When I ask people what made them choose a career in internal audit, I get similar replies – the variety, the breadth of the role, the ability to influence. But when I ask them how they discovered internal audit, I rarely find anyone who chose this career at school, or even at university. Many fell into it, as I did. I chose to move into internal audit so that I could see all the parts of the organisation and then select the one in which I wanted to work and get qualified – that was almost 13 years ago and I still love the profession.
Having worked my way up the career ladder and gained my first head of internal audit role in 2009, I then had to ask: where next? Many internal audit functions report day to day to the finance director, so progression into your boss’s role can be limited by your qualification and lack of finance experience. There is a trend for organisations to create a “director of governance” role and some internal audit functions report through this route, but the competition for this position is fierce, since obvious candidates include those from internal audit, finance, risk management and company secretary teams.
There is also the familiar problem of getting stuck in your sector. Some people still do not see that internal audit skills can be transferred across sectors and industries. We are risk and control experts – aren’t these processes that transcend sectors? Qualified accountants don’t tend to suffer from this problem as much.
So once you become head of internal audit in one sector, do you hit a glass ceiling if you wish to stay in the profession? I don’t believe this is the case.
Career internal auditors can help their cause by sitting on a board of an
organisation in any sector. Expectations of non-executive directors (Neds) have increased greatly, but internal auditors are well placed to transfer their skills and experience and fulfil all these demands.
Non-executive board members have two main purposes – to help determine the strategic direction of the organisation and to hold the executive to account for delivering it. Who better to analyse and innovate than internal auditors, who have been assessing risks to strategy and identifying ways to mitigate them every day – and who have been trained how to do it? When it comes to holding executives to account, what else is an internal auditor’s role than to ensure that the organisation’s objectives are being met? It is in our definition of what we do.
Taking on a Ned role could also help you to move out of a sector if you get “stuck”. Being on the board of a further education college while I worked in financial services helped me to break out of a sector I had been in for more than 20 years.
It has also helped me to move again. I used all the knowledge I gained while moving up the ladder and across sectors to secure a role as senior lecturer at Birmingham City University. I am teaching on postgraduate courses in internal audit and risk management and my practical experience comes from all sides of the governance divide, so I can pass this on to my students.
So rewrite your CV to focus on the skills you could bring to a Ned role and, when you want to step up from head of internal audit, you will be able to show that you understand governance in the wider context, you can formulate strategy and you are prepared to take ultimate responsibility as a board member. If you can show experience in another sector, that’s even better.
You may also want to give back to the industry your expertise and knowledge by becoming a guest speaker or a visiting professor at a higher education institution. Many universities are keen to foster links with industry practitioners. Becoming an external examiner for a college, or for other professional bodies, could also demonstrate the flexibility and diversity in your career that a job title can fail to convey.
All these options will make your CV more attractive for bigger internal audit roles, for opportunities in a different sector, or even for a sideways move into another area of governance. Don’t forget: it will also count towards an application to become a fellow of the IIA and other professional bodies.
Ann Brook CFIIA is senior lecturer in internal audit, risk and assurance at Birmingham City University.