It is hard to appreciate the treasure trove of lessons that travelling for audit work can bring to you when you’re a starving vegetarian walking for miles in the bitter cold of a Korean winter; but a global pandemic certainly helps to put things into perspective. As I reflect on my journey as an internal auditor I realise that somewhere between my dwindling ‘thepla’ supply (a Gujarati vegetarian snack/lifeline) and increasing ‘to-do’ list, I picked up lessons no text book on audit could have taught me. I also gained an appreciation for the subtle nuances of culture and how those can also have a significant impact on your success as an auditor. From successfully avoiding being the junior auditor sent to photocopy pages and pages of meeting materials by highlighting how we Asians prefer to ‘go green’ to watching my colleagues meet up for a 7.30 am breakfast to start the audit after an 18 hour flight at 8 am sharp; I may have taught a few things, but have certainly learnt so many more from my colleagues around the world.
Here I present to you a short synopsis of my journey as an auditor and as a traveller, a few anecdotes that may not be entirely relevant to my story as an auditor but certainly helped shape my overall professional outlook.
Perks of being in Pondicherry- I begin this blog with full disclosure, my views and love for taking up assignments outside of my home city are entirely biased because of this single experience. You see, when I was an intern there was a story going around the office that anyone who went to this particular audit in Pondicherry would pass their CA exam that attempt. As luck would have it, I was asked if I would like to go, I accepted and… I passed. So, you can see how my views may be slightly coloured when it comes to stepping out for an ‘outstation’ audit.
As a young intern, the lessons I learnt on this Pondicherry audit formed the very foundation of my professional persona. It felt like a crash course on being a team player even as an auditor. From making it in time for all of us to take one rickshaw to the audit place to joining my colleagues for lunch at the ‘Mami Mess’ where this lady who was called ‘Mami’ would serve you the most delicious meal, but there was only one caveat – asking for a spoon was taboo. I would sheepishly avoid looking like the brat from Bombay and try to blend in with this new culture. I realised that if I didn’t join my colleagues and auditees at their side of the table, I would not be viewed as someone who understood their world and business. In all cultures, and specifically in our Indian culture, breaking bread together is an integral part of starting a healthy relationship, be it professional or personal – and I am a big proponent of the same.
After clearing my CA I moved on to roles in Internal audit that invariably involved opportunities to travel and I lapped those up.
Getting creative in China– One of my first international assignments and perhaps the single most humbling experience I have had as an auditor has been when I realised the phrase ‘let me look that up’ was no longer an option. No Google, no WhatsApp and zero Mandarin skills : I was terrified of how I would get by. Two weeks into the audit, I was surprised how effectively I could ‘Baidu’(the Chinese equivalent of Google) my way through regulations and how effectively I learnt to delve deeper into the areas where my questions were parried by my auditees rapidly communicating with each other in Mandarin before responding to me in English. I learnt to look for non-verbal communication cues to help guide me through audit process, as also to observe my surroundings more closely.
As I moved along from audit to audit, I also had the opportunity of working with audit leads who would visit from their home country to cover certain specific assignments. One such audit was that in Korea.
Kindness in Korea- One of the nicest lessons I have learnt from an ex-boss and a senior auditor was that on kindness. I think it’s easy to forget (especially if you’re a career auditor) how intimidating it is to have an auditor visit you, however, routine or ordinary the audit may be. I recall several instances of watching my ex-boss interview someone new in a country he has never been to before, by immediately putting them at ease. After introducing himself, he would also outline his goal from the meeting and often add that he wasn’t there to issue ‘parking tickets’. For detailed walkthroughs he would encourage me to email my questions in advance to give an opportunity to the auditee to prepare. With this one move, we gained the auditees trust, and more often a very fruitful discussion without the air of a policeman interrogating a suspect.
Besides the leadership lessons, I also picked up a few lessons that I find especially handy in the current work from home environment where it’s easier to replace turning on the video with a drab email exchange
Hiking in Hongkong– I say this tongue-in-cheek, although I did learn a few lessons while hiking up to the big Buddha tourist attraction (mostly on my lack of fitness levels). My key lesson by using the hiking analogy was on the importance of a walkthrough in audit. With the increased sophistication of data analytics, one may be tempted to trade off a walkthrough with running an extra query. However, my travelling experience has taught me that there really is no substitute to sitting down with the auditees and requesting them to walk you through their process. You never know how a simple remark on the auditees dexterity on MS-Excel could lead to a candid discussion on the lack of automation in the process and the need for better systems.
As I look at my experiences as an auditor there has been one lesson that really stands out – and it is that of embracing diversity. An auditors journey for the most part is a lonely one, however, it is made much less lonely when one accepts two seemingly contradictory yet distinct truths– first, It’s a humbling fact when you remind yourself that your auditees do their role on a daily basis, and, your view, while fresh and different, may still need to be guided by their voice which must be heard; second, You can’t audit your teacher so ensure that your saw is sharpened off your knowledge. While these statements may sound somewhat contradictory, here is some food for thought…I find that while it is empirically important to form your view backed by your information and knowledge , it is equally crucial to have a dialogue and an open mind to your auditees views. As a young auditor, I have often felt insulted and frustrated when my auditee would dismiss my arguments over the need for tighter controls with their wisdom and experience as trump cards. Having spent more time being an auditor I learnt that respect is a two-way street. Once I started to keep an open mind, I felt I could come up with stronger recommendations that were easier to implement as well.
As I conclude this blog, I would like to champion the cause of taking any chance you get to travel or ‘work from home’ on an assignment that introduces you to work with people outside of your comfort zone and into unfamiliar territories and cultures. You will be surprised at how much you grow as an auditor as you clock in those hours and in post-covid times hopefully some ‘miles’. Finally, I’d like to invite you all to share your biggest lessons learnt as an internal auditor from fellow colleagues from across the country / world and from those beloved ‘outstation’ audits in the comments section for all of us to learn.
The Blog solely reflects the personal views and opinions of the author(s).
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