Oh, that vaulted place we all want to be as an internal audit professional … not only trusted, but that the advice we want to provide is desired. Yes, to be a trusted advisor. There are countless reasons as to why many in the profession have yet to feel like they are at that level or status within their organization - but are many of those reasons just excuses? When looking for the root cause as to why we are not the trusted advisor we want to be, are we pointing the finger in the wrong direction?
What is a Trusted Advisor?
Many reading this piece will know what is meant when referring to trusted advisor status. Setting aside coming up with a definition, let’s describe it as a destination. It’s a place where we are, as internal audit professionals, sought out for the insight and wisdom we can impart, and that what we have to say is trusted not only for its value but, even more importantly, because there is no hidden agenda other than to improve things.
Being a trusted advisor has nothing to do with what we think about ourselves. It has everything to do with how others perceive us. Meaning, I can strut my stuff all I want and add “trusted advisor” to my business card (or maybe LinkedIn profile is more apropos these days), but if no one sees me that way then it is just a self-appointed label. While the “think therefore I am” adage has a strong basis in truth, if others don’t view you as a trusted advisor, then you are just living in a self-described fantasy world.
What’s the best litmus test for knowing you have arrived as a trusted advisor? When people you respect in the organization are seeking you out for your advice, your participation in key initiatives, your perspective on things … your phone (or e-mail, or Zoom queue, or Slack messages, or whatever) is chock full of “sorry to bother, but do you have a minute” stuff. Boom, there it is.
When did I have a feeling during my career where I said … wow, now that was cool. Maybe I am a “trusted advisor?” It was a day when, out of the blue, the CEO of the company where I led internal audit came to my office (yes, he came to my office), knocked on the door, and said “do you have a minute, I’d like to run sometime by you.” He came in, closed the door behind him, and sat down. After he collected his thoughts, he asked for my perspective on something he was wrestling with. Yeah. I told you … cool.
Now, being a trusted advisor doesn’t have to be as dramatic as that story. (It really happened.) But it is proof that what we think about ourselves is irrelevant. It is what others think of us, and whether they are seeking us, and our opinions, out.
The Blame Game
I have had numerous conversations with internal audit professionals, including many CAEs, over the years. And countless times the subject will come up when discussing how things are going with them that there are some frequent laments. Things like:
I just don’t have a “seat at the table” often enough…
I don’t feel like my department gets the respect we deserve…
I find out things too late to have done something about it…
And, when we look at what is going on, we are quick to assign responsibility to others …. Yes, the blame game. I did it, and still do it. But is it really them? Or is it something else?
Yes, of course, we have a job to do. And there are times when, in doing that job, we end up at odds with people because we see things differently: We see risk where they don’t, they aren’t being objective, and/or they are covering something up for fear of being “in trouble.” We also feel that to be as objective as we possibly can be, we must keep ourselves at arms-length, and distance ourselves from people who we know we will be auditing. Yet, when we are surprised by something we feel we should have known, we want to blame them for not keeping us in the loop. But is that realistic?
There will always be people who don’t trust you. There will always be people who don’t want your advice. But, quite frankly, this is rarer than you think.
More often, it is not their behaviors that keep us from being trusted advisors. As the Pogo comic strip has so often been quoted … “we have met the enemy, and it is us.”
What Increases The Odds of Being a Trusted Advisor?
The best resource on this is Richard Chambers’ book, aptly titled “Trusted Advisors: Key Attributes of Outstanding Internal Auditors” (2017). If you haven’t read that book, read it. If it’s been a while, read it again.
Richard covers 10 attributes in the book, 4 personal, 3 relational, and 3 professional ones. I won’t repeat that here. But just in that summary, you can see it is about who you are as a person, how you relate to others, and your professionalism. So, in the end, you must work on only one thing if you want to be a trusted advisor … you need to work on you. If you get yourself figured out, then, and only then, will you improve the chance of being viewed as a trusted advisor. (See, it’s not about them --- so stop blaming others. Blame yourself.)
So, What’s an Internal Auditor To Do? Some Ideas:
This is self-reflection time. Pull out that mirror and hold it up to yourself. Some things you may not be as good at as you need to be if trusted advisor status really is a goal of yours.
If someone you don’t know shows up at your house and wants to offer you services to, let’s say, repair your roof because they noticed when driving by that it needed some repair, would you trust them? Even if they had good referrals and talked about how they truly were there to help? Of course not. You don’t know them. So, even if they might be the best roof repair company to have ever existed, you won’t want them on your property because you don’t trust them. Now, flip that back to you. If your audit clients don’t know you, but you show up saying “we’re from audit, and we’re here to help,” no matter how sincere you are with those words and with your intention, if they don’t know you, and don’t trust you, then you are about as far away from being a trusted advisor as you can get. It’s been said many times, and in many ways, but invest in relationships early and often. Enough said.
You walk into a highly recommended chain location known for doing most run of the mill car repairs. You want a tune up, a tire rotation, and an oil change. But, also, while you are there you want them to investigate a noise the car is making. As you begin to explain what is going on with the noise and when it occurs, the intake mechanic cuts you off and starts to tell you what they think the problem might be. You tell them that you are no expert, but what they said just doesn’t sound right. So, you start to explain again, at the risk of repeating yourself. Again, you don’t get to finish before they go off with their diagnosis of your car’s problem. You conclude that not only do you not want them to do the routine maintenance, but you ask for your keys back and you’ll find another location for servicing. They might have done a great job with your vehicle, but they weren’t listening. And, as a result, you lose confidence in them. You didn’t trust them. So, when you ask your audit clients questions and engage with them are you really listening? Or, like most of us, are you just waiting for a moment to diagnose, interrupt, and talk? Actively listening, use non-verbal clues to show you are hearing them, parrot back or paraphrase, and listen some more. Trusted advisors are skilled at active listening. You send the signal that you are not only listening, but that you actually, truly care.
Walking in the other person’s shoes
I started running in my early 20s, mostly in response to a dare, but after my first 5k I was hooked. I absorbed the culture, and progressively increased my distance. Before the end of my second year, I ran my first marathon. I was quick to dispense my (self-concluded) “expert” advice as I was reasonably decent as a local competitive runner. Until such time as I was hobbled with a week of soreness, blisters, and black toenails (yeah, gross). I had no idea what it was like to complete a marathon until I did one myself, even though I had plenty of advice to share leading up to it. Painful lesson learned. If we can’t experience firsthand what someone is going through, we should be careful and not so quick to offer advice. There’s a mile of difference between sympathy and true empathy. If we don’t know what it is really like for them, don’t fake it. Just be understanding, listen, and offer advice from a place of caring, not necessarily from experience. Don’t jeopardize your trusted advisor status by winging it.
Really understanding the company’s strategy
We don’t get into a car as an adult and have no idea where we are going or where the person doing the driving is taking us (yes, maybe our parents did this to us). And, we usually have some idea what route we are going to take (or the driver is going to take) to get to the location. We’re, as they say, not just along for the ride. And, in the companies we work for, we’re not just along for the ride either (hopefully!). The entire context for the journey is knowing where the company is, where it is intending to go, and how it plans to get there. As a trusted advisor, we’d better understand the strategy, and the plans to get to the destination. No one wants disengaged passengers, and their advice on what route is best, right?
Really understanding key goals and objectives
You know what you are supposed to accomplish at work, know how your performance is going to be evaluated, and are keenly aware of how you can earn incentive compensation if that is available to you. And it would be really nice if you got help from others doing what you need to do to be successful, earn the highest increases, and get promoted (if that’s important to you). Well, guess what, your audit clients want the same thing. Are you a help or a hinderance in them achieving their goals and objectives, and do you demonstrate you understand what their goals, objectives, and obstacles are and that you care? I mean REALLY care? If you want people to trust you, and view you as an advisor to their success, you’d better.
Putting everyone else’s needs ahead of yours
Sometimes it feels like our goal as internal auditors is to complete the project on or ahead of time, issue the report timely (as timely as possible), follow-up on what we’ve reported, and move on to the next project. And, when things get in the way of staying on that wash, rinse, repeat cycle, we forget that we are not what the business is there to do. We are a bolt-on (an important bolt-on, but not core to what the business is all about). While we’ve got important things to do, what we must do is not as important as what our audit clients must get done. If not actually, at least in their minds. So, when we act like our stuff is more important than theirs, how forthcoming are they really going to be about what their needs and wants are and solicit our help with all that. Probably near zero. So, if you want to be a trusted advisor, you need to project the view and attitude that what they, your audit clients, have going on is more important than what you need to do. They might open up a bit if they truly believe you are on their side. Really.
Realizing that the last thing anyone wants is to be audited
While it is always possible that a tax audit of your personal income tax filing by the authorities might find that you filed correctly or, even better, that you are owed more money as a refund than you claimed, that STILL doesn’t make you look forward to one regardless. While different (not very different, really, though), your audit clients do not look forward to your audit, no matter how sincere you are about being there to help, either. You are an imposition on their time, on their people, and usually are doing your audit at the worst possible time from them (in their eyes). So, don’t put your head down and forge ahead because you have an audit to do, and the audit plan is your “master.” I’m not suggesting you reschedule the project or delay the start (although that’s always an option), but be sensitive to what they have going on, be flexible, be considerate, and be sympathetic. And do it with sincerity. If not, you have zero shot at being a trusted advisor. Believe me.
Taking steps every day to learn more about the business
When you are looking for co-sourcing support to help execute some important aspects of your audit plan, where do you look? What types of resources do you consider as competent and capable? Who will you trust? Ideally, you find a subject matter expert with direct experience in the topic at hand. And, even better, not only have they worked on similar projects in your company’s business sector, but you’ve worked with them before and trust them. You have no interest in taking chances with your time and money on someone who may or may not know what they are doing. It’s a confidence thing. So, turn the tables, if you can’t demonstrate to your audit clients that you understand the business and understand the challenges they are facing, and can add value to their particular situation, they don’t have time for your well-meaning contributions. Are you taking time to learn more about your industry and your company’s specific business model and activities every chance you get?
Sending non-verbal clues and signals that you really do care
We all know what I am going to say next, but in our day-to-day grind we also seem to forget it … our brains work faster than our ability to speak does. So, when someone else is talking, we are usually so busy thinking about what we want to say, that we tune them out to a degree. And, when our brains are engaged like that, we don’t send the non-verbal signals that we are actually hearing someone when they talk. If you go to the doctor, and you get that sense that they just aren’t listening but are calculating what to say (diagnose) while you are talking, you lose confidence in them … they aren’t listening, and they are sending all the signals that they are not listening. So, if you want to be a trusted advisor, try (as hard as it is) to shut that brain of yours off, and truly listen. Nod, demonstrate non-verbal signals that you are listening, use appropriate to the situation facial expressions, paraphrase back what they said, show sympathy (or empathy, if it applies). If you care, your body signals and your behavior need to demonstrate that. But don’t fake it. They can tell.
Keeping confidential things confidential
There’s an old adage that goes something like, “a secret is not a secret unless you tell somebody about it in confidence.” Well, that makes it fun, but that sure blows the ability to keep something confidential, when you tell someone (even if it is only one person because they tell someone else, who tells someone else, and so on and so on). Yes, we have an obligation to confidentiality as an internal auditor, we are privy to some information that is not for everyone to see or know. But, as much as we do our best to keep things confidential, that doesn’t get us to trusted advisor status. Why? Well, if the party you are dealing with doesn’t trust that you will keep confidences, then it really doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do, since you don’t have their trust. This one is as crucial as any of the things to work on and can be the hardest since it depends on what people think about you. Are people coming to you and sharing things in confidence? If so, congratulations. If not, or not as much as you would like, then you’ve got work to do on perceptions. There is no such thing as a trusted advisor that people believe can’t be trusted with things said in confidence.
If you want to be a trusted advisor, and don’t feel like you are there yet, one option is to blame others. But that won’t get you far. We cannot control others, but we can control ourselves.
So, turn the mirror on yourself (and your department) and see which of these ten items enumerated might need some effort and work on changing something. While reality might need to change, it is more than likely that the issue is about how you are perceived. And the only way to change perception is to change what you are doing, that is creating the false impression.
And a final word of caution. Auditors love to throw around the phrase “trust but verify.” Stop it. While you may need to do that from time-to-time, stop saying it … unless, of course, you don’t want to be a trusted advisor, that is. Trust is a mutual relationship and if you want people to trust you, you can’t tell them that you will trust them too (all while verifying everything they say and do). This is just disingenuous. Occasionally, you must “trust, but verify,” but that more often needs to be “trust until proven you cannot trust anymore.”
Best of luck on this never-ending journey to elevating our trusted advisor status.