How to become a partner at a Big 4 firm? This is often seen as the pinnacle of achievement for any accountant or consultant. In the two part article series, I dig into exactly what it really takes to become a partner in a Big 4 firm. (click here for the second part How to become a Big 4 partner)
Making partner at a Big 4 firm brings perceived status and undoubted financial rewards. As one of my network commented:
I know if I had stayed at E&Y and made it to partner, I would have been a very rich man.
These reasons are more than enough to drive many people to try to become a partner at a Big 4 practice. So, how do you go about achieving this, and what does it really mean?
The hoops you need to jump through start early in the Big 4
One big difference between Big 4 firms and top 20, or even top 10, accountancy firms is the sheer size. If I remember correctly, in the UK even the smallest of the Big 4, EY, is bigger than all the top 10 accountancy firms put together. Although still technically partnerships, the Big 4 are much closer to being corporations than mid-tier firms are. As a consequence, talent management, promotion decisions, and workforce planning in the Big 4 are generally more structured, organised, and prevalent than in other firms.
What does this mean for your career? Well, to start with, in a Big 4 firm, progression from manager to senior manager will probably need a business case for the move – and for every upwards move after that. All the way to writing a winning business case to make partner.
It’s unlikely that you will need a business case for promotions lower down the chain at a mid-tier firm. Although at the two biggest mid-tier firms, BDO and Grant Thornton, you will need a business case to make director as well as partner.
Another example of the more hoops you need to jump through if you want to become a partner in a Big 4 firm, is the partnership admissions process. In most other firms you are likely to just have one partnership panel interview. Whereas at a Big 4 firm you will need to get through your service line partnership admissions process, before getting through potentially up to 3 more partnership panel interviews at sector team and geography levels. If you want to become a partner at PwC in the USA you need to factor in a partner track process which is 3 years long. In the Netherlands the PwC partner track process is 2 years long. The trend for partner track for Big 4 people is to become longer rather than shorter.
Structured development to become a partner
As the Big 4 firms are so much larger than mid-tier ones, they can enjoy economies of scale, meaning you will benefit from more structured and pre-planned development programmes and solutions at key stages in your career. This doesn’t mean you don’t get structured development in mid-tier firms, just that there is typically less formal development. However, whether you are formally provided with a coach or not, in our experience, it’s always worth investing personally in your career. That way, you stay in control. In fact, your partners will be looking to invest in the individuals who they can see are prepared to take responsibility for their own career.
Up or out
It’s fair to say that every firm puts pressure on you to hit your numbers. There’s no difference there between Big 4 and any other firm. However, the pressure seems to be greater within the Big 4, and Big 4 firms are quicker to have “difficult” career conversations if you are not performing and progressing as well as they would like. In fact, I don’t often come across individuals in a Big 4 firm who are able to stay put at senior manager or director. Just one or two quarters of lower performance may be enough to start disciplinary proceedings, whereas a mid-tier firm may leave it longer before discussing your performance. The pressure can be felt in other ways too. For example, Big 4 may not give you as many chances to retake your professional examinations, and a failed exam may mean you are out of a job.
So, now you understand some of the key differences to going for partnership in a Big 4 firm compared to a mid-tier firm, read part two of How to Make Partner in a Big 4 Firm.