The below is my interview with Mary, 32, who is currently an Internal Auditor for a global airline company.
In the below, she talks about:
- what she did at university and how that influenced her audit career
- how she ended pursuing an internal audit career path
- pros and cons of working as an internal auditor
- reasons to choose a career in internal audit
- is internal audit a good career choice? i.e. the hours, fun, etc
- internal audit career vs external audit career
- what the internal audit career progression is like
- how to become an internal auditor
- her advice for a young person starting out today
It is taken from my book ‘1000 Years of Career Advice’ which interviews 100 graduates 10 years out of University about their career paths and their advice for a younger generation.
What was your degree in?
Bachelor of Commerce
Why did you do the degree you did?
I enjoyed studying business and accounting in secondary school. They were both subjects I did well in.
Studying commerce seemed like the natural progression to make. I wasn’t that interested in studying other courses.
Maybe I hadn’t carried out enough research in other areas at aged 16/17?
Did you have any idea about an internal audit career path coming out of university?
- I studied accountancy in 2nd and 3rd (final) year of my course. Progressing to studying for a professional qualification in accountancy seemed like the natural next step.
- I had gone through the “milk round” with the big 4 accountancy firms. PriceWaterhouseCoopers appealed to me more than any other of the big 4 due to the different presentations they hosted. They described the varied work that graduates would do. There was also opportunities for working abroad on secondments was a huge appeal factor for me.
- Beyond the graduate programme, I hadn’t fully figured out what steer my career would or could take. This even took a few years after I completed the big 4 graduate programme to figure out. It is something that constantly evolves.
When you came out of the big 4 did you seek advice from anyone on an internal audit career path?
- I spoke to some friends who had gone through the big 4 graduate programme route in different firms (both current employees those that had completed the programme and progressed).
- I spoke to two lecturers in my final year to discuss options and seek advice (Accountancy Lecturer and Corporate Strategy Lecturer).
- Joining one of the big 4 firms to pursue an accountancy graduate programme seemed like a good route to follow.
Looking back, did you know what the day to day of a career in internal audit entailed starting off or were you a bit blind?
Yes, I felt a little blind starting off on the graduate programme.
I wasn’t aware of what exemptions I had from exams (if any). In hindsight, I was a little vague on what the day to day would involve.
What % of what you learned in university have you used in your career as an internal auditor?
I’m not sure if anything I learned in university I use in current day to day roles.
The subjects I studied made me understand a certain “business” language; so the terms used didn’t seem unfamiliar to me.
Studying management and finance subjects were useful for preparing for accountancy exams so I wasn’t starting from scratch.
With the benefit of hindsight, if you were 18 again would you do anything differently degree-wise?
Yes, I would have done a language with my course.
Ideally would have spent a year abroad on Erasmus.
Never underestimate the benefits of studying a language brings, but also having the experience of living and studying abroad in college.
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Tell me about the jobs you’ve had since the big 4 up until your current role as an internal auditor?
Internal Audit Manager, Airline Company
Responsible for the internal audits of over 80 countries which my company operates in.
Picking samples of financial transactions and processes to ensure that they are being done in line with company policies.
Senior Internal Auditor, Financial Trading Company
Inspecting and testing the companies processes and controls to ensure there were no weaknesses before the external auditors conduct their audit.
Financial Analyst, Telecomms Company
Senior Manager, ‘the Big 4’ Auditing Firm
As below but with more responsibility for budgets and staffing.
Audit Senior, ‘the Big 4’ Auditing Firm
Performing external audits on various companies in the banking industry.
Inspecting and testing companies accounts and processes to ensure there were no weaknesses.
What are the responsibilities of an internal auditor:
- conduct a walk-through of the processes of the client you are auditing
- document the controls in place around these processes
- assess the controls in terms of risk to the company i.e. high risk the control will not operate as it should
- pick a sample size of transactions to test whether the control is operating effectively or not
- issue a recommendation/report based on your findings
- explain to senior management the consequence of their controls not complying to best practice
What are the things you’ve liked and not liked about your internal audit career path so far?
- The people I have worked with. Good people you meet along the way will always make your work day more enjoyable
- Travelling to interesting places for work, exciting projects.
- Going to talks/external presentations. Listening to inspiring professional speakers.
- Knowing you have challenging difficult meetings with executives ahead is never top of my favourites – although there is a lot to learn from them
- Working weekends 🙁
Why choose a career in internal audit?
- The salary of an internal auditor can be very good compared to other finance roles (especially coming out of the big 4)
- There is lots of travel all over the world (although this can be tiring!)
- It is an easy move from external audit as you are doing the same role but people are a lot more willing to help you as they are your colleagues now.
- An internal audit career path is an excellent way to get to know lots about the business (although you find out lots about the processes, and costs not so much about the strategy side of things).
- It can be a comparatively easy path to a very senior well-paid job if you make Head of Internal Audit.
Are there many reasons not to choose a career in internal audit?
- It can be quite easy to get pigeon-holed as an auditor. If you do three years of external audit and 2-3 years of internal audit that is a really long time without doing much else. It can become difficult to move out of it.
- There is a lot of travel! Internal Auditors of big companies will have to visit different offices/factories many weeks of the year. This can mean a lot of time away from home
- It can be very repetitive, boring work.
- Although your colleagues will be more co-operative than when facing the external auditors you are still adding to their workload and texting whether or not they are doing their job correctly. Following an internal audit career path is not always the nicest job.
Want to know how auditor salaries compare to 15 other popular professions? If so check out my free Salary Guide 2021
What is the difference between an internal audit vs external audit career?
External Audit Career:
- You usually work for an accounting/auditing firm and visit clients inspecting their financial statements to ensure they are not doing anything they shouldn’t be.
- Some clients you are auditing may not be that co-operative with you as they see you as a nuisance adding to their workload.
- You get a certain understanding of how the company operates
- You generally work in the same city or area visiting client sites in the locality
- External auditors concentrate on financial statements
Internal Audit Career:
- You work for the company themselves in their internal audit function
- The people you are auditing work for the same company so you will find they are a lot more willing to help you
- You get to understand how the company works a lot better than as an external auditor as you see more and people don’t try and hide things from you as much
- There is a lot more travel
- The internal audit will take place before the external auditors visit and conduct their audit. The aim is to ensure that the financial statements and processes are in order before they conduct their tests.
- Internal auditors focus more on processes and whether they are strong enough to prevent errors
Which would you prefer to work for? A small company or big company, and why?
I was glad to have worked for a big company and would recommend it if the opportunity arose to anyone.
- A lot of excellent professional training is provided (whether the value of it is appreciated at the time I’m not sure). Training on simple things such as email writing, client engagement, time management and softer skills development is often given. The benefits of which you can see when you move beyond practice. You notice others have not had the same level of training!
- When applying for certain roles, job descriptions would often describe seeking a candidate who trained with the big 4, which immediately puts you ahead of other candidates. The chances are future employers will have connections with a big 4 firm you trained in.
- Study leave is also very generous with big 4 firms. The smaller firms cannot afford to give more time off than the minimum standard. This is very helpful and allows for ample time to prepare for exams.
- I had the opportunity to work on a number of foreign secondments in great cities (San Fran, New York and L.A.). These opportunities would not have been possible if I was in a smaller practice.
- Above all, the greatest benefit for me was meeting lots of other graduates. Joining the programme felt like an extension of university starting with nearly 200 others around the same age. The social life was great. I got to know lots of people, many of which I am still great friends with today!
Looking back, I always felt there was a great benefit to working in a small company to really understand the theory of what was being studied.
We didn’t always put what we studied into practice in our day to day role in the big 4.
Is following an internal audit career path a good career choice; has it been long hours over the years?
Working as an external auditor:
- Yes. It was made clear to me on day one of joining the big 4 graduate programme that there would be a “busy season” and I would be expected to work overtime and long hours.
- This didn’t bother me too much as in my case it wasn’t always entirely excessive. Once I was prepared for it, it was manageable. Overtime hours had to be worked to earn study leave for exams which seemed fair. Anything in excess of “study leave requirements” could be used as annual leave. This was great as I could take extended time off.
- When I worked in the States on one particular secondment, I worked on average 80 hours a week for nearly 2.5 months straight. 1am, 2am, 3am finishing times and weekends were standard.
Working as an internal auditor:
Since leaving practice, I haven’t worked particularly long hours continuously. It was one of the first things I think you notice when you start working in industry.
People in general work “standard” hours.
When people come out of graduate programmes the first question they often ask each other is “what are the hours like?”.
It seems ingrained in people that hours are excessively long in all companies which is not the case.
Is following an internal audit career path a good career choice; has it been much fun?
I’ve enjoyed it!
That is largely down to the people I have been lucky to work with that have made the job “fun”.
I couldn’t necessarily say the job is always fun.
My jobs have certainly been interesting (and boring) over the years.
I think it depends on what you are working on, what industry you are in and what projects come up that would determine if something is fun/enjoyable and interesting.
Who are the prospective employers of an internal auditor?
Good Q! Not all companies will have an internal audit function.
It’s mainly the bigger multinationals with operations in several countries that have an internal audit team.
The are quite common in financial services companies who may have more regulations to comply with than their counterparts in a different industry.
What is the internal audit career progression like? Is it easy to change careers coming from internal audit career path?
- Coming out of the big 4 after doing three years of external auditor, it can be difficult to make a move into something else. Many move into companies and work as internal auditors as a way of getting a start outside of the big 4.
- You will then do anywhere from 2-5 years working as an internal auditor or senior internal auditor. Then you would either move into a finance or business role in the company or possibly become Head of Internal Audit.
- Once you are in charge of the Internal Audit function then again you can try and move into the business or become a Head of Internal Audit for a different company. Be warned that once you are senior enough to become a Head of Internal Audit it will be difficult to move into a business role as the competition for a senior role will be very tough!
If you could start over and you were 22, but you know all you know now, would you do anything differently career-wise?
I don’t think I would change anything. I was happy with the decisions I made.
The main advice I would give to someone as they progress through their career is to not be afraid to communicate to your manager/mentor what you are looking for in your career (roles you may be interested, promotions you want).
Don’t assume that employers will always know or notice that this is what you want. Without saying it explicitly – they may not know.
Don’t be afraid of self-promotion.
What tips would you give an 18-20 year old student now?
Enjoy every summer off that you have.
You are unlikely to get the time back again once you start working. So, if you can do it/afford it, go away every summer you can.
Live in a different city/country and enjoy it.
Depending on the role you may want to spend a summer working in a field you are interested in to get experience in it.
Although I think I would avoid that!
Do the fun jobs now, i.e. bar person, waiter etc., You will be working for long enough.
Get involved in extra-curricular activities in university. Join clubs. Even if you are joining them by yourself.
Get involved and meet as many people as you can.
Don’t think or worry that whatever decision you make out of university you are bound to that for the rest of your life.
It can seem daunting that you have to make a very definite decision on next steps out of university.
However, that does not mean that is it for the rest of your working years.
I have seen plenty of friends who have gone through graduate programmes for a few years, obtain professional qualifications and then change career completely after.
They say most people change their career at least 4-5 times in their working life.
What tips would you give an 18-20 year old who was interested in pursuing an internal audit career path?
What are the internal audit career prospects?
The internal audit career path is a very sociable role.
A lot of it involves sitting and meeting with people across an entire organisation right up to senior management and executives.
Being able to communicate with people without appearing a “nuisance” or completely disruptive to their day job is key.
This allows you to build good relationships across a business and be recognised for having a valuable input which is appreciated.
If you are unsure of what your next career step is (if you are coming out of a graduate programme), the internal audit career path is a great way to learn about all areas of an organisation.
You get to understand what is involved in different roles and it can be quite very varied.
It allows you to see if there are areas you want to work in further or may not be interested in.
You get an opportunity to talk to directors who are over those areas which gives you an added in if you want to pursue you career in a different direction.
Maybe internal audit isn’t quite right for you career-wise, but maybe you still want to explore a career in finance? If so check out my post on why a career in finance might be for you