Secrets to Getting a Seat at the Table

March 16, 2022

Seat at the Table: Being included in the organization’s strategic conversations and knowing that your input carries weight.

As chief audit executives and auditors, we want to be considered valued members of our organizations. Having a “seat at the table” may be one of the strongest indicators that you have succeeded in becoming a trusted advisor within your organization. However, this status is difficult to achieve and easy to lose. Obtaining (and keeping) a seat at the table requires dedication to certain tenets, including:
  • Consistently demonstrating your value.
  • Focusing on quality audit work and results.
  • Providing insight outside of the audit process to widen your circle of influence 

Becoming a Valued Team Member

The first step towards getting a seat at the table is becoming a valued team member. As detailed below, there are a number of important ways you can demonstrate your value to the team:
  • Listen more than you talk. If you were ever scolded for not listening as a child, your mother might have reminded you that everyone has two ears and one mouth. As it turns out, this is good advice for auditors and children alike. In fact, the word “audit” is derived from the Latin word “audire,” which means “to hear.” Listening helps auditors compare and synthesize conflicting points of view in order to find nuanced solutions. It enables us to understand our organization’s culture and politics and bring sensitivity to our analysis of the facts.
  • Do not play politics. While it is important to be aware of the politics in an organization, auditors should never get involved in them.  
  • Be constant in your ethics. Auditors must never forget that they live in glass houses. If your integrity is ever compromised, all is lost.
  • Demonstrate good judgment. Senior leadership hired you for your unique skillset and your decision-making capabilities. Use critical thinking to provide sound, solid and objective assessments and advice.
  • Build relationships. It is important to build positive relationships with key stakeholders outside of audit engagements and before a crisis. Good relationships will make it easier to deliver difficult news to stakeholders and ensure that they are open to your suggestions. In addition, a solid network of connections demonstrates the value of internal audit in strengthening cross-functional communication. If building relationships is not one of your strengths, seek additional training in this area and be willing to step out of your comfort zone. 
  • Share information. In the course of your work, you may learn of initiatives and key information that should be shared with other stakeholders. Because auditors have a 360-degree view into the operations of the institution, we can help connect people, break down silos and promote collaboration across the organization. In addition, we often are able to connect the dots between different data points to uncover problems and solutions that others cannot see. Coupled with an objective mindset, the insights we develop can be invaluable to senior leadership, even outside of formal audit reports. While sharing knowledge is important and can help built trust, remember that some information may be shared with you in confidence. It is critical that auditors never disclose confidential information.

Focusing on the Audit Work and Results

One of the most important things you can do as an auditor is to inspire trust. Though it may seem obvious, trust starts with providing complete and insightful audit results. Ensure your reports are fair, balanced, accurate and helpful, as clients may question your professionalism when your work contains errors or uses inflammatory language.

In addition, auditors must focus on significant risks, consider the strategic direction of the institution and have a solid understanding of the organization and the broader higher education industry. Your audit plan should consider strategic goals, the institution-wide risk assessment and discussions with senior leaders and board members. Focusing on significant risks of strategic concern to university leadership demonstrates the value that you can bring to the institution. Senior leadership does not want to waste time reading a report focused on the small stuff, so avoid dwelling on minutia.

During audits, it is critical to examine things from multiple vantage points. Zoom out to consider big picture implications. Zoom in to see details that may not be immediately apparent and look for patterns, relationships and linkages. It is important to synthesize this information and provide valuable insights in client communications, including audit reports. In doing so, make sure you connect the dots between your individual audits and advisory projects to detect patterns, trends and hot spots.

Strong communication skills are required to effectively deliver the results of your work. In addition, auditors must be able to negotiate professionally to assist management in identifying and mitigating risk. While negotiation may at first seem like subordination of judgment, open conversation and consideration of all relevant facts can strengthen management’s commitment to resolve audit issues and implement suggested changes.

The entire audit team’s attitude is also critical to building trust. The team should be viewed as professional, approachable and helpful rather than “too nice,” lacking professional skepticism, out to find problems (“gotcha”) or trying to surprise management. Nothing will result in exclusion from the leadership table faster than the wrong attitude from the audit team.

Finally, your work must be high quality and consistent. The internal audit quality assurance and improvement program must be top notch to ensure your work meets professional standards. Of course, mistakes may happen, but if you make a mistake, own up to it and correct it.

Widening Your Circle of Influence

Assurance services: An objective examination of evidence for the purpose of providing independent assessments, the nature and scope of which are determined by the auditors. 

Consulting services: Advisory and related client service activities, the nature and scope of which are agreed upon with the client.
 (from The IIA’s International Professional Practices Framework Glossary)
To further your team’s impact, consider moving beyond traditional audit areas. Here are some ideas for getting out of your comfort zone:
  • Leverage new technologies such as automated processes, data analytics and continuous monitoring to reduce time spent on routine operational and financial risks. The time saved could be used on advisory and consulting work, which may provide more insight and value to leaders at your institution.
  • Evaluate the institution’s strategic plans and determine how internal audit can provide advice and insight.
  • Consider when a consulting engagement would add more value than an assurance engagement.
  • Increase audit focus on strategic risks. 
  • Collaborate with other assurance providers, including campus police, general counsel, and compliance and risk management functions.
  • Consider co-sourcing or outsourcing arrangements with external assurance providers, such as independent audit firms, information technology consultants, state auditors or others to supplement your office’s knowledge and capabilities.

Next Steps

If you are developing key stakeholder relationships or working to re-establish those relationships, completing a few, easy steps can go a long way. First, schedule periodic meetings with key stakeholders. For example, some chief audit executives and team members meet quarterly or monthly with the institution’s chief financial officer, provost, president or others. Agendas for these meetings should include time to share risk insights and trends based on current and upcoming audit work, the status of any outstanding items (because no one likes surprises), and an opportunity for stakeholders to discuss any key initiatives or concerns. This time can also be used to gain an understanding of risks that senior management feels may be on the horizon for the institution and allow for preemptive risk assessment activities.  

Auditors can also take advantage of seeing stakeholders outside of regular audit-related meetings. Campus celebrations such as retirement parties and welcome events provide great opportunities to get to know management on a more personal level. Make time to attend such events – and don’t be a wallflower!

When you are included in meetings or initiatives, make an effort to add value. While you do not want to dominate the conversation, remember you have been asked to participate in the meeting to provide insight and thought leadership, not to sit on the sidelines.

If you are not included in an initiative for which you can provide insight, senior leadership may not have thought to include you. Sometimes, politely asking if it is possible for internal audit to attend is all that is needed. However, asking for an invitation takes courage and may use some “personal capital,” so make sure it is an area where you have knowledge and insight rather than asking to be included in everything.

Finally, be open to new information and opportunities to add value. The more you work to understand the university’s risks and challenges, the more likely you are to reach valuable conclusions. If you never change your mind, you probably are not approaching the work the right way. Adding value is an iterative process – you will never be “finished.”

Getting a Seat is Worth It!

For many audit professionals, having a seat at the table can impact career achievement. Job satisfaction and long-term success are directly tied to your perception of your own ability to add value and make a difference at the organization. For auditors in higher education institutions, adding value is particularly rewarding because the mission of higher education aligns so well with our own: creating a better world through education, research and other outreach activities.

Most importantly, having a seat at the table will allow you to continue adding value in the future. The seat can be self-sustaining through continuous attention to positive professional relationships, commitment to a high-quality audit function and insightful dedication to the betterment of your organization.

About the Authors

Kimberly Turner

Kim Turner, CPA, is the Chief Audit Executive for the Texas Tech University System and a past President of the Association of College and University Auditors (ACUA).  Kim leads a staff of 17 auditors in three cities with responsibility for...
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Kimberly Turner

Kim Turner, CPA, is the Chief Audit Executive for the Texas Tech University System and a past President of the Association of College and University Auditors (ACUA).  Kim leads a staff of 17 auditors in three cities with responsibility for the audit activities of the System and its four component institutions. After completing Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in accounting, Kim began her career in Ernst & Young’s Dallas office. She has been an internal auditor since 1993, first with a regional restaurant chain, and then since 1997 at Texas Tech, where she became the Chief Audit Executive in 2004.

Kim has a long history of service in professional and philanthropic organizations and was the founding President of the High Plains Chapter of The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA). She has served many roles within ACUA and is a recipient of ACUA’s highest honors – the 2011 Excellence in Service Award for her work on ACUA’s Risk Dictionary and the 2014 Outstanding Professional Contributions Award.  Kim served as a Board Member-at-Large on the state board of the Texas Society of CPAs (TXCPA) and was one of only 38 Texas CPAs to be named a CPA Ambassador in a program jointly sponsored by TXCPA and the American Institute of CPAs. She has served as president or chair of numerous organizations including South Plains Chapter of TXCPA, City of Lubbock Audit and Investment Committee, Lubbock Meals on Wheels, Texas Tech Credit Union Supervisory Committee, and Lubbock Alumnae Chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta.

Kim has served on a number of peer review teams to assess the performance of internal audit functions both inside and outside of higher education. She also serves as a frequent speaker at national and local conferences on topics including leadership, audit best practices, fraud, ethics, and quality assessment.

Ms. Turner’s areas of expertise:

  • Leadership
  • Best Practices in Internal Audit Management
  • Quality Assurance and Improvement in Internal Audit
  • Occupational Fraud
  • Internal Controls
  • Internal Auditing
  • ACUA Risk Dictionary
[email protected]

Secrets to Getting a Seat at the Table

Sandy Jansen

Sandy Jansen is the chief audit executive for The University of Texas at Austin. Prior to her current role, she served as the chief audit and compliance officer for the University of Tennessee System and as the assistant chief audit executive...
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Sandy Jansen

Sandy Jansen is the chief audit executive for The University of Texas at Austin. Prior to her current role, she served as the chief audit and compliance officer for the University of Tennessee System and as the assistant chief audit executive for Texas Tech University System. Sandy’s 25-year career in higher education auditing and compliance began at an academic medical center, and has included various audit and compliance responsibilities, including roles with NCAA and Title IX compliance.

Over the course of her career, Sandy has gained extensive experience allocating audit resources and implementing best practices to achieve results. She is a transformational leader working with her team to bring about positive change for the university, and she enjoys sharing with others in the industry.

Sandy currently serves as an IIA volunteer facilitator, ACUA faculty member, and chair of ACUA’s Partnership Committee. She previously served as ACUA’s President, PEC Chairperson, and Midyear Director, and has been a board member and volunteer for several other professional and community organizations. She is a frequent presenter at IIA and ACUA events.

Ms. Jansen’s areas of expertise:

  • Risk Assessment
  • Fraud Risk Assessment
  • Audit Planning 
  • Audit Management
  • Project Management
  • Auditor Competencies and Developing Auditors
  • Quality Assurance and Improvement Program
  • Team Building
[email protected]

Secrets to Getting a Seat at the Table