A new survey finds communication and critical thinking skills in demand among auditors

A new survey is out about the skills that audit leaders are looking to add to their departments and you may be surprised at what tops the list. Cybersecurity chops? Nope, that ranked twelfth. Financial acumen? Tenth.

The top skills that chief audit executives say they are looking for are critical thinking and communications. Those are the only skills that more than half of respondents cited in the top five traits they are seeking. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the CAE's polled ranked analytical and critical thinking skills among the top five things they look for when recruiting new internal auditors, while just over half (51 percent) said they want candidates with communication skills.

The survey, which is part of the Common Body of Knowledge (CBOK) series conducted by the Institute of Institutional Auditors Research Foundation, includes responses from 3,304 audit leaders from around the globe. The results highlight a trend that has been underway for years: the modern audit function is becoming more focused on advisory and consultancy work that relies on these personal skills to be successful. "As the profession moves toward an increasingly higher proportion of risked-based auditing and more advisory or consultative work geared toward being a trusted adviser to management, CAEs will need practitioners with greater critical thinking and communication skills," writes James Rose, a former internal audit executive and author of the report.

While it would be hard to dispute the importance of communication and critical thinking to the internal audit role, it may seem surprising that CAEs find them more valuable than technical skills like data analytics and risk management assurance. One of the factors at work is that personal skills are far more difficult to learn. While you can learn the industry in time, it's much harder to turn someone into a strategic thinker or a people person. "Analytics and critical thinking are harder behavioral skills to learn," says Riadh Hajjej, CAE at Arab Tunisian Bank.

Digging for Data Mining Talents

The strong desire for personal and thinking skills in recruits doesn't mean audit leaders are ignoring IT and data analytics. Those have increased in importance, according to the report's author. "Skills to conduct data analytics, including the analysis of data integrity within big data infrastructures and the analytical analysis to answer complex data-driven questions, will continue to increase and drive larger proportions of internal audit plans," writes Rose. He finds that the more sophisticated and mature an audit shop is, the more these skills are in demand.

Audit departments are also trying to encourage the development of such skills among existing staff. That's especially important given how difficult it can be to recruit new auditors and how expensive it can be to lure them from other organizations. One of the ways audit departments are building technical skills is to use rotational programs to expose them to new areas. "While broader business acumen and technical skills are an obvious benefit, the required analysis and communication in the new role is just as essential and valuable," writes Rose.

For audit shops that are finding auditors with the needed skills hard to find, and don't have time to build them through such strategies as job rotation, another solution may prove a quick fix—outsourcing. "Outsourcing can be the best choice to fill short-term skill gaps or long-term, highly specialized limited-need skills," writes Rose. It's a strategy North American CAEs know well; 56 percent of respondents in the region say they use third parties for some of their audit activities.