Sometimes being an internal auditor is much like being an air steward. Bear with me on this…

There are a number of similarities in the role. First stewards work across the entire flight, just as an auditor covers the whole organisation. Second stewards are in a formal authority role. The auditor represents the governing board of the organisation and bears the uniform of authority, certainly to operational management eyes. Third the steward role appears quite relaxing and easy at first glance, wondering around serving the odd drink. But watch a steward for a while and on a closer glance the role is actually hugely demanding. Similarly internal audit seems like wondering around the organisation producing reports on or about processes. It is however, hard work; intellectual; socially challenging; pushing against barriers; and practically demanding work. The audit role may appear to be free of the burden of executive responsibility but in fact auditing, in my view, can be extremely tough in terms of workload the and skills needed to deliver it.

The most important similar element is the unique, complex and multifaceted customer role that auditors play. Air stewards are in both a customer service role, but are ultimately there to protect their customers. As a friend of mine tells a story of a rather grumpy American flight attendant on a flight across the Atlantic, which I am sure must be apocryphal, the relationship is complex. The flight attendant was being pestered by a particularly demanding, rude and dismissive customer, and was eventually pushed to the edge stating ‘I’m here to save your ass, not kiss it!’

The customer relationship for audit is so complex because it is for many different categories and types of customers; for some things that are commodified and can be delivered in customer-focused manner yet others that are more akin to a professional advice relationship; and independence and objectivity requirements militate against the building of straight forward customer relationships.

How do you manage this complexity?