Influential and upwardly mobile: step forward, internal auditors

The profession is shedding its grey image
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Becoming an internal auditor has not, until recently, been perceived as a career choice for the ambitious. Nor has it been seen as a role that would suit anyone without a background in accountancy. Today, however, internal auditing is one of the most influential and value-added services available to an organisation, with opportunities for promotion to board level. What's more, people from all backgrounds are sought after.

Becoming an internal auditor has not, until recently, been perceived as a career choice for the ambitious. Nor has it been seen as a role that would suit anyone without a background in accountancy. Today, however, internal auditing is one of the most influential and value-added services available to an organisation, with opportunities for promotion to board level. What's more, people from all backgrounds are sought after.

"Until recently, the role of internal auditing was largely restricted to financial control," explains Gerry Cox, president of the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) and Audit Manager at South Somerset District Council. "But within the last few years, it has started embracing the wider control and risk management spectrum and it is now acknowledged as a major contributor to effective corporate governance.

"It follows that internal auditing departments now demand a far broader range of skills - including specialist knowledge of the particular sector."

The reason for the transformation of internal auditing, according to the IIA, is that increased reliance on technology and an expanding global market have created more opportunities for businesses to grow. Faced with rising shareholder expectations, and greater demands from customers, board directors want to exploit as many of these opportunities as possible. Since this often involves taking greater commercial risks, there is a need for an effective risk management and control framework, together with independent assurance that this framework is adequate. A modern and effective internal audit function provides this assurance.

Another factor responsible for the changes in internal auditing is the 1998 Combined Code from the Committee on Corporate Governance. The Code demands that: "The Directors should, at least annually, conduct a review of the effectiveness of the group's system of internal controls and should report to shareholders that they have done so." It continues: "The review should cover all controls, including financial, operational and compliance controls and risk management."

"You're working with every level of the organisation, which provides you with a huge range of transferable skills and a breadth of knowledge that is second to none," says Karen Dignan, Head of Audit Strategy and Planning at Lloyds TSB. "One minute, I'm persuading board members about a particular business move, and the next, I'm interviewing members of a particular department."

Interaction is a fundamental part of the role, which is why Ms Dignan believes her degree in psychology and social science is "as useful as any accountancy background". She started her career in the civil service as a general line manager, but soon became bored. "Internal auditing struck me as a career that involves dealing more with people as well as making more of an effect on the bottom line," she explains.

Similarly, Anne Marie Jones, Head of Internal Audit at HM Treasury, entered her profession with no accountancy qualifications, after being transferred from another department.

"Like most internal audit departments, we aim to bring a wide range of skills and competencies to the organisation - in our case, areas like project management skills, IT skills, international skills and job evaluation skills," says Ms Jones. "We find our department is more innovative and pro-active than ever. Woe betide anyone who refers to us with the use of that archetypal and oversimplified term, 'inspection'.''

However, internal auditing is still not a dream career. "The UK has still not reached a point where young people tend to plan a career in internal auditing," admits Adrian Simpson, director of Barclay Simpson, specialists in internal auditing recruitment. "Rather, they fall into it as a result of being transferred from another department, or via the accountancy route."

Nevertheless, organisations - particularly within the public sector - are increasingly recruiting new graduates, points out the IIA's Mr Cox, who adds that as news gets around about the growing level of responsibility, internal auditing is bound to become something students discuss as a career option.

Whatever route you take, your employer is likely to fund one of the many external training courses. "Courses range from a few days full-time to distance learning over several years. The one you take will depend on what level you enter the field and how long you intend to stay in it," says Mr Cox.

Among the topics covered in the briefer courses - including National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) - are the philosophy and practice of auditing, and some of the main techniques used. Behavioural aspects, report writing, management expectations and reactions, and interviewing techniques also feature. Meanwhile, people with some work experience behind them will be more likely to opt for recognised qualifications, of which one of the most popular is the Institute of Internal Auditors' MIIA.

"The MIIA qualification offers you an opportunity to acquire the theoretical knowledge and skills necessary to monitor your organisation's activities in depth," explains Liz Sandwith, Director of Studies at the IIA and head of internal audit at Channel 5. Additional qualifications for those specialising in areas such as computerised systems or fraud are also available.

Comments