I know if I had stayed at E&Y and made it to partner, I would have been a very rich man.
Someone in my network said this to me recently and I agreed. Becoming a Big 4 partner is often seen as the pinnacle of achievement for any accountant or consultant and for good reason. The ‘Partner’ title, especially in one of the Big 4 firms, brings with it a lot of perceived status and undoubted financial rewards.
While these reasons alone are more than enough to drive many people to try to become a partner at a Big 4 practice, most don’t make it. Most candidates tend to make mistakes along the way but sometimes, it’s not the right time or there is just too much competition. To avoid these same mistakes that past promising contenders have made, here is everything you need to know about how to become a Big 4 partner.
Who are the Big 4 and how are they different to other firms?
When people refer to the Big 4, they are often referring to the top accounting firms, the 4 largest accounting firms in the world; KPMG, Deloitte, EY and PwC. The Enron scandal in 2001 eliminated Arthur Anderson, and so the Big 5 became the Big 4. This scandal led to the remaining Big 4 firms divesting themselves of their consulting businesses. The company we know as Accenture, was actually Arthur Anderson’s consulting arm. Between 2000 and 2002 EY, PwC and KPMG sold their consultancy practices to Capgemini, IBM, and Bearing Point.
Here are some essential facts about the Big 4…
- Since 2001, the Big 4 have been gradually rebuilding their non-accountancy services. For example, nearly all of the Big 4 accounting firms have added on a legal arm – whether as a separate company or within their current business. They have all massively built up their consulting practices after divesting of them in the early 2000s.
- Historically, the Big 4 have made the money via servicing large multinational companies; their aim is to become a 1-stop shop to these very large businesses. This is why they have all in the last 10 years really increased their capabilities to deliver non-accountancy related services. And in the US, the Big 4 firms make only a third of their revenue from their audit function.
- As you can imagine, they are called the Big 4, because they are the biggest professional service firms in the world. The professional services sector is actually made up of mostly small and a small number of medium-sized businesses. For example, if you put together in the UK the top 100 firms, minus the Big 4, they still wouldn’t be bigger than the smallest Big 4 firm in the UK, KPMG. By way of comparison, BDO and GT, the top of the mid-tier in the UK are both a quarter of the size of KPMG.
Whilst the Big Four accounting firms may have built up strong legal and consultancy arms on top of their accounting services, they are still very similar to a mid-tier firm. In other words, they are a network sharing a similar global brand. Each country member of a Big 4 is actually a separate legal entity, meaning they share many similar standards and ways of working, but each member firm will do things slightly differently. This is very much the case in the partnership admissions process. For example, if you want to make partner in KPMG in Germany, you will have to go on a 2 year ‘entrepreneur programme’. This programme includes an assessment centre, leadership programme, AND their partner track. This is different to KPMG in the UK where your partner track typically lasts 6-9 months and there’s no requirement for an assessment centre or leadership programme.
Discover the 7 biggest differences between the Big 4 and Mid-Tier firms…
How easy is it to become a partner at a Big 4
The simple answer is not easy. First of all, the Big 4 firms attract bright and ambitious people. It’s part of who they are. This means you are surrounded by good people who all, well at least in their early career, want to become a Big 4 partner. Then there is that pesky thing called leverage. Yes, because of their sheer size, there may be more partners at a Big 4 firm than a mid-tier firm. However, the ratio of partner to non-partners in a Big 4 firm is much bigger than a mid-tier firm. For example:
- Big 4 firm – the ratio is 1 partner: 15 – 20 non-partners.
- Mid-Tier firm – the ratio is 1 partner: 5-10 non-partners.
- Smaller firms – the ratio is 1 partner: <5 fee earners.
Later in this article, you will discover how the Big 4 firms tend to have an ‘up or out’ culture. In other words, if you don’t consistently move your career forward and progress to the higher ranks of the firm, you are often asked to leave! (Read:
Many people will drop out of the ranks of a Big 4 firm because:
- They are asked to leave because they fail one of their exams. Yes, failing just one exam in a Big 4 firm is enough to get you kicked out.
- The long hours, often between 50-70 hours per week, doesn’t fit with what they want from their life.
- After they qualify, or later on in their career they realise being in practice is not for them.
- They realise that the partner role is not for them in the long run, and so leave for another firm that will embrace their desire to remain as a career manager.
- The culture or politics of the Big 4 doesn’t help them be at their best
- They don’t like going out and winning work. An essential skill if you are going to make it beyond the manager grades in a Big 4 firm.
I’m guessing that you are thinking that becoming a Big Four partner sounds like a tough ask! It is, but with these 5 must-dos, it’ll be just that little bit easier.
How long does it take to become a Big 4 partner
Most people take 10-15 years to become a Big 4 partner. And we are talking about working 50-70 hours a week as a standard!
The reason why it can take this long are many:
- Big 4 partners need to normally build up a £2m+ client portfolio before they will be considered ready for partnership. This size of client portfolio takes time to build.
- Most of the Big 4 type of work is often won from very senior decision-makers in large corporates. It takes a certain amount of technical competence, gravitas and authority before you can create relationships that lead to work with this type of people.
- Gaining the skills to move from being technically competent to being able to lead a team of people to being able to bring in large pieces of work, takes many years.
Find out what it takes to make partner, how long it takes and why age is correlated to making partner…
What qualities are required by Big Four partners?
The qualities required for becoming a successful Big Four partner are pretty similar, regardless of your service line or the firm you are in. In fact, many senior partners will tell you that they can spot the partners of the future from a trainee’s first day with a firm. In Chapter 7 of my book, How To Make Partner And Still Have A Life, I talk about these qualities in more detail. These qualities, in a professional’s early years, are often known as ‘Partnership Potential.’
For the purposes of this article, and to help you answer the question of “how to become a partner at a Big 4 firm?’, these are the main qualities you need to become a Big 4 partner:
- Commitment to the firm, its vision and its clients. After all, no partnership is going to bring in a new partner who is a disruptive influence.
- Commerciality. For example, are you looking at the bigger picture or just the job you have been assigned? Are you hungry to find better, simpler or cheaper ways to deliver excellent client service and results on a job?
- Leadership and management. Can you be trusted to lead a team of people? Enough that you can delegate the ‘doing’ to them to allow you to focus on ‘managing’ or ‘winning’ new work?
- Emotional intelligence. The Big 4 is a partnership, like most of the medium to big sized professional service firms. This means that they are a hotchpotch of politics, relationships and power bases. You need good levels of emotional intelligence to be able to navigate in this firm.
- ‘Thinking skills.’ The Big 4 often do the most technical and complex assignments of any professional service firm. This means that they are looking for the brightest minds!
- Driven and ambitious. Many Big 4 partners didn’t go to the best school or the best university. They have often got there because they are driven, they challenge themselves to work at higher levels and they are ambitious.
- Self-confidence. Gravitas and confidence are everything when it comes to making partner. If you don’t believe in yourself, why should your partners?
- Resilience. Particularly to pick yourself up from any knockbacks or downturns in the marketplace
If you want to see whether you have got what it takes to become a Big 4 Partner, then take our Partnership Readiness Test. The results from this assessment will tell you exactly what qualities you need to work on to progress to partner.
Discover your Partnership Readiness Score
Do you have a career plan guiding you to do the right things at the right time?
Find out how ready you really are to make partner (and what you need to work on if you’re not!).
What will help accelerate your journey to become a Big 4 partner?
Earlier in this article, I talked about it taking an average of 10-15 years to become a partner in a Big 4. The question you may have now is, “how can I accelerate my journey?” or “what can I do to ensure that I make it to partner?”
Here are 6 things you need to do:
Specialise in a high growth area
When it comes to being admitted to the partnership, you will be required to have a business case where you demonstrate to the partners that you will help them grow the profits of the firm. I.e. you will put more into the firm than you take out for your salary. (What is properly known as drawings as Big 4 partners are self-employed and paid out of the profits of the firm.) Given that the Big 4 only tend to work with large multinationals, this limits the size of the marketplace for a potential partner to win work. This is why it makes sense, at the point you need to specialise in your career in a Big 4, to opt for an area that looks like it will have high growth over the next 3-10 years.
Choose an influential mentor
Who you know really matters if you want to become a Big 4 partner. And if who you know is an influential person in the partnership who has decided to take you under their wing, your career will accelerate rapidly! (Find out Why you need both sponsors AND an influential firm mentor to rapidly progress your career)
Get involved in business development early
I get it, you don’t have aspirations of becoming a Big Four Partner because you are in love with selling. Not many professionals do but that’s the reality of how to become a Big 4 partner! You need to be good at marketing yourself inside and outside of the firm (and also finding new business opportunities and winning them for yourself and others in the firm). It’s not the best technicians who make it to partner in a Big 4 firm, it’s the people who love business development and make time for it.
Work towards a career plan
Those that drop out of the Big 4 firms often fall into the trap of thinking that their career will progress if they just do the long hours and produce good work. That’s NOT the case. The people who I have worked with who have made rapid strides on their journey to become a Big 4 partner, are the ones who:
- Have a career plan, which they are emotionally invested in executing
- Do something from their career plan every single week
If you would like a structured process to put together your career plan to accelerate your career, then join our Progress To Partner membership site and complete the ‘How to commit to moving your career forward’ course. (This is just one of the many courses in the site to help you progress your career in practice.)
Be prepared to be flexible
With the large partner to non-partner ratio in Big Four firms, you may find you can accelerate your career towards partner by being flexible. For example:
- Relocating to where the next vacancy at the next level will be
- Doing a secondment in a big client of the firm
- Agreeing to be on a large project to gain the relevant experience you need, even if this comes at great personal cost.
Drive your own career and invest in your skillset
Early on in your career in a Big 4 firm, your firm will provide lots of structured development to get you from trainee to qualified to manager. However, this can lead to you becoming reliant on your firm to develop you further. If you are going to make it to partner in a Big 4, you need to realise that you are responsible for your own development!
A good way of funding your own development is by joining our Progress To Partner membership site. That way you will always be able to access high-quality development resources which work around you and your time pressures.
Pitfalls to watch out for on your journey to become a Big 4 partner
The Director role – is it a dead end for your career?
I have worked with the accountancy profession for more than a decade and seen the expected career progression of directors change. Sometimes, they even change back again! The profession is in a quandary because it doesn’t know what to do with highly technical experts who are immensely valuable to the firm, but who are not really suitable for partnership. Therefore, sometimes firms select from their senior managers and only promote to director if they feel there is partnership potential.
On the other hand, some firms leapfrog the director stage and promote from senior manager to partner, leaving the director role for the technical experts. This is an approach KPMG has taken in the past, although now they are using director for potential partners again.
It doesn’t really matter what firm you are in – Big 4 or mid-tier – what you have to do is find out what qualities, skills, and behaviour are required at the different levels within your firm and how your firm’s promotion process works. Within a Big 4 firm, this is usually transparent and extensive documentation should be available.
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!
Burn out – don’t run yourself into the ground!
It is the norm to work long hours in a Big 4 firm. In fact, one of the people I interviewed for my book ‘How To Make Partner And Still Have A Life‘ told me the reason he left EY as a director was that he realised, if he became a Big 4 partner there would always be three people in his marriage; him, his wife and EY.
With the pressure put upon you in a Big 4 firm, and the ‘up or out’ culture, it is easy to burn out in a Big 4 firm. Increasingly, I am seeing more and more firms, inside and outside of the Big 4, require their future and current partners to be good role models to the more junior members of staff. And being a good role model often means looking after yourself so you don’t burn out.
If you are reading this and wondering how you can avoid burning out, or just be on your A-Game every day (which is what is required if you want to make it to partner in a Big 4 firm), then join our Progress To Partner membership site and complete the ‘how to be on your A-game everyday’ course.
These 10 critical lessons will be the difference between making partner and not making partner
These 10 lessons are taken from our experience of working with successful candidates to make partner. Can you afford not to read them?
How is becoming a Big 4 partner different to becoming a partner in a mid-tier firm?
The hoops you need to jump through start early in the Big 4
One big difference between Big 4 firms and the top 20 or even the top 10 accountancy firms, is the sheer size. If I remember correctly, in the UK, even the smallest of the Big 4 (KPMG) 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 that is 3 years long. In the Netherlands, the PwC partner track process is 2 years long.
As you can see, the trend for partner track for Big 4 people is to become longer rather than shorter!
There is more structured development to become a Big Four 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.
Whether you are formally provided with a coach or not, in our experience, it’s always worth investing personally in your career:
For you: you stay in control and actively move your career forward.
For your partners: they’ll 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 they 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.
There are more Big 4 partners than the mid-tier firms, because of their size
Because of their size, Big 4 firms have more partnership slots to fill than mid-tier firms. This means they can be flexible about who they have within the partnership. You will still need to have strong evidence of how you will develop and win business but (and this surprised me) when going for partner with a Big 4 firm, you will not need such a large client portfolio as you will need with BDO or GT.
It is worth noting, however, that if a Big 4 firm is having a lean year, the number of partners they plan to admit that year may be well down on previous years too. For example, a client from a Big 4 firm who I am coaching is going for one of 30 partnership places. Last year, the firm admitted 63 new partners. There are still the same amount of directors going for these 30 places as there were going for the 63 places last year!
Big 4 firms are more interested in your potential for building a partner-sized portfolio. Read on to find out the typical size of a Big 4 partner’s client portfolio.
You’ll be expected to earn the rewards of partnership
You should now be getting a good idea of how to make partner at a Big 4 firm. There’s plenty more on the site, so take time to read further.
Having started you off, it would be remiss of me not to mention the amount of input that will be expected from you as partner. You’ll be handsomely rewarded, but remember that every firm wants its pound of flesh and the Big 4 partners are expected to work very long hours and continue working at networking and formal social functions as well.
What does it really mean to make partner? There may be plenty of aspects you had not considered!
At the start of this article, I posed the question, “How do you become a partner at the Big 4?” At the end of the day, it’s your choice. If you do want the rewards of a partnership in a Big 4 firm, remember you will need to earn them!
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