What I Don't Need in a Good Internal Audit Candidate (Moneyball Part 2)

Two posts ago, I began what I thought would be a small little discussion on how we identify the people that help make successful internal audit departments. In what turned out to be a lengthy beginning rather than a single post, I started with the proposition that our first challenge is not about the people — it is about defining our success. Without an understanding of how we can succeed, there is no way we can determine how people will help us succeed. Then, before I could move forward with the discussion, I went down a sidetrack — an important sidetrack — on how getting the right people is more important than finding the right people for the job.  

Let’s see if we can make a little more headway today. 

I don’t know how your Human Resource group provides “support” in your never ending quest to find quality people in that virtual e-blizzard of resumes, but one of the more recent (10 years?) approaches I consistently see being applied is “behavior-based interviewing.” The theory is that you identify the four or five skills/traits/behaviors that you believe no auditor can exist without, then build your interview around them.

Well, one of the things this has led to is a collection of inane interview questions that all seem to begin with such things as “Tell me about a time when…” or “Give me an example of a time when…” or the much more creative “Describe a situation where…” leading to such clever questions as “Tell me about a time when you didn’t want to work hard but the company made you do it anyway” or “Give me an example of a time when you had to tell your boss that his breath was bad” or “Describe a situation where you were embarrassed to ask an interview question.”

(And now, a number of you are thinking, “Aha, that’s where those weird questions came from.”)

The only thing I feel I have ever gotten from the entire behavior based approach was to finally identify the only two things I want from any internal audit candidate. And it all started when I recognized that many of the things we have all interviewed/tested for are not at the core of success. Over time, I came to realize that, when identifying a candidate who might be a good auditor, I do not need someone who shows great aptitude in report writing, or interviewing, or communication, or accounting, or note taking, or meeting attendance, or time sheet completion, or workpaper cross-referencing, or keeping a clean desk, or any of the myriad other things we have identified as “must haves” for new internal audit candidates. I realized that, shy of a total incompetent in any of these areas, anyone can be taught to perform these skills at a decent level.

Let me clarify. I’m not saying you don’t pay attention to how they communicate, I’m not saying you don’t give them some kind of test to determine their writing skills, I’m not saying you don’t look for evidence of analytical ability, I’m not saying that you don’t keep your eyes, ears, and guts open to ensure they can function as a professional human being. What I am saying is that those abilities cannot be the end all and be all, the alpha and omega, the only thing you care about.

There are only two things I focus on when looking at a new candidate.

(Another quick — honest I’ll be quick this time — aside. For a while I listed three things I felt every auditor should exhibit — the third being the ability to synthesize information. This was a knee-jerk reaction after working with an auditor who had no concept what a high level overview meant. He came back from an interview one time and I asked him what he had learned. He began to read his notes, quoting word-for-word what the interviewee had said. I stopped him and said, “No, I need to know what was said in general.” He read the notes a second time. I repeated that I did not want the exact words; rather, his interpretation of what was said. He read the notes. We played this long lost Abbott and Costello routine a couple more times before, in exasperation, I let him read his notes hoping I could glean what had actually been said. After that, I added that third requirement. I have finally forgiven him, and I’m back to two things. And I’ve learned one of the better ways to get people to synthesize information is the following the phrase, “Tell me a story.” A subject for a post another day. I offer it now as lagniappe. 

There are only two things I look for in any internal audit candidate. The first, and most important, is evidence of creativity — the ability for the candidate to think on his or her feet, to see the world sideways, to be overjoyed by the surprises that are in store when something unexpected happens. The second (and a corollary to the first) is evidence of inquisitiveness — an unquenchable thirst to know more, to read more, to explore more, to see those surprises that come from creativity, to have an overwhelming desire to find out how they happened, and to exhibit an excitement about seeing how more surprises can be created. 

But the sun is setting in the west, Scheherazade has come to the break in her tale, the evening whistle has blown, and we must all be off. In the next post, we will consider what the heck is so danged important about creativity and inquisitiveness anyway. (And for the creative and inquisitive out there, prove it.)


Posted on Apr 2, 2012 by Mike Jacka

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  1.  Great article, I completely agree that the creativity and the inquisitiveness are among the most important traits a good candidate should posess. One might expand on feeding that creativity and inquisitiveness after the candidate is hired.

  1. Slobodan, you've hit on one of the other important ingredients to a successful audit shop. Yes, you need creative and inquisitive people.  But then those people need to be taken care of .  A creative environment has to be fostered, a creative environment has to be maintained, and a creative environment has to be (for lack of a better term) celebrated.  Without all this, either the creativity and inquisitiveness will die, or those people who were hired for those traits will slip silently into the night.

  1. I have been working on interviewing more effectively for about two years.  One of the more interesting techniques I found is to ask about the candidate's first ever job, and have them come forward through their experience (rather than backwards, as is typical on their cv).  This way, I have a better sense of their history and what ignites their passion, find out what sticks with them from job to job, and gain a sense as to whether his or her work philosophy gels with the department.  The technical aspects are still important, and I have other people ask about them.  Then we all meet to discuss the candidate.  This way, all of us participating in the interview process have an interactive discussion and take ownership for part of the hiring decision.

  1. Michael.  A great technique.  I have not seen that approach, but I think it is a great way to get to the points you bring up.  (And, it is an approach that, given the opportunity, I will steal.)

  1. Hi Mike

    Wow, if we have such traits of auditors, then employers would be very happy with their recruitment efforts. May I add persistency as another trait and when to abort or accept the limit of pursuing further an audit. A creative mindset always lead to something exciting, but needs to be controlled by finding the trigger as to when to stop or accept limitations.  An inquisitive mindset is also great and a basic trait that "all" auditor must have. 



  1. I am interested in seeing your post on "tell me a story' - I use that all the time and have had limited success with the results - but I'm sticking with it and am looking for some pointers from an expert -  

  1. Great thoughts, Mike.  I have had fun with interviewing auditors by forcing them out of their comfort zone.  Not to be mean, and I let them know what I'm doing -- that I want them to think out loud so I can assess how they analyze a new situation.  There are a number of examples of odd-ball interview questions (Google in particular is reknowned for it).  One I like is to tell the candidate she is in a boat on a small pond with a large rock in the boat.  When she drops the rock into the water, will the pond level go up, go down, or stay the same -- and to describe her assumtions and thought process as she determines her answer.  Based on the assumptions, the answer can be any of the options -- but it's not a question the typical candidate will have prepared for, and so I get to see into the creative mind.

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