(Posted April 2024)

Many candidates struggle with performing under pressure on the CFE. They often forget basic technical or writing skills due to the intense time pressure and stress they experience. Therefore, you need to figure out ways to manage that stress and perform well. In The Achievement Zone, author Shane Murphy talks about developing simple, positive “performance cues” that can be deployed easily under pressure.  This all boils down to training your inner voice so that performing under pressure becomes intuitive. If you are a musician or an athlete, it is likely you are already quite familiar with this concept. 

What Performance Cues Do You Need? 

First, you need to determine which performance cues will help you address areas of weakness. Take your corrective actions list and do four things to it: 

  1. Organize – Organize the list by like things. For example, put all the corrective actions relating to quants in one section, all the corrective actions relating to Financial Reporting in another, and so on. 
  1. Prioritize – Perform triage on the list. What are the items that are most critical to your success? 
  1. Generalize – Convert specific corrective actions that might only apply to a specific case, issue, or competency area into actions that will have a broader potential impact. 
  1. Summarize – Convert detailed corrective actions into easily remembered phrases, buzzwords, and acronyms. In other words, turn them into performance cues. 

This process will help you identify areas where you have struggled and turn them into cues that you can use as you write future cases. The goal is for them to become automatic, so you don’t even have to think about what to do in a certain situation. 

For example, if you have a corrective action to address fewer items in sufficient depth instead of trying to include all items in quant, then you could generalize and summarize this action as Depth, then breadth

If your corrective action is I do not need a perfect quant. Reasonable is good enough. Stick to significant adjustments, then you could generalize and summarize it as Reasonable, not perfect

Example Performance Cues 

Let’s look at a few example performance cues 

  • “B-W-B” stands for “build with balance.” It’s a simple reminder to help achieve balance between areas of an analysis when you’re under time constraints. For example, let’s say that you have to analyze control weaknesses and you identify ten potential problems among three systems (e.g., inventory, payables, and payroll). If you only have time to address six weaknesses, you should balance your analysis, covering two weaknesses in inventory, two in payables and two in payroll. This strategy should optimize your scoring potential.  
  • When choosing between two alternatives, consider “B2C” for “building to a conclusion.” It’s an efficient way to organize your response that identifies the advantages and disadvantages of both alternatives without the inefficient duplication of concepts inherent in a traditional pros and cons matrix. You should then order your analysis, so you address the factors that don’t support your conclusion first. Then transition to the factors that support your conclusion, which then flows logically from the analysis without having to repeat the supporting factors.  
  • “I-D-C” stands for “identify-discuss-conclude” and reminds me to not simply jump to a conclusion. It works great for financial reporting and tax-related issues. Sometimes this is also referred to as “I-A-C” (issue, analysis, conclusion). 
  • “Q-Q-C” stands for “quant-qual-conclude” and reminds me to balance my analysis of finance and management accounting issues between the quantitative and qualitative components, and to make a supported conclusion at the end.  
  • “A-C-R-R” helps me identify the root cause of problems relating to a lack of segregation of duties and to develop an effective recommendation. It’s a simple reminder that the authorization of a transaction should be segregated from the custody of the related assets and the recordkeeping and reconciliation processes.  

Misuse of Performance Cues 

Performance cues should live in your head and must be filtered through a required before you use them in your response. Let’s look at a couple of examples of the most common performance cues and how they have been applied inappropriately in some circumstances:  

  • Every candidate is familiar with “W-I-R,” which stands for “weakness-implication-recommendation.” Unfortunately, this familiarity has bred contempt. In several cases, candidates were asked for an analysis of both strong controls and weak ones. When they slammed the W-I-R templates into their responses, they filtered out half of the required analysis. W-I-R worked perfectly for the weaknesses, but a different three-part approach was needed for the strong controls.  
  • In another instance, the weaknesses were listed, and candidates were asked for the root causes of the weaknesses and to make recommendations. W-I-R had to be filtered through this unique required and had to become W-Cause-I-R to develop an appropriate analysis.  
  • Another common term is “R-A-M-P,” which stands for “risk-approach-materiality-procedures.” It works well if the required demands a full audit plan, but quickly falls apart in other situations. We’ve seen candidates go off on a 20-minute RAMP tangent that was worthless because the audit was complete and the required was to deal with the post-audit reporting implications.  

The bottom line is simple: performance cues will help you react quickly and organize your thoughts. However, they are not one-size-fits-all templates. You need to adapt to each and every required and answer the question being asked.