Home > Risk > Do you hire people who can think?

Do you hire people who can think?

December 15, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

In Auditing that matters (which I strongly recommend for every internal audit practitioner or consultant), I have a chapter on making sure you have the audit team you need.

Here is an excerpt from the start of that chapter. I talks about probably the most important skill I needed from every member of my team.

The need to think

I ask a great deal from my team.

I need them to THINK.

Thinking is not, sad to say, something that every internal auditor does.

In fact, most auditors are trained NOT to think! They are told to ‘follow the audit program’ and do what they are told. Sometimes, they are even told to do the same work as the last time the area was audited.

As we know today, the risks of today are very often not the risks of yesterday. Doing the same audit means we are auditing what used to be the risks, not necessarily what they are today.

While I would always prefer to hire people who have never been trained to “do what I tell you and follow the audit program”, that is not always possible. Very often, I can see in the interview process who has the capability of thinking for themselves. If they have high potential, I will hire them and unlock their chains by insisting that they always use their intelligence. If they drift towards following the same program as last year, I ask them why – and persist until I get their answer, not an answer provided by somebody else.

If we are to gain insights and provide management with meaningful, valued assurance and advice, I need auditors who can:

  • Think
  • Imagine what might be
  • Suggest options for improvement that management has not considered

People can be trained in technical matters such as auditing skills. They can learn the business. But, it is much harder to learn to be imaginative or to think logically.

As long as individuals have intelligence and their curiosity, imagination, and creativity can be unlocked, they have the potential I am looking for.

It takes an unusual recruiting and interviewing process to identify individuals with high potential. It takes a manager who acts more like a mentor and teacher than a supervisor to help those individuals further develop and realize that potential.

I am proud that I have been able to staff my teams with individuals who can think, are willing to challenge traditional thinking (whether by the business, internal audit, or me), and suggest creative solutions to today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.

They have told me, even people who have worked for me for years (or decades, in one case), that I have always challenged them.

One key is to never answer a question – if at all possible. Instead, help the questioner find the answer themselves.

Ivy Yeo worked for me at Maxtor and this is what she had to say on this topic:

“You are the best teacher in my life! You just know when is the time to give me a straight answer to my question (for questions which are beyond my ability to solve). You know just when is the time to answer my question with another question to stretch my ability to think further and discover the answers on my own.”

As a child, I learned the value of a short word: “why?”

In my 2nd grade math class, Professor Taylor asked the class a very simple question: “what is the square root of 4?” I put my hand up, but when I said the answer was 2, the learned professor asked me “why?” He made me think. Answering that this is what I had been told, or that 2 X 2 = 4 was not sufficient. He made me think through and come up with an explanation that demonstrated my understanding of the mathematics involved.

As a manager of people, I also use this simple question. It doesn’t matter whether the individual has the right answer or not. I want him or her to explain to me why it’s the correct answer.


This skill, the ability to think, is not only critical but in this dynamic and turbulent environment absolutely essential for success.

When the world is changing, blindly following the practices and principles of the past should not be acceptable.

Use that question, why, as often as you can:

  • Why should we do this?
  • Why does it matter?
  • Why should we do it the same way as last time?

Then follow up with related questions, such as:

  • What are we (the organization) trying to achieve?
  • What is the best way to achieve that?
  • Is there a better way?
  • What would happen if we stopped doing this?

…and so on.


What do you THINK?

Do you emphasize independent thinking?

Do you encourage imagination and creativity?

Are you willing to listen to crazy thoughts?

  1. David Dufek
    December 15, 2020 at 2:49 PM

    Norman, I couldn’t agree more. Over time, I’ve learned that I’m looking for smart, curious, hard-working people, and that the rest is gravy or can be taught. A good pedigree is nice, but sometimes looking too hard for that obfuscates good candidates who haven’t followed the traditional path.

    Trying to help people learn to “connect the dots” is so much easier when they, by their own interest and effort, have already read widely, learned to ask great questions, and have self-awareness of their own strengths and blind spots.

    Someday, I’ll be equally successful in learning how to lead people to the answer through good questions rather than answering it myself. It’s hard to do in practice, particularly in a time crunch — but it’s a habit I’ll continue to hone.

  2. December 16, 2020 at 3:10 AM

    If you have a job, e.g. as internal auditor, where you are required to rigorously follow a pre-defined process without thinking, there is little doubt your job/tasks will be taken over by Artificial Intelligence rather soon (as such tasks are easy to teach computers). Intelligent systems can do this much faster (and cheaper) and with much more rigor than any human can muster.

    To add value to an organisation in the 4th industrial revolution, you need to add something computers would NOT consider – be creative, apply new perspectives, leverage cross functional insights, etc.

  1. December 17, 2020 at 10:28 PM

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