Return of the Jedi (auditor)

Sometimes, people make mistakes. Recognizing when it happens and moving decisively to fix the situation is an important life skill, I think.

Three years ago, I left a building materials company to start work for a Canadian retail company. At the time, I thought it was a good move for my career. The Canadian retailer was based in Toronto and I thought there would be opportunities to move up or laterally. I assumed that the culture, at least within the internal audit department, would be similar to the team I was leaving.

I was wrong. The culture of the department, and the company, was very different. I think it has something to do with the industry, and probably the centralized structure. But whatever it was and in what proportions, it wasn’t a place where I felt like I fit in.

This is why pencils have erasers, people. Back in August, I returned to the building materials company and the first internal audit team I ever knew. And so far, it’s been like I never left.

Let this be a lesson to never burn your bridges! I kept in touch with several colleagues via email and Facebook over the years, and when I finally decided to go for it, they were able to refer me to the relevant people who could get the ball rolling.

So, in conclusion, you can go home again. And I did.

12/19/13 Update: HBR says Never Say Goodbye to a Great Employee!

Dueling perspectives on internal audit

A guest post by an intern in Internal Audit was recently featured on another accountant’s blog, I Want To Be A CA, and I was first alerted to it by Krupo’s post title bait. The post is not complimentary about internal audit, but the support for its thesis is so flimsy and based on purely anecdotal evidence that it’s impossible to take it seriously. It begins:

I work in internal audit of a large corporation in the Southwestern United States. That’s all I will reveal of my identity for obvious reasons.

The “obvious reasons” are that he’s about to trash every element of this opportunity he’s been given to work at a large corporation in the Southwest US (during a massive recession when people much more experienced than him are losing their jobs, and in one of the hardest hit parts of the country to boot) despite having only two years of university level accounting studies to his credit.

I’m reminded of a recent column by Maureen Dowd on the use of anonymity online:

In this infinite realm of truth-telling, many want to hide. Who are these people prepared to tell you what they think, but not who they are? … Pseudonyms have a noble history… But on the Internet, it’s often less about being constructive and more about being cowardly.

One of the best uses for constructive anonymity is that of the whistleblower. Most companies have set up whistleblower channels by now which allow employees at all levels to safely make public or report to an independent body abuses they have observed at work. The post in question is not an example of constructive anonymity.

With that out of the way:

So you ask yourself, why go into internal audit? Well I’ve been asking myself the same question. I’ve been here almost three months and still have yet to see any meaningfulness in this work. … Granted, without this deterrent could be rampant fraud and waste, etc, but that’s beside the point.

I thought the point was that audit is meaningless. So, factors which make audit worthwhile are beside it? I guess if you ignore the potential for rampant fraud and waste, the job would be basically meaningless. I think it’s safe to assume he’s been so busy mindlessly ticking and tying his POs that he wouldn’t see an opportunity to address waste or fraud if it presented itself.

And with that, I’m reminded of a recent post by Penelope Trunk on creativity:

It’s as misguided to divide the world into creative and non-creative jobs as it is to divide the world into creative and non-creative people. All jobs have opportunities for creativity. Some have more and some have less, but you usually get more opportunities to be creative by demonstrating that you are a creative problem solver over and over again.

IA jobs can be rewarding and meaningful, but oftentimes only as much as you make them. The key point is that the onus is on you to push your job into creative territory. Not at the expense of your required duties, but going above and beyond what’s expected of you. You have to want to make the work meaningful and strive to do so. Especially in an entry-level internship, as this is a great opportunity to show your superiors that you’re a top performer. If you ruffle too many feathers (and the problem here may indeed be the work environment he’s found himself in), you’re back in school before you know it anyway for third year.

Continuing on:

The thing you have to keep in mind with internal audit is that you are working with the same documents, same departments, and same procedures year after year with the rare addition or removal of a department.

This really depends on the type of organization you’re working for. There are companies that own various subsidiaries in related industries that will provide variety. I know in my position I see many different types of businesses that fall under the broad building materials category, including heavy industry, manufacturing and pure distribution/wholesale. Newly acquired companies are a source of variety as well, and there is a smorgasbord of accounting systems in use providing challenge and an opportunity to learn and develop.

Oh, and the other thing about internal audit is you don’t get to travel nearly as much as external auditors, because everything you’re auditing is in the same building. The hours are also a lot more manageable. Nobody here goes over 40 hours a week.

Again, depends on the company. I left public accounting because my current position offered the chance to travel extensively. Since starting the job last May, I’ve worked in Switzerland, Ireland, the US, and Canada. The lion’s share of traveling for me is to the US. I just got back from Phoenix (third time this year), and before that spent three weeks in the Seattle-Tacoma area. (Gorgeous country!)

As far as the hours go, when I’m back in town (which I am for the next three weeks!) it’s pretty accurate to say we work a solid 40 hours only. On weeks where I’m on the road, the days are longer (10 hours usually) and Monday mornings are brutal. Think getting up at 3:30am EDT for a flight and working till 6pm Pacific! The bottom line is that the work that needs to get done, gets done on time no matter how long it takes, and this is generally true no matter where you work.

If you don’t have much of an imagination, enjoy working by yourself a lot, don’t mind monotonous work, have attention to detail, enjoys following instructions, don’t mind doing work that seems pointless (in your mind), and wants a steady paycheck, then I’d say auditing is for you.

Yeah this pretty much sums up the whole snarky episode. I see the proposition of IA a bit differently:

If you have a creative mind, enjoy working in small groups and meeting tons of new people every week, love challenging work, can both devise and follow instructions (and occasionally throw them out the window), don’t mind work that is critically important to the continued growth of your organization, and want a healthy and steady paycheck, good benefits and job security, then I’d say auditing is for you.

Auditing 101: Never extrapolate from a sample of one across a large, heterogeneous population.

The best place to launch a career

I’m knee-deep into my third year working as an auditor, and that means I’ve nearly met my experience requirements to call myself a CA. By my calculations I’ll qualify somewhere around January.

Over those 2+ years I’ve gained valuable experience working with clients in many different industries. The opportunity to learn is literally limitless, and it’s probably the best thing about the profession.

Each year BusinessWeek ranks the best companies for new college graduates, and this year the top three spots were occupied by three quarters of the Big Four. Deloitte is tops, followed by PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young. KPMG finished a surprising 11th. Grant Thornton also made the list (73rd).

They are among the first to rethink how to recruit college grads, keep them happy on the job, or just keep them at all. Ernst & Young uses Facebook to let prospective employees talk freely with real ones. Deloitte will show a rap video about office life—made by interns—to give students a realistic view of the company. And PwC requires some bosses to get a second opinion on their evaluations of new hires to make sure the feedback is clear enough, the goals ambitious enough for kids who are uncomfortable with ambiguity.

Using Facebook to recruit better doesn’t necessarily make a place a solid career launch pad, nor would a rap video. (I think Facebook works a bit better. The video will probably alienate more people than it attracts.) Clear feedback and ambitious goals will make PwC a great place to launch a career because it will help new graduates get used to the work environment compared to university.

But it is the experience of working with a wide range of clients that is most valuable in terms of launching a career.

Work-life balance: Laptops on holiday

Work-life balance is a topic that comes up frequently in the accounting profession. Robert Half, a recruiting company, surveys accountants occasionally.

38% of accountants take the office with them on holiday in the form of either a laptop or handheld computer. The research also found that 34% of accountants globally admit to working in the evenings, while 37% respond to e-mails and take phone calls in the evening when they have pressing deadlines.

  • I left everything when I went on vacation last month. No laptops, and the phone was off the entire time!
  • Working in the evenings is a given during busy season and sometimes necessary at other times.
  • I respond to emails if I happen to check my work address, but that doesn’t happen regularly at this time of year (see above).

I may have left the computers at home because I was worried about potential surges and didn’t want to buy a protector. But I definitely cut the cord to the office. Generally you aren’t taking vacation if it is a busy time, though.

I was reading and responding to email earlier this afternoon (Sunday!) because I happened to check. It didn’t really feel like work, and certainly not burdensome. It all depends on the current workload. If I was writing this post in March, it might sound different!

Annual review a chance to look forward and back

I had my annual performance review Friday afternoon. I knew what to expect, because it’s basically the aggregation of each job review we get throughout the year. Job reviews are a solid lead indicator for the annual appraisal. Reviewer comments are cited and my performance is compared to expectations.

It also afforded me the opportunity to share my thoughts on the past year with a manager and a partner, my goals for the future and anything else that was on my mind related to my career trajectory with the firm.

I’m feeling very comfortable running audits as the senior in charge, I noted. For me, being in a position with greater responsibility provides the motivation to do great work. In the coming year I will find myself more frequently in this role.

I also noted that I want to work on larger audits, including public companies. The closest I have come to a public company is a co-operative, which is widely held and therefore the risk level would be similar to public companies. I’ve also done a couple inventory counts for a public company. Slim experience in what I see as an important step in my development.

In summary, I’m looking forward to increased responsibility, hopefully on new, exciting and bigger clients with more complex accounting. I need to keep challenging myself.