them nor persuade and influence them.

As computers take on ever more of the analysis side of auditing, we need humans who understand how people operate in real life, what makes them tick? Internal auditors need to pick up the nuances to spot when things may be wrong behind the scenes. They need to use the right language to relate to the people they need to get on their side or to persuade people to change the way things are done and to understand the need to better governance. And they need to be able to convey important messages simply and effectively. This is not always about being ‘nice’ – it’s about being effective. Some of these messages may be tough and they need to be understood and acted on.

It’s also about being able to demonstrate the behaviour that you preach. Actions really can speak louder than words.


2. Business acumen

This has always been important, but is becoming ever more so. Internal auditors see the whole of the business from the inside, but they also need to be able to look beyond it, and beyond their sector and region, if they are to appreciate emerging risks and the bigger picture. They need to understand what keeps their CEO awake at night – and, even more importantly, what should be keeping him or her awake at night.

Increasingly, they are being expected to know a lot about the potential impacts of everything from macro economics to climate change and the complexities of supply chains. Sourcing and reviewing the most up to date and reliable information is vital, but you also need the acumen to know how this could affect your business and to spot the risks and opportunities. Those who do not display this knowledge will not gain the respect internal audit needs from senior management to be effective. 

3. Flexible and agile

Speed is of the essence. How can you offer assurance more effectively, more rapidly and more effectively? This is the holy grail of internal audit and will become even more so in the post-Covid landscape. Technology can help, but it takes people to think about how they can use it better. Those with the imagination and the drive to improve, adapt and change will be most valuable to, and valued by, management. 

4. Personal relationships and networking

Use your personal relationships and find out what peers, colleagues, friends and family are doing. Be curious and ask questions. This is partly about being well-informed and partly about good communications. There are loads of ways to keep in touch so use them – from social media to Facetime to old-fashioned phone calls. You never know what may come in useful in future but the broader the net, the more you are likely to benefit. 

5. Proactive – use your imagination

Imagination and curiosity are now so important that they deserve a mention on their own. Again, they are not new skills for internal auditors, but they have never been more important. You don’t need a formal mentor to tell you to think about where you want your career or your audit team to be in six months’ time. But it can help to take some time out of your normal routine to practise thinking more imaginatively. Many things in the near future will need to change and someone will need to identify potential changes and the ways to achieve them.

Equally, imagination is an important part of effective communication.  What are your auditees doing and why? What are they going through? What do you want them to be doing in future – and how can you help them to get there? 

6. Sell, sell, sell

It’s been said that everyone is selling something – and if they say they’re not, they’re lying. Selling has a bad reputation in the UK. It’s seen as duplicitous and bad-mannered. However, sales skills are just as vital for good ends as for bad. Internal auditors are going to have to compete for attention even harder and many will have difficult messages to convey in the near future. If you want management, auditees and colleagues to listen to you and respond to your messages, you will need adequate sales skills.

And, if you’re in a sector that has been badly affected by the pandemic, you may need to brush up your CV and prepare to sell your own skills more aggressively. If you have what it takes to help organisations weather this crisis, don’t sell yourself short.


For more on leadership skills see the September 2020  issue of Audit & Risk - https://www.iia.org.uk/audit-risk-magazine/

The Chartered IIA runs a wide range of virtual and online training courses that can help you to develop crucial skills for an uncertain future - https://www.iia.org.uk/training-and-events/