Heather Acker of Baker Tilly on Amplifying Internal Audit Talent in a Changing World

Heather Acker of Baker Tilly on Amplifying Internal Audit Talent in a Changing World

Join Richard Chambers for a new episode of his Agents of Change video series, featuring conversations with internal audit leaders from some of the world’s most prominent organizations about innovation in the profession. 

In this episode, Richard sits down with Heather Acker, Managing Partner, Risk Advisory at Baker Tilly, to discuss internal audit’s critical role in today’s shifting risk environment and how to find auditors up for the task, including:

  • Maintaining a flexible mindset and enabling internal audit to adjust plans as necessary, including using outside knowledge to address risk. 
  • Looking to three non-traditional sources for internal audit talent.
  • ​​Implementing technology such as risk assessment tools, AI, RPA, and data analytics to save time and stay nimble.

Watch the full conversation, and read the can’t-miss highlights below. For more information Baker Tilly’s risk advisory capabilities, visit bakertilly.com/risk.

Heather Acker shares how Baker Tilly uncovers the next generation of internal audit talent.

How Internal Audit Is Well-Positioned to Provide Strategic Value in a Disruptive Environment

Richard Chambers: Heather, there’s so much we could talk about. The environment we’ve been operating in for the last two or three years has been truly remarkable, a little unsettling, but it is an era that’s ripe for change. How can agents of change in the internal audit profession thrive in this environment?

Heather Acker: We’ve been working in an environment with our clients where we’re thinking about enhancing and protecting value. How we both do many of the traditional internal audit functions, the things you might bucket in that “protect value” category, but also the enhanced value, the more strategic work that we’ve been doing.


Being relevant and sustainable for the future is another phrase we use often. How do we look ahead, think about the changes that are coming, and help to prepare for those? To me, internal audit sits in a very pivotal place, right in the middle of that, with the ability to know an organization, to have breadth of relationships, and provide strategic perspectives.

Richard Chambers: I think those are great points. In the book, we talk about how internal auditors have a unique opportunity to be change agents because they have all this great institutional knowledge that they built up over time, and they can be catalysts, taking that information and populating it throughout the organization. Do you see that as a role for internal audit?

Heather Acker: Yes, absolutely. We think of this through the lens of advisory auditing. We’re thinking about the strategic changes that are occurring and how to position an organization appropriately to deal with the risks that accompany those changes. We’re setting up controls and structure, so that we can avoid some of the compliance challenges or operational disruption that sometimes happens at a time of change. When I think about agents of change, I think about it through that advisory, value-enhancing lens with an eye towards the future.

Employing an Agile Mindset and Flexible Sourcing to Address Risk

Richard Chambers: I think that’s so true. I alluded to the disruptive nature of the era we’re living through, and these last two years have represented massive disruption. How can organizations ensure that their internal audit function is identifying, monitoring, and mitigating the risks that can swiftly damage an organization?

Heather Acker: You’ve used this phrase, how are we auditing at the speed of risk? I think it’s very fitting for this disruptive time that we’re in. I think a lot of it is mindset, regardless if one is applying agile methodologies, an agile mindset is important in our work. Being dynamic, being willing to pivot, is very important


Even pre-pandemic, I think sometimes we struggled to match risks with the appropriate dedication in our audit plans. Take the Pulse of Internal Audit surveys. For many years, they identified cybersecurity as a top risk, however, the priority it received in audit plans fell down quite a few notches. What organizations need to be thinking about is not only, how are we appropriately addressing those risks in a dynamic way, but also, how are we making sure that the internal audit function has the authority and ability to modify its plans to address those risks appropriately?


In this time of disruption, we saw a significant uptick in the phone-a-friend, the co-sourced internal audit services that providers like Baker Tilly offer, where we might have had specialized experts in certain areas, or a lot of the traditional internal audit staff were redeployed to other emerging risk priorities during the pandemic. We offered an alternative of some more expertise to come into organizations and help be nimble, addressing those risks as they were occurring.

Tapping Into Overlooked Markets for Talent and Testing New Work Models

Richard Chambers: Thanks. One of the top challenges that leaders are facing in 2022 is how to recruit and retain talent in the face of the great resignation. What strategies do you use in attracting new talent, and how would you advise chief audit executives?

Heather Acker: What a wonderful question. This talent situation is likely to continue for a number of years, so our need to think about creative, long-term solutions is extremely important. What we’ve done in our organization recently is we created a purpose statement, and that is to unleash and amplify talent. We’re doing that in a few different ways. We’re thinking about flexibility in a new way. We’re thinking about how to use technology differently, so that we can be using our talented team members’ time to really add value to organizations. We’re using new training methodologies and thinking about ways to deepen professional skill sets among our people. 


We’re also experimenting. We’re in the middle of piloting a four-day compressed work week, something that you read about being effective, and we’re studying the effectiveness in our work. It’s been fascinating to find how our effectiveness and team member satisfaction is increasing. We’re learning along the way, what does this mean for a potential model for the future?


Something that I think is going to be important, and that CAEs should be thinking about, is looking for talent in non-traditional places. Examples where we’ve found success include expanding the majors we’ve traditionally looked at, right out of university. That’s not that unique, but how else might we be finding talent in non-traditional ways? In our firm, we’ve found significant experience with military veterans, deploying all of those skills that they bring to the table and upskilling them on internal audit needs. We’re also working with an organization that employs people with neurodiversity. That’s an extremely untapped talent market that can provide a ton of value in the internal audit space. Challenging ourselves to look at non-traditional sources will help us uncover a lot of future internal audit professionals that we’re not thinking about today.

Using Technology and Data to Understand Risk and Inform Audit Plans

Richard Chambers: Great insights. One of the ways I’ve always advised internal audit departments to respond to constrained resources is to use capacity multipliers, and one of the most reliable is technology. What is Baker Tilly doing to leverage technology when it comes to helping clients be more efficient and effective?

Heather Acker: Fantastic question. Our profession has, at times, been slow to adopt some of the technologies that are available. Why not use them now, in this recessionary time, this disruptive time with talent? What a perfect opportunity to be thinking about upping the game on some of these techniques


One of the things we’re putting into use and further investing in at our organization are dynamic risk assessment tools. Again, how do we audit at the speed of risk, and do it with more sophisticated tools that don’t require us to run through a lengthy, time-consuming process every time, to be nimble? To use more advanced technologies, such as AI and RPA, in some of our work, and data analytics. How are we using data to inform risks in the environment, as well as the audit plans that result? I’ll even say the use of things such as Zoom. Platforms that enable us to be virtual auditing, in ways that we haven’t done before, are all examples of things we could continue to do more of as we build out technology and innovation within our practice.

Tackling New Regulations and Risks With Specialized Knowledge

Richard Chambers: I’m often asked by chief audit executives what I think the profession is going to look like in 10 years. If you had a crystal ball and you could look into the future, what do you believe the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity is for internal audit in the coming decade?

Heather Acker: I love that question. When I think about the most transformative things I see on the horizon in the next decade, I think of three things. One is continued focus on regulatory changes. To me, what’s occurring with ESG now may very well follow a path similar to SOX or ERM in past decades. So keeping an eye on that and figuring out how ESG reporting fits into the internal audit role


Second is technology advancements, and not just the use of technology like we talked about, but recognizing that as organizations implement more technology, there will be more associated risks. So whether it’s cyber or crypto or other types of transformative system changes, thinking about how we design audits of the future to address those. 


Then the third is specialization. I think that our profession is getting more and more specialized to address these complex risks, and so thinking about the need to build that specialization within organizations or ask for help on the outside, like we offer in outsource/co-source solutions. I like to say to our teams, “The challenges that businesses are facing create the opportunities for internal audit.” For that reason, I think it’s an extremely exciting time to be in the internal audit profession and be able to guide organizations through value into the future.

Check out more audit leader interviews with Richard Chambers on our Agents of Change video series channel.