How to become a partner at a Big 4 firm? Becoming a Big Four partner is often seen as the pinnacle of achievement for any accountant or consultant. 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.
In this article, I dig into exactly 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 4 largest accounting firms in the world; KPMG, Deloitte, EY and PwC. The Enron scandal in 2001 eliminated Arthur Anderson, and 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.
Since 2001, the Big 5 have been gradually rebuilding their non-accountancy services. For example, nearly all of the Big 4 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. So it is fair to say that the Big 4 are no longer ‘just’ the largest accountancy firms in the world, they are the biggest professional service firms in the world. Historically, the Big 4 have made the money via servicing large multinational companies. And, very simply, 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 amount 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 4 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. This means that they share many similar standards and ways of working, but each member firm will do things slightly differently. And 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 no requirement for an assessment centre or leadership programme.
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 Four 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. You will find the ratio in a Big 4 is typically between 1 partner to 15 – 20 non partners. Whereas for a mid-tier firm this is often between 5-10 non-partners to 1 partner. And in the smaller firms it could be under 5 fee earners to 1 partner.
Later on 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.
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 which 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!
Learn what it takes to get noticed & win your next promotion
How long does it take to become a Big 4 partner
Most people take 10-15 years to become a Big Four partner. And along the way, be working 50-70 hours a week as 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 which 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.
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’. But 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 for Big Four partners:
- 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 piece of 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 ‘finding’ 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 hotpotch of politics, relationships and power bases. You need good levels of emotional intelligence to be able to navigate this in a 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, challenge themselves to work at higher levels and ambitious.
- Resilience. Particularly to pick yourself up from any knock backs or downturns in the marketplace
If you want to see whether you have got what it takes to become a Big Four Partner, then take my Partnership Potential Self-Assessment.
What will help accelerate your journey to become a Big Four partner?
Earlier on in this article I talked about it taking, on average 10-15 years to become a partner in a Big Four. The question you may have is how can I accelerate my journey? Or what can I do to ensure that I make it to partner? Here are my thoughts:
Specialising 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 which looks like it will have high growth over the next 3-10 years.
Who you know really matters if you want to become a Big Four 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.
Getting 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. 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 learn to find new business opportunities and win 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.
Working 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 just by doing the long hours and doing 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 Four 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.)
Being 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
Driving your own career and investing in your skill set
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, and 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 joining our Progress To Partner membership site. That way you will always be able to access high quality development which works around you and your time pressures.
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 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, 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 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 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. 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.
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.
However, 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. For example a client from a Big 4 firm who I am coaching is going for one of 30 partnership places. Last year it 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.
Pitfalls to watch out for on your journey to become a Big Four 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, and sometimes 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 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.
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 because 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’ every day course.
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 to make partner at a Big 4 firm? 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!