Empowerment in audit

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How many of you got into auditing because you love filling out forms? Consider for a moment: The staff who stay are the ones who acquiesce to filling out endless checklists, but those who want to broaden their perspective and depth of knowledge about the client and the industry leave. Scary, isn’t it?

We need to set up our firms to keep those who know what the bottom line was on their last audit, and especially those who know how their client makes money. We need to keep the people who will move us from audit and accounting to assurance and advisory.

We have so much untapped potential in our firms to move the audit into the future, but we can’t access that without a culture of empowerment. Empowerment is one of the five attributes of a framework for audit leadership we’ve observed in successful firms over the years. The other attributes are relevance, business-mindedness, quality, and innovation.

Empowerment means that teams feel like they have ownership over the outcome, outputs and the process of what they are doing. They need to feel it’s OK to try doing things differently and even to make a mistake — and learn from it. The quality of everyone’s work improves when they have the confidence to present new ideas, and to push back when they think there’s a better way to do something. And empowerment delivers results — especially when it is partnered with owned accountability.

Empowered teams are engaged

There’s an old story of an architect and two stone masons. The architect asked the first stone mason what he was doing. The mason said, “Every day is the same. I cut heavy blocks and put them in place to build a wall.” The architect saw another stone mason who was doing the same work as the first one, but this one was visibly more animated. The architect asked him the same question, and this one said, “I’m building a cathedral! Isn’t that wonderful?”

Our culture of filling out checklists means audit firms are filled with people building walls, not cathedrals, hardly an empowered group. But an empowered team is “all-in.” They’re engaged. They’re looking for ways to add value with each audit and believe it’s their right and responsibility to do so. They’re not afraid to innovate, and they’re actively thinking about ways to help the bottom line for their clients. They see and own the end game: protection of the public interest, successful clients and a healthy firm.

In the current COVID-19 environment, engagement might seem like a luxury, when some audit firms are needing to lay people off just to survive another day. But according to a recent meta-analysis of global business data performed by Gallup, engagement is even more important in times of crisis. According to Gallup’s analysis, which covered both the 2001 and the 2008 recessions, “Business units are at an increased advantage and more resilient than their peers if employee engagement is strong. And they are at an increased disadvantage and less resilient if employee engagement is weak during a recession.”

So what should leaders do to create that advantage? Here’s a hint — we don’t just point the team at piles of stone and walk away, assuming it will become the cathedral.

Four connections you need

Leaders and managers need to set the stage and be present and available along the way to enable empowered team members who are connected to their work in four distinct ways:

  • Connected with their job. The expectations, decision rights, and a personal connection to the overall firm direction and their position are clear. They’re equipped with the tools and information they need to succeed. Their job lets them use their particular talents.
  • Connected with their manager. Their manager cares about their mental and physical wellbeing. They get frequent recognition and regular feedback. They have intentional development conversations that turn into opportunities, coaching, and training that help them develop into a great auditor — or even a great something else, if that’s a better path for them.
  • Connected with their team. People would rather work on a great team at a mediocre firm than on a bad team at a great firm. The close friendships and support of team members make people want to stay. Committing to quality out loud to those team members makes each one more personally tied to that caliber of outputs. They feel encouraged to voice their opinions and know they’ll be heard.
  • Connected with possibilities. Empowered team members feel a connection to the greater mission and future of their organization. This isn’t just fluff — people prefer to work hard for something that matters. They are then invested in the organization’s progress toward that goal, and they see a great potential for themselves.

Without these four connections, you have a disconnected group of people who will be ready to join another firm for a higher paycheck. Why not, when most every firm has the same checklist mentality of building an endless wall? You can make your firm attractive to the great auditors when you’re building a cathedral.

A culture of empowerment

Building a culture of empowerment doesn’t require investment in expensive training. You can build it with small changes, but those small changes make a powerful impact:

  • Empower your team to talk to people in different areas at a client. You might need to encourage them and give them a nudge to do so. They can get powerful insights into how a company operates when they take the chance.
  • Listen to even one more of your people for just one minute more every day. Ask more questions than you answer. Respond to the ideas you hear by telling people, “That was a good idea.” Thank them for their feedback.
  • Be willing to admit you don’t have all the ideas. Ask for suggestions of ways to do things differently. Most important, act on those ideas, and give credit to the one who came up with it.
  • Gather intelligence on the good things your team members do for each other and for clients. Recognize that publicly and encourage peer recognition.
  • Have frequent and open discussions about relevance, business-mindedness, innovation, quality and empowerment. What do they mean and how can they help our clients and help us? Build these ideas into the fabric of your firm culture.

Leave audit in a better place

Audit is rapidly becoming a commodity, and there are rumors that blockchain will make audit obsolete. But we honestly believe it's not too late.

There is so much potential in the talents of our people at every level in the firm that the power of all of us working together can make a huge positive difference for the future of A&A. When we empower our people to play “all in” and we guide them to understand that audit is more than a forms-filling exercise, we can move the profession to a place where team members want to learn, grow, stay, help their clients be successful, and to eventually lead the firm.

To get there, right now we have to work to make audit relevant to our clients. An attitude of business-mindedness means we’re protecting the interests of our firm and looking for ways to help our clients be more successful. Striving for first time right means quality isn’t something measured by the number of checklists and isn’t something that we hope quality control will fix at the end. We need to embrace innovation as not just adding more technology, but looking for different ways to do things, and doing different things. And lastly, we need to empower our people to apply their curiosity and intellect to take A & A into the future.

If we do all of that, the future of audit will be better than the present.

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