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Want to Break Into the Financial Industry?

How CPAs can become stars and soar to the top. Twelve traits to look for.

May 1, 2008
by Sukanya Mitra

Are you looking for a job in finance? A not-so obvious choice may be to tiptoe into the realm of internal auditing. Thanks to Sarbanes-Oxley and the changes that it has brought, there are many more jobs in internal auditing than meets the eye.

"There is a continued appetite for leadership and most companies want their chief audit executive (CAE) to rotate to another position," said Chuck Eldridge, CPA, co-managing director of Korn/Ferry International's Financial Officers Practice, at a recent CFO.com Webcast presentation. Eldridge was joined by fellow Korn/Ferry colleague Paula Park, Senior Client Partner and practice leader, Internal Audit & Compliance. Eldridge noted that this rotation usually comes after three years into the job. Eldridge pointed out that four years ago his firm conducted only three or four searches for internal auditors. Since then, that number has risen to more than 200 searches, which shows how much the internal auditing industry is evolving.

What Makes a Good Internal Auditing Executive?

According to The Nascent Chief Audit Executive: Preparing for a Brave New World of Business, a white paper co-written by Eldridge and Park, there are 12 distinct traits that every chief audit executive must have. These are:

  1. Must be viewed by others in firm as a strategic business partner
  2. Must serve as an active contributor to thought leadership that drives the business
  3. Must originate ideas and empower others to do the same
  4. Must possess the business acumen to advise and recommend executable strategic moves
  5. Must be alert at all times to the best practices and trends and communicate that information to the business leadership
  6. Must counsel, advise and impart insights and opinions that others often overlook
  7. Must engage in artful communication that inspires others to listen, absorb knowledge and constructively spar
  8. Must provide powerful leadership qualities that others immediately recognize and act upon
  9. Must digest huge amounts of information into insights that lead to business improvement
  10. Must have an insatiable appetite for constant and continuous improvement
  11. Must possess unquestionable ethical values
  12. Must maintain a commitment to ongoing training and learning in order to stay abreast with current industry and regulatory trends

Leadership or Technical Skills?

And what do companies want from you? Not surprisingly more and more firms are looking for "extreme leadership skills over technical skills," said Eldridge. Companies also want you to be able to manage, mentor, develop and retain top talent. With the rise of outsourcing and with more firms, especially financial firms looking to cut costs by setting up shop in developing countries, companies are also looking for executives who have the experience of managing and operating in complex global environments and those who have work experience from varied industries. In sync with the whitepaper, companies are looking for individuals who succeed in overcoming difficult situations and challenges.

Korn/Ferry recently conducted an international survey of Fortune 1000 companies to find out how their internal auditing department was structured. Survey respondents were asked what their most senior audit position was. "It is interesting to note that after Sarbanes-Oxley, [how] the top position was either upgraded or elevated," pointed out Parks as she reviewed the survey results. While more than half (55%) said they had a VP or Director of Audit, pre-SOX, that number jumped to 68 percent post-SOX. On the lower-end of the totem pole, while only five percent of survey respondents said they had a chief auditor pre-SOX as the highest position in their firm, that number leapt to nearly one in four (23%) post-SOX.

What Is Your Most Senior Audit Position?
Position Pre-SOX Post-SOX
Chief Auditor
5% 23%
VP, Audit
23% 41%
Director, Audit
32% 27%
(Source: Korn/Ferry International)

Asked about their company’s internal audit career path, informal rotation seemed to be at par for both pre-SOX (42%) compared with post-SOX (51%). However, when survey respondents were asked about “structured rotations” (where a company will define the structure) that number jumped from seven percent (pre-SOX) to 22 percent (post-SOX). Park noted that with informal rotations, companies rotate individuals among various departments, but the time-frame is not set in stone.

Final Thoughts

Why move into auditing? "Audit is a great way to expose yourself to the Board that the Audit Committee has," said Parks, “and therefore from that aspect you learn quite a bit.” Parks reiterated that whether you are just joining the finance profession or have been a finance exec and are looking to move forward, there is a light at the end of the auditing tunnel. Besides the exposure, "you will be learning about a company fairly easily in auditing, as opposed to just being in one role," Eldridge quipped, "that exposure is a critical role especially post-Sarbanes-Oxley."

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Sukanya Mitra is Managing Editor of the Insider™ e-newsletter group.