How do I become partner at a Big 4 firm? This is the big question!

Making partner is often seen as the pinnacle of achievement for any accountant or consultant; a title that many strive for throughout their whole career. Like most of the partner track, however, knowing how to get there is shrouded in mystery.

To help you gain clarity on how to become parter at Big 4 firms, I outline 5 must-dos in this article, including how this differs from mid-tier firms. 

The 5 must-dos to make partner

“I know if I had stayed at E&Y and made it to partner, I would have been a very rich man.”

As this quote from someone in my network shows, making partner at a Big 4 firm brings perceived status and undoubted financial rewards. 

These reasons alone are more than enough to drive many people along the partnership track at a Big 4 practice, but not many can achieve the result that they want.

Why? Because they didn’t do one or more of these 5 must-dos.

1. You need to jump through certain hoops

a dog jumping through a hoop to represent how to become partner at a big 4 firmTo make partner at a Big 4 firm, you will need to jump through many hoops along the way.

The partnership track is a long and complex one (with many hoops), but the two main hoops that you need to jump through are:

  • You will need to develop a strong business case – you need this to progress from manager to senior manager and for every upwards move after that, including writing a winning business case to make partner
  • You will need to survive the partnership admissions process – this tough process is followed by 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.

How this differs from mid-tier firms: 

At Big 4 firms, the hoops you need to jump through start early and the trend for partner track is becoming longer rather than shorter. At mid-tier firms, it is unlikely that you will need a business case for promotions lower down the chain – although at the two biggest mid-tier firms, Grant Thornton and BDO, you will need a business case to make director as well as partner – and you only need to endure one partnership panel interview instead of 3 or 4. 

The biggest reason for the difference between Big 4 firms and the 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. Therefore, progressing through the partnership track is a lot more difficult. 

2. You need to show signs of development

seedlings to represent growth and developmentWhen accountants and consultants ask themselves, “how do I become partner at a Big 4 firm?” many don’t think about what they can do outside of what is available to them. Ironically, this is what makes the difference between them actually making partner. 

For example, partners will be looking to promote individuals who are prepared to take responsibility for their own career. Do you think that they will choose the person working their way through the development programme or the one that does this whilst also pursuing other ways to develop?

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 and you show the partners that you are willing to go the extra mile.

How this differs from mid-tier firms

At Big 4 firms, you can benefit from more structure and pre-planned development programmes and solutions at key stages in your career. As mid-tier firms are smaller and don’t benefit as much from economies of scale, typically, their structured development programmes are less formal. 

3. You need to hit or exceed your targets

a dart board to represent knowing what you need to do to make partnerEvery 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 Big 4 firms.

If you want to make partner in a Big 4 firm, you need to keep performing in order to progress. In other words, it’s up or out.   

If you’re hitting or exceeding your targets, you will move up the ranks. If you’re not – and we are talking about only one or two-quarters of lower performance – this may be enough for them to have some difficult career conversations with you or to start disciplinary proceedings. 

I don’t often come across individuals in a Big 4 firm who are able to stay put at senior manager or director and in some cases, a failed exam may mean you are out of a job.

How this differs from mid-tier firms

Unlike the Big 4 firms, if you start underperforming, mid-tier firms may leave it longer before discussing your performance. They may also give you more chances to retake your professional examinations before letting you go. 

4. You need to know your firm’s process

gears to symbolise knowing the process for how to become partner at big 4 firms

Many lawyers, accountants, and consultants worry that the Director role means a dead-end for their progression to partner. That’s not entirely true; it depends on your firm and what their promotion process involves.

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.

Long story short, 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.

Read: 9 secrets of directors who successfully made it to Partner in a Big 4 firm

5. You need to focus more on showing your ‘potential’ for building a partner-sized portfolio

a plant growing in a pot of money to represent showing your potential for growthBecause 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, 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, so focus heavily on that when building your case for partner.

Essential resources:

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 I become partner at a Big 4 firm?” and I gave you the 5 main steps to take. At the end of the day though, 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!

If you want a far more detailed answer to this question, read our article How do I become a partner at the Big 4? The definitive guide [updated 2020]. Here, I really dig into how to become parter at big 4 firms, including how long it takes, what qualities you need, and how to accelerate the journey!


 

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