How to move from director to partner at a Big 4 firm (EY, Deloitte, KPMG and PwC)
Want to know how to get a promotion to partner? Making partner at a Big 4 accounting or consulting firm (EY, Deloitte, KPMG and PwC) is often seen as the pinnacle of achievement for an Accountant or Consultant. However, many talented professionals fail to make it. To help you make the jump from director to partner, here are 9 secrets straight from directors themselves who have made it through the partnership track at their Big 4 firm.
1.) Get onto the Partnership Track
The Big 4 firms have formal, structured development programmes for their ’emerging leaders’, often called ‘partner track’ or ‘partnership track’. i.e. their senior managers and directors who they believe are capable of making it to partner. If you are going to make the transition from director to partner or senior manager to partner, then first things first you need to be seen as partnership potential. Most of the Big 4 firms around the world will have a ’emerging leader’ or ‘next gen’ or ‘future partner’ or ‘pathway to partner’ type of programme. (These are actual names of the future partners programme used in some of the Big 4 firms around the world.) You don’t need to be on this programme if you are going to make it to partner, but it will be much harder if you are not.
How do you get nominated I hear you ask? While there are a multitude of factors that go into the decision, one very important one is that you have to express your interest in the first place. The people who do get on these programmes have normally been talking for a few years with their mentor and sponsoring partner about their partner ambitions, so to be in the pickings, don’t keep your career ambitions private! The more open you can be about how you would like to progress your career in your Big 4 firm, the greater the opportunities which will open up to you. You also need to make sure that there is (a) an agreed upon business case for someone like you and (b) your numbers justify your inclusion on a programme like this.
The formal partner admissions process for a Big 4 firm can be up to a year in length, with various long and shortlisting of potential future partners carried out 0-3 years before an individual is admitted to the partnership (yes, the partnership track process can really be that long at a Big 4 firm). It goes without saying that you if you want to make partner at a Big 4 firm you need to first get yourself onto the long lists and then the shortlists. Are you on the long list? This is a question you need to ask your mentor/partner. If you are not on the long list then you are not going to make it from director to partner in your firm.
2.) Prepare for a marathon, not a sprint
When asked ‘how to get a promotion to partner?’ one of the most common answers from successful directors who made partner at a Big 4 firm is that it is more of a marathon than a sprint, and they wish they’d been prepared for that. This means if you want to make partner at a Big 4 firm, you need to be organised and do a little every week to see any progress towards partner.
‘I wish I knew that I needed to pace myself, and not sprint for a few days/a week, then stand still and then sprint again’
Newly promoted Big 4 partner
Your business and personal case does not get built overnight. It takes time and activity outside of your normal day job. The 2-3 years when you transition from director to partner in your Big 4 firm will probably be some of the toughest years you will ever do. Combine high chargeable time targets potentially with a high level of travelling and a need to materially build your own profile, is a tough ask for most people. No one said it would be easy to make partner at a Big 4 firm!
3.) Balance your workload
With the need to build a business and personal case for partner AND do your day job, the only way to do this is to actively balance your workload. The best way to do this is by using the 3 Ps:
1- Prioritise: Prioritise your career. Make your own personal development your most important client. After all, it is easy to put your regular client work first.
2- Plan: Plan your internal PR campaign, your personal development, your team’s development, your business development activities…
Importantly plan your time to recharge, it can actually go against you being the first one in and the last one out of the office or being on client’s sites a lot and people not seeing you and not being able to balance your work.
Tara Fennessy, Executive Coach to Big 4 potential partners
3- Pace: Take one step at a time with your plan and action it in the right order. It sounds obvious but actually putting one foot in front of the other at a steady pace is what gets you to the finishing line. One of the best ways is have a ONE BIG FOCUS. This is where you focus your career plan on the biggest thing that will move your career forward in the next 90 days. Then after the 90 days are up, you pick a new ONE BIG FOCUS.
4.) Deliver on your numbers and personal objectives
This is common sense, but if you want to be seen as future partner material and worth investing in, you need to make sure that you routinely achieve your personal objectives and targets. If you have an ‘average’ or ‘poor’ performance rating, you are very unlikely to make the transition from director to partner.
Obviously, hitting your targets should be up there on the priority list but this can suffer when you are trying to prioritise business development, delegate to and motivate your team, build your personal and business case, win new clients and maintaining existing client relationships all whilst keeping your own mental health and physical health intact while you grasp on to a thread of a social life… When you list everything that it takes to make partner (and this isn’t even scraping the surface), you can see why actual work may start to suffer the brunt of being overwhelmed.
5.) Build a strong personal brand internally and externally within the firm
Another big secret from senior managers on how to get a promotion to partner is to build a strong personal brand that’s memorable and to do it as early as possible! Every single business case I have read from a prospective partner in a Big 4 firm mentions their strong brand and how they are the ‘Go-To Expert‘ for some technical specialism in a certain sector.
The Big 4 firms – EY, Deloitte, PwC and KPMG – are all big firms so if you want to stand out enough to make partner, you need to have a strong personal brand and high profile internally and externally of the firm. They suggest the best ways to do this are:
- Specialising earlier rather than later in your career.
- Becoming known as a ‘Go-To Expert’ for some technical or sector-specific knowledge.
- Allocating time every week to building and maintaining a strong professional network. E.g. attending young professional networking events and deepening relationships with other professional advisors you work with.
- Prioritising building your own referral networks which will provide you with a regular stream of high-quality new client leads.(Find out why internal networking could be your secret weapon to getting promoted in your firm)
6.) Start building your business case as early as possible
Much like your personal brand, you also need to start building your business case as early as possible if you want to transition from director to partner.
It is widely known that to make partner in a Big 4 accounting firm you need a strong business case. As already mentioned in this article, you will find it hard to get long listed or put on a future partner development programme if there is not a business case identified for you. The directors at Big 4 firms, EY, Deloitte, KPMG and PwC, who successfully make it through to partner have been working on their business case for at least a couple of years. It is not impossible, but very hard, to build a strong business case within only 12-24 months of actively building a business case for partnership.
7.) Build your fan base outside of your own department
The partners at a Big 4 firm (EY, KPMG, PwC and Deloitte) will regularly and openly discuss who they will make partner at their Big 4 firm. How many partners would be ‘pitching’ you, and ‘fighting your corner’? To make partner in a Big 4 accounting firm you will need more than just your sponsor fighting for you! Like a panel-based job interview, you will not be at the table when the final decisions are taken on who should get partnership this time or even get put onto Partner Track. This is why the successful directors who make partner at a Big 4 firm have taken the time to build up a strong fan base within the partnership BEFORE they are considered for admission to the partnership.
Within a strong fan base, there will always be degrees of support. At the lowest level, the successful director will have built enough relationships with partners within their Big 4 firm so that they have a broad base of support for their partnership ambitions. However, successful directors who make partner at their big 4 firms know that they need to have more than just their head of department and sponsoring partner (who are likely to be the same people) raving about them to the other partners.
8.) Be prepared to relocate
The more mobile you are prepared to be, the greater the opportunity to make partner at a Big 4 firm. What this could mean in practice is you are prepared to relocate your family to a completely different country.
I was recently speaking to an EY director who had relocated from India to work on his biggest client’s affairs in Africa. Now, this may be slightly more drastic than you may be prepared to do. However, the more flexible you can be with your mobility the more opportunities available to you to make partner at a Big 4 firm.
9.) If necessary change firm
How to get a promotion to partner may take moving firms to speed up your progression through the track.
Whilst it may be nice to say that you are ‘man and boy’ at a firm, the directors who successfully make partner at a Big 4 firm are prepared to change firm if it means they are able to significantly strengthen their business and personal case.
Finally make that jump from director to partner
Now you know how to get a promotion to partner straight from the horse’s mouth! These directors have successfully made it to partner in their Big 4 firms, so if you listen to and implement these 9 areas in your daily work life, you can’t go far wrong.