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Should I be an ISO Internal Auditor? Which soft skills matter?

auditing Jul 19, 2021

Based on client feedback and interest, this blog post has been enhanced and made into a stand-alone document with text, graphics, and the checklist. Use the guide “Should You Be an Internal Auditor?” to identify:

  • Persons suitable to train as management system auditors and
  • Soft skills to mentor or further develop with existing auditors to enhance their effectiveness.

The guide also helps internal auditors better understand expectations of their soft skills while auditing. With this awareness, they are able to better understand what triggers conflict or other upsets to the interview process.

We invite you to download the guide “Should You Be an Internal Auditor?” and include it as a resource in your audit program. It is the first of a series reviewing the soft skills, generic skills, and knowledge that auditors need to be effective.

๐Ÿ™Ÿ Are you an experienced internal auditor who longs to be more effective?
๐Ÿ™Ÿ Have you been asked recently to be an ISO internal auditor and are unsure whether you have what it takes?
๐Ÿ™Ÿ Were you “voluntold” that auditing is a new duty in your job description and are scrambling to understand what is involved?
๐Ÿ™Ÿ Are you thinking of volunteering for the role to contribute your talents?

Many complaints about auditors worldwide focus on personal characteristics, so let’s review the soft skills that auditors need to be effective.

This blog post focuses on the natural tendencies on the personal side of the auditor. We will tackle the generic skills and knowledge factors important to auditors in future blog posts.

The soft skills discussed below are universal. It does not matter which ISO standard or type of management system you are auditing. They all apply to quality, environmental, health and safety, Responsible Care®, laboratory, aerospace, automotive, medical device, information security, and many others.

Helpful baseline personal qualities

  1. Life-long learner. Do you enjoy learning new things? Are you willing to read and try to apply new information with an open mind? Would you learn the rules of chess or complain about the different ways the pieces move?

    Internal auditing will give you the opportunity to see parts of the organization and processes differently than you do when performing your normal duties. You will need to study and learn. Persons thirsty for information can thrive as internal auditors. They can gain strategic insights and strengthen their career.
  2. Puzzle solver. Do you like mysteries? Are you curious? Do puzzles intrigue you or drive you mad? Do you like open-ended puzzles or the kind where every piece can only fit one way? If you are uncomfortable with grey areas and prefer only right/wrong thinking, internal auditing may be frustrating for you. The ISO standards state WHAT is required, but they do not specify HOW to achieve the requirements. The application of the requirements to your organization and different processes can be a puzzle.
  3. Empathic listener. It is likely that you will see surprising things, both good and bad, during audits. The auditees are human beings with feelings. They take pride in their work, and often have conflicting priorities demanding their time. Being able to relieve tension, show empathy and perhaps a bit of appropriate humor, can diffuse conflict. This helps clarify the issues at hand and generate the mindset of continual improvement of the process. Otherwise, it can feel like a personal attack and derail the audit.

Successful internal auditors are willing to learn. They seek to understand and to apply concepts and requirements to the processes they are reviewing. In contrast, if you prefer “staying in your lane” or following a prescriptive checklist, you may be frustrated as an internal auditor. If you have the initial 3 helpful baseline personal qualities, let’s go deeper into more of the preferred behaviors of management system auditors.

Preferred Soft Skills of Management System Auditors

There is an international guidance document for auditing management systems, ISO 19011. Described below are the 13 desired personal behaviors from Section 7.2.2 of this standard, which we are calling soft skills. How many soft skills come naturally to you? How many would be challenging?

  1. Perceptive. Puzzle-solving is handy for this one. Be aware of the situation and understand that what you see may be different from what the auditee is saying.
  2. Observant. This is a good compliment to being perceptive. It asks you to use your eyes to really look around. Curiosity also helps here. You might think, “I wonder how that works. I wonder how that happened.”
  3. Open-minded. This builds on being observant and loving mysteries. Your way of doing things isn’t the only way to do the task. Listen and stay on course to evaluate whether their way is working or not.
  4. Diplomatic. This is where it’s necessary for empathy, humor, body language, and tone of voice to align and accompany the words that need to be said. If you cannot be diplomatic, your time will be sucked into a rabbit hole trying to resolve the conflict that is sure to erupt. Being diplomatic does not mean soft grading or being vague. Auditees want to understand the issues, so clarity helps. Just remember their natural tendency may be to take whatever you say personally and hold a grudge. Breathe and watch for clues. Being diplomatic goes together with being perceptive.
  5. Versatile. Forrest Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you are going to get.” That is true when auditing. You must be able to accommodate changes without losing your cool. The attitude of “how might we…” can help you figure out next steps when Murphy’s law strikes.
  6. Tenacious. There will be times when someone does not understand your question or is trying to avoid answering. You may need to restate. You may need to ask again. Take a breath and remain steady, so you can evaluate what is in the audit scope.
  7. Decisive. Inquiring minds want to know…is there conformity or nonconformity? Do not waffle on the issues. You will need to really understand the requirements of the audit criteria (the ISO standards and company procedures within the audit scope). You will also need to be able to apply the requirements to the process at hand. Be clear in your feedback to the auditee and take the time to answer questions to help them understand your decision(s).
  8. Self-reliant. No one can make auditing into a cookie-cutting process. No number of premade checklists will get an auditor out of thinking for themselves. You will need to determine whether you need more information and function independently while interacting effectively with others.
  9. Collaborative. Auditors are not islands. You cannot conduct an effective audit without the cooperation of the auditees. Other members of the audit team, the audit program manager, subject matter experts, and the leadership team all have roles to play and ideas to contribute. Teamwork and the contribution of different viewpoints reinforce the acceptance of the audit findings.
  10. Culturally sensitive. A very simple gesture, facial expression, phrase, wardrobe, time of day, respect or disrespect for holiday or holy day, and many other cultural factors have immense impact on how well the audit will proceed. The auditor may not become aware of the personal impact of their cultural insensitivities until long after the audit is completed. Take the time to learn about cultural differences and incorporate respectful practices in your internal auditor tool kit.
  11. Ability to act with fortitude. Auditing is not always comfortable. Audit findings may be unpopular, especially if the management system has been around for a while or if people prefer the “way we’ve always done it.”
  12. Open to improvement. This means that each auditor must personally be willing to seek and accept feedback about their auditing effectiveness. You should actively seek feedback from auditees, the audit program manager, fellow auditors, and even the leadership team. What can you do better to help ensure the internal audit program provides meaningful feedback to know what is working well versus what is not working?
  13. Ethical. This is a fundamental cornerstone of auditing. Without consistent ethical behavior by every auditor, the entire audit process becomes corrupted. How long does it take to rebuild trust? Some management experts and social scientists say once trust is broken, it takes incredible effort to rebuild. The slightest hint of slippage negates any trust that was rebuilt. Stay diligent and be willing to discuss perceptions in constructive ways.

You may have thought that having all these qualities and soft skills might require superhuman abilities to be an effective auditor. Not really. However, being aware of which personal behaviors matter can help you notice when audit interviews are going well or turning sour.

We invite you to do a self-evaluation to identify which of the soft skills are part of your nature and which may be challenging for you.

Download our guide and checklist and make some notes. This is the beginning of being open to feedback. Ask others for their perception of you. See if their feedback aligns with your self-assessment.

Use this baseline to leverage your strengths, seek mentoring or coaching to enhance your skills, or team up with auditors who have complimentary attributes. You CAN do it!

This blog post and downloadable guide are the first in a series reviewing the soft skills, generic skills, and knowledge that auditors need to be effective. Visit our website for more free resources.

ITCI offers personal mentoring as a service to help auditors enhance their skills. Feel free to book a complimentary call to discuss your baseline assessment and potential next steps. We are here for you!

Download our Self-Assessment

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