It started in 2005. I was the director of Sarbanes Oxley and Internal Controls Assurance for a financial institution. As a budding banking professional, I had climbed the ranks and could foresee a future in banking.
That is, until the recession. The financial institution was failing. Shortly before it collapsed, I found a job as Director of Internal Audit in higher education. And while I fully understood the job of an internal audit professional, I was unfamiliar with the higher education industry.
I began learning everything I could about my new industry. Asking questions, consuming content and experiencing our services regularly. I eventually became extremely knowledgeable and have frequently spoken at conferences on a variety of topics. But one early incident remains burned in my memory.
How Did it Start?
While familiarizing myself with my new industry, I came across something called the Confucius Institute. It piqued my interest and I decided to learn more about it.
It is a public educational organization run by the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China which aims to promote Chinese language and culture, to support local Chinese teaching internationally, and to facilitate cultural exchanges.
That doesn’t sound too bad. What country doesn’t want to spread their language and culture to others?
By 2019, there were over 500 Confucius institutes in dozens of countries on six continents.
You may be wondering how it worked.
The institute partnered with schools, established a local presence and provided financial support. Typically the institute leased space and provided staffing for courses on Chinese culture and language. Personnel were not US citizens and not employees of the school. Yet they had physical access to the campus the computer network.
Why Was I Concerned?
In most countries, higher education is the hub of innovation. Colleges and universities, often partner with government and private industry to perform critical research that forms the basis of new products, services, and medicines. Having access to information, any information, could be advantageous to a foreign nation.
But why would another country pay to lease space and send employees overseas to work at no cost to our organization? Nothing in life is free. What’s in it for them. This is a simple question I asked the management team back in 2009.
Before I go any further, let me just start this with the caveat. Quite frankly, this was one of the best management teams I’ve ever worked with. Therefore, I don’t say this to be disparaging. This is more of a reflection on me as a trusted adviser.
But when I talked to the management team about it, I was met with a lukewarm response. It wasn’t viewed as a significant risk.
I was new to industry and the organization. They did not know me. And initially, they did not trust me. Trust has to be earned.
Fast forward to 2020. Almost 15 years after I first raised concerns about the institute, the Epoch Times reported that bipartisan groups across America have joined forces with nonprofits and human rights organizations calling for the closing of Confucius institutes on college campuses across America.
I left this employer in 2016. I decided to see what happened with the Institute. Turns out, they decided to end the partnership in 2018.
I don’t bring this up to brag about my foresight or insight, but rather to highlight the failure to truly be a trusted adviser.
What happened? Why was I unable to communicate my concern effectively?
WHAT IS A TRUSTED ADVISOR
It means that you have the experience, training, and knowledge to advise your clients and they trust you to do so. While it is something we all strive to be, there are some things we must realize about becoming a trusted advisor.
TWO TRUSTED ADVISOR FALLACIES
First, you will not gain the trust of everyone in your organization.
Live with that. There will most likely be certain pockets of people who, for whatever reason, don’t trust you. The goal is not perfection, but consistency. Act trustworthy consistently. Most will come around.
Second, your position as an audit professional does not automatically infer that you are an advisor.
True advisors have some sort of much needed knowledge or wisdom that can be used constructively. Your position does not mean you have adequate advice to give. You must obtain necessary knowledge.
THREE TRUTHS ABOUT TRUSTED ADVISORS
First, trust is tricky.
Just because someone disagrees with you, doesn’t mean that they do not trust you. The fact that they gave you a listening ear indicates some level of trust in what you have to say. Also, just because someone listens to you, it does not mean they will act upon the advice you give. Trust is truly a tricky creature.
Second, you must keep current in your industry
In order to advise someone, you have to have some knowledge about your industry. This means you need to consistently read and watch/listen to others. Not just other audit professionals, but others in your industry who have their finger on the pulse.
Third, don’t be afraid to speak the truth
My grandfather would say, “Tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.” Sometimes you have to ask the hard questions. Other times you must tell the difficult truths.
In conclusion, you can’t force trust. But you can seek knowledge and be ready to provide advice when the trust is there.
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