6 Things You Should Know About Auditors from Healthfirst’s Director of Internal Controls, Donna Marie Paul
When Donna Marie Paul was in elementary school, she had a clear vision for her future.
“I knew I’d be the woman with her heels and her briefcase going into the office, dealing with numbers,” she said.
While she no longer goes into the office every day, her young self wasn’t far off.
After building a long career in auditing that sent Donna Marie around the world, including several years managing a team in China, she came back to Brooklyn, where she grew up, and took a role supporting the evolving and developing not-for-profit healthcare company Healthfirst’s controls function. Now, as Director of Internal Controls, she partners with various business units around the company to help them achieve their goals.
“There’s sometimes a negative connotation when people think of auditors because they think, ‘They’re here to get me.’ But our role is to help manage, oversee, and monitor everything that we do as a company,” says Donna Marie. “It’s about understanding the business, then finding the best ways to drive process improvement and actually bring something back to the table. It’s not just, ‘Hey, you did this wrong.’”
We sat down with Donna Marie to unpack more about what life in audit is like — and how her curiosity about people and the world has influenced her life and work.
That vision Donna Marie had as a kid included a Wall Street office. “I was always very good at math and calculations, and I knew I wanted to deal with numbers,” she says. She pursued that interest through high school, college, and into her first internships.
“Whenever I was visiting banks or financial institutions with my mom, I didn’t see a lot of people like me in power or being called upon,” says Donna Marie, who was born in Trinidad before moving to Brooklyn with her family as a child. “I knew I wanted to be a person that could open that door and show other girls like me that they’re smart, and that we can do it, too.”
Donna Marie was especially motivated to make her mother proud. “She sacrificed so much for my siblings and me, and I didn’t want her to think that the effort was wasted.”
And even though Donna Marie didn’t end up on Wall Street after her internships convinced her that she didn’t actually want a niched-down finance role, but a broader view of the business (which led her to audit), she knows her mom is, indeed, proud.
Adapting to Different Corporate Cultures
Until COVID hit, Donna Marie built her career in audit at Nokia. She’d started out in a management training program at Lucent Technologies, a telecommunications company that was later bought by the telecom giant. Years later, she was managing a team in China. That experience came to an end in 2019 and she moved back to the U.S.
After four years in China, Donna Marie felt ready for a new experience. She wanted to work in an environment that was driven by collaboration and discussion. And she wanted to explore a new industry and type of company.
She knew she wanted to find a job where she could be closer to the business and where she could see more clearly her impact. When Healthfirst reached out, she was thrilled about the chance to make an impact in what is literally her neighborhood and community.
“When you come from a public company, the dollars and cents drive a lot of the decision making. When you come to a not-for-profit health insurer that’s really focused on members, it’s the people. It’s about how we really make a difference,” she says. “I’ll meet our members when I’m out and about and listen to their experience and say, ‘Hey, I work for Healthfirst, how are we doing?’ I never did that when I was at Nokia.”
6 Things You Should Know About Auditors, Per Donna Marie
Digging into a business’s processes and figuring out how to make them better interests Donna Marie for the same reason living abroad did: she’s curious about how things work and loves to challenge herself.
“Auditing is the perfect balance for me. I love the opportunity to learn and to see where we can do better,” she says.
With the goal of sharing her love of the field with our readers, we asked her for insight on what people might not know—but should—about auditing:
- External and internal auditors do very different things. External auditors focus on numbers. “They’re about the financials and their accuracy,” she says. “Internal auditors are strategists. We’re here for the business, and while we do review the numbers, it’s coupled with the process around how we get to those numbers.”
- Compliance and audit aren’t the same, but similar. Compliance drives policies and procedures, and audit makes sure the business is adhering to them. “We work together — we scrutinize, pressure test, and identify gaps in how we’re doing against what compliance has laid out,” says Donna Marie.
- Audit at a fast-growing startup is all about reprioritization. “It’s always hard to optimize modernization and automation when companies grow quickly,” says Donna Marie, who is helping Healthfirst audit team implement a governance, risk, and compliance tool that allows internal teams to use a centralized database to automate alerts, tasks, and information.
- Auditors are there to learn. Her team is not considered experts about everything they need to know about a given department or process at the start, points out Donna Marie. “We’re here to help and use those learnings to bring value-added recommendations to the organization. We are here to ask questions, to understand, and to be vulnerable about that. With assistance, we can learn how to make things better.”
- Auditing is a skill you can learn on the job. “No one comes in and says, ‘I know it all,’” says Donna Marie, who points out that her background was in banking and finance, sales and use tax, and system implementation and project management. Being a successful auditor requires curiosity, inquisitiveness, and the open mindedness to ask questions, challenge the status quo, and maintain flexibility in what and how we learn. “The only way to be successful if you’re making that kind of leap is to work hard and trust your instinct.”
- The more diverse an audit team, the better. “The diversity of the team helps us to think differently. To think bigger. To challenge the norm. We were put in place to leverage our various skill sets to achieve the overall organizational and company objectives,” she says.