How to build a winning audit team: Lessons from sports’ greatest coaches

By Mike Martin


Building a great audit team isn’t as simple as putting your most skilled auditors together to work on a project. You need to take chemistry into account.


“If your team’s skills aren’t complementary and they all have essentially the same strengths, that can lead to egos and issues,” said Lenny Block, an audit expert and former vice-president of internal audit at multinational financial services corporation Nasdaq. Good audit leaders are able to look at their personnel, assess their strengths and weaknesses and build teams that mesh different skill sets. 


Block was speaking during the recent Caseware webinar, “From the Playing Field to the Audit Field: Lessons from the Greatest Coaches.” Block, who has more than 40 years of experience in the audit world, believes the philosophies of some of sports’ greatest coaches and players can help audit leaders build and maintain winning audit teams. 


“At first glance you might think sports and audit have nothing in common,” he explained. “But they do have a lot in common. Building a championship sports team is really no different than building a championship audit team. Sports brings together people with different skills, different cultures and languages to make a winning team. And audit, believe it or not, is a team sport.”


Drawing on concepts from sports greats such as legendary coaches John Wooden, Herb Brooks and Phil Jackson, as well as famous players like Michael Jordan and Mark Messier, Block illustrated how audit leaders can construct better audit teams. Some of his top tips included:


Know your role: In sports, successful teams don’t just have a bunch of players who can score. They rely on role players who can pass and play defense. Similarly, audit leaders need to make sure they clearly explain the roles of everyone on their team. “It’s a team sport, but everyone needs to know their individual role,” Block said. “You can’t just assume they will. Sit down with your team and explain it carefully.” 


Leaders who take the time to clearly detail what every member is expected to do will get the most out of their audit teams.


Master the basic plays/tasks: The championship NFL Pittsburgh Steelers football teams of the 1970s succeeded because their coach, Chuck Noll, focused on doing ordinary things like blocking and tackling better than any other team, Block noted. 


“In audit, critical thinking, asking the right questions, peeling back the onion correctly to see what we should be doing, how to assess risk, follow-up questions, recommending smart controls – those are the audit basics,” he said. You need to spend time with your auditors teaching them the basics, especially junior staff, to ensure success.


Encourage teamwork: Legendary UCLA college basketball coach John Wooden stressed that no one on the team should worry about who gets the credit for success. You should apply the same philosophy to your audit team, Block said. 


“Egos are a big thing,” he explained. “At the end of an audit, if someone wants to thank the team for a great job, make sure you don’t leave anyone out or they’ll get offended.” 


And if your team has a bad audit, you need to make sure the blame is shared by all members. “We had an audit where we missed a couple of things that came back to bite us and a lot of finger-pointing went on in the department,” Block recalled. “It really hurt the team. There were a lot of hurt feelings and it took us awhile to get over it.”


Focus on the process, not the outcome: Seven-time NCAA college football championship-winning coach Nick Saban stresses the importance of following processes to his teams. Audit leaders should do the same. For example, Block said, sometimes you’ll go into an audit with biases or have to deal with a particular person you know expects a better opinion than you are likely to deliver. 


His advice: “Worry about the process, take your audit file and don’t worry what the opinion is going to be at the end.” If you keep your biases out of the audit, your controls and issues will speak for themselves.    


Find a common language through cultural barriers: In the National Hockey League, teams have players from different countries who all speak different languages, but what brings them all together is the game of hockey. In audit, data is the universal language that brings multinational teams together, Block said. 


While he was at Nasdaq, Block had a Swedish co-worker who was an expert at Clearinghouse and the Swedish environment, but didn’t have much experience on the analytics side. Block knew analytics well, but wasn’t as familiar with Clearinghouse or Swedish requirements. But, using analytics, they were able to combine their skills and achieve their audit objectives. 


The visualizations analytics enables are particularly effective at making people understand what you’re presenting, no matter what language they speak, Block explained. “When you’re using a data analytics tool, everyone is looking at the same piece of data,” he said. “It will work so much better than verbally trying to say things over the phone that people are going to have to translate into different languages.”  


Data analytics is changing the game for audit, accounting and finance professionals globally. Discover how Caseware IDEA audit software can help you expand your audit analytics landscape.


Mike Martin is a Content Marketing Writer at Caseware. He is a former IT magazine editor with extensive experience researching and writing about enterprise technologies. At Caseware, Mike reports on today’s top issues affecting auditors and accountants and how advanced technologies are helping them drive better results.