Inside Accountancy: What It Takes to Become a Big Four Partner

Reaching partnership at a Big 4 firm is regarded as the pinnacle of achievement for any accountant. Ask any early-career employee in a Big 4 firm whether he or she wants to make partner one day. Many of them will say yes, unequivocally.

Making partner at a Big 4 firm is appealing to many because of the perceived status, undoubted financial rewards, and an endorsement of one’s skills and experience in the accounting profession. Also as a partner, one becomes a business owner and can influence how the firm is run.

“Social skills are important because our business is all about dealing with people. Whether you are an auditor or tax person, you need to know how to make other people comfortable”

These reasons are more than enough to drive many people to aim to be a partner at a Big 4 firm. So how does one become a partner at a Big 4 firm?

Interviewing Partners

We set out to address this question by interviewing partners and ‘partners-to-be’ in Singapore between February and June 2016. We were particularly interested in the process of making partner, and more importantly, the attributes of the individuals who ultimately become partners.

Altogether, we interviewed 20 partners and four ‘partners-to-be’ from the Big 4 firms. We interviewed six individuals from each of the Big 4 firms (Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC).

The interview questions include career background of interviewees, hiring criteria for fresh graduates, the variation in attributes across various ranks in the Big 4, the key attributes of individuals who can make partners, the skill sets required across various fields (Tax, Audit, Consulting), and the change in partner attributes over time. 

Criteria for Big 4 Recruits

In general, most interviewees regard academic strength as important in order for candidates to get shortlisted for an interview. Most interviewees also think that technical skills in accounting or an accounting related degree are important.

Inquisitiveness is another trait that is prized by many partners, as willingness to learn opens doors for innovation. The accounting standards often change, which requires a hunger for learning in order to remain relevant to the accounting profession.

Big 4 firms are increasingly looking for graduates who are able to think out of the box and challenge the norms.

“Today, since IASB has full time staff, it (accounting standard) probably changed about five times over…So the technical knowledge is going to be the ability to learn.” – Interviewee.

Soft skills such as communication and networking skills are also valued by the partners. Active involvement in extra-curricular activities is another important factor as it demonstrates the ability to work in teams, according to many partners.

“Social skills are important because our business is all about dealing with people. Whether you are an auditor or tax person, you need to know how to make other people comfortable, you need to get information from clients, you need to interact with them and give them good advice.” – Interviewee.

Path to Making Partner

Typically an individual spends his or her first four years in the Big 4 firm as an Associate and subsequently as a Senior. At this stage, client interaction is at a minimum. The consensus is that individuals at these levels must be trained to be technically sound, above all else.

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