Guest blog: Carolyn Clarke FCA, CMIIA

Heads of internal audit: You are not alone!

The role of a head of internal audit can often be lonely. Most of us have experienced intimidating behaviours, designed to influence us to change our reports, delay messaging, or turn away from issues that we believe to be important. Of course, critical challenge and debate is both appropriate and desirable. The majority of executives understand the line that should exist between these positive interventions and intimidation. I have had fantastic colleagues, happy to simply have a coffee and reassure me that my experiences are shared. Similarly, we all have examples of incredibly strong, supportive senior executives, who actively promote our services and our valuable advice.

However, for many organisations the current crisis is challenging the business like never before. Leaders and managers are aware of the need to support their teams in adapting to these challenges. But, are leaders across the business showing equal consideration to internal audit? Or are we either being asked to simply stop working, even where there is a critical mandate, or being criticised for raising concerns that are simply a ‘distraction’, (even when those concerns are time critical and a response to the changing risk environment).

As a head of internal audit, I know that self-doubt creeps in easily. I invest hugely in understanding individual motivations and empathising with the challenges of my auditees at all levels of the organisation. I don’t relish in any way those situations where my team uncovers issues that I know will challenge the business or that have the potential to undermine individuals. However, I know that getting underneath the risks and giving genuine insights and pragmatic recommendations, openly and transparently, regardless of how difficult they are, is simply at the core of my role. Without this the system of risk management and internal control cannot be effective. When risks are heightened and rapidly evolving this becomes even more important.

So, how do we remain resilient through this crisis?

  1. Demonstrate that your goals mirror the wider leadership team. If your team can provide vital skills that clearly assist the business, this is the time to step up and do so. In doing so you will build the team’s credibility and the sense that we share the same objectives.
  2. Remain clear about your purpose and value. It is easy to overlook this in a crisis or be persuaded that other things are ‘more important’. Internal audit must adapt and be pragmatic, but it is more important than ever for the board to ensure that critical controls work properly given the level of change.
  3. Do seek support. As a Partner in a Big 4 firm I was surrounded by other partners. When things got tough, I had a dozen or more other people I could talk to experiencing similar challenges. If I needed advice there was a clearly articulated protocol that I could follow. There is only one head of internal audit in an organisation, so seeking support may mean looking outside. There are many of us happy to talk to you and the CIIA would be happy also to make introductions.
  4. Trust your instinct. There will always be individuals who do not understand the role of Internal Audit (in 2020 as opposed to perhaps a few years ago). If you are being asked to overlook something, or to change your views, and you do not believe this is the right thing to do, trust in your experience and speak up. Your audit committee chair should always be willing to listen.
  5. Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability. We are not expected to be super-human. A head of internal audit is unlikely to win a popularity contest, but we are allowed to express doubt and to speak up if we are feeling vulnerable or struggling. If we are not at our best the system of risk management and internal control will be less effective. Courage does not mean being without fear: it means moving forwards despite the fear.
Content reviewed: 8 April 2021