• Career Center

    What’s the Key to Making Partner at a Public Accounting Firm?

    By | August 2, 2012

    For some capital market servants the number one goal in their careers, the crown jewel, the ultimate feather in the cap, the most memorable notch on the bedpost, is being admitted to the partnership of his/her public accounting firm. It's an accomplishment that takes commitment, perseverance, hard work, dumb luck, brown nosing, corporate politicking, very little sleep, and a few compromised principles. Very few will reach this goal and those who do will leave a number of bodies in their wake.

    But what about the details? What are some of the actual steps that one can take to get (and stay) on the partner track? And most importantly what's the lynchpin to pull it all together? A recent post over at the AICPA's CPA Insider attempts to shed some light on what the kingmakers at firms are looking for. 

    For the most part, a lot of these things are yawners – leadership qualities, client service skills, developing a book of business – although, as we've discussed, the accounting industry doesn't really want leaders. They want people who look like leaders and sound like leaders but in reality, they just need people who understand the pre-conceived formula of what it takes to be a "leader" at their firms which is, more or less, "follow orders." An "exemplary follower" as Greg Kyte put it.  

    But back to that in a minute. There are a few things in Jennifer Wilson's post that are somewhat interesting that you aspiring partners might not have considered.

    First – she states, quite diplomatically, that the nerds in your firms really shouldn't be allowed to talk to others: 

    I have found an inverse relationship between technical ability and people development in most CPAs I’ve met. 

    So if you've got savant-like aptitude for the accounting rules or tax law and can still manage to share even the most marginal bit of wisdom with your subordinates, you're WAY ahead of the game.

    Second – if you think that blowing off time entry, expense reports, email, and more or less having the attitude that "I'm too busy for all that bullshit" you probably aren't partner material:

    Firms don’t tend to see the basic administrative abilities of time entry, billing and collecting, and responding to email and voice mail as “partnerly.” But partners who haven’t mastered these basics can cause real problems. Avoid these by requiring proven, base-level administrative ability in your partner candidates. 

    Back to people development for a second – firms know that since you are of the accounting persuasion, it's pretty unfair to expect most future partners to be bothered with, you know, explaining things to people who simply don't "get it":  

    It’s likely that only about 30% of your partners are “real” people developers, so we wouldn’t recommend this as a must-have element for all new partners in your firm. Instead, you should be sure to at least replace all people developers with people developers to ensure that you do not take a step backward in this important area, one that becomes more important as the market demand for talent heats up.

    Same goes for those people predisposed for "buinsess development":

    As the profession expects to lose many of its rainmaking entrepreneurs to retirement in the coming years, more firms will face an inability to sustain unless they can replace these important skills, including the ability to source new leads or opportunities, the ability to close new engagements, and, for the select few, the ability to build entirely new practices for the firm. But, as with people development, the percentage of “true” business developers in any partner group rarely exceeds 30%.

    Here's what it comes down to – there are lot of different paths to making partner but if you can't sell yourself (or the firm) you probably aren't going to be a partner; if you can't make the people around you better, you probably aren't going to be a partner; if you can't tell a debit from a credit, or a 1040 from an 1120, you probably aren't going to be a partner; if you can't dig up new business on your own initiative you might get a chance to be a partner but it will be a very short window of opportunity; if you can't follow your firm's "rules" for being a "leader" you DEFINITELY aren't going to be partner.

    And the last point is most important. Going rogue in any form is not a strategy that will serve your partner aspirations well. There are several combinations of skills that can make you partner material, but if you're a rule-breaker, a pot-stirrer, serial complainer or, simply, "not a team player" your formula, no matter how compelling will never compute. Your chances of getting a seat at the big table will always be the same: zero.

    Do you have what it takes to become a partner? [CPA Insider]


      Is that a picture of a young daniel day lewis?

      • Co1010

        No, not even close

    • Jcom

      “For some capital market servants the number one goal in their careers, the crown jewel, the ultimate feather in the cap, the most memorable notch on the bedpost, is being admitted to the partnership of his/her public accounting firm.”  This was me as a Sr Mgr in a big 4 firm.  The question that a lot of folks in public ask is “do I want to make partner”. And that is the WRONG question.  The question you need to ask is “do I want to BE a partner?”  The fun only BEGINS when you MAKE partner.  As a newbie partner you are back to the bottom of an even larger totem pole and are serving at the behest of all the senior partners.  As a partner you devote your life to the firm, so make sure you LOVE being an auditor.  Once I realized I didn’t love being an auditor I decided it wouldn’t be worth it to stay and I left.  Fortunately I had just made Sr Mgr when I came to this realization and didn’t become one of these 10 yr Sr Mgrs who are strung along for 15 years and are then told “sorry, not partner material, adios”

      • Informed

         Good post.  You need to know what you want and Partner money alone will not make you happy.

        • James32

          Well said. As mentioned above a junior partner is like a super bitch to ever partner above him. Unless you really really love the job, there is absolutely no way one should even bother entertaining the thought of becoming a partner. I mean of course its a sexy title and the money is good, but being happy is far far more important in my book.

          • DogTreats

            I’m not so sure the being a bitch to someone else is a legit reason not to be partner. 

            Any job, any role, you are going to be the bitch of someone else; other than if you own your own business (assuming that you don’t have investors or bank loan – then your still a bitch to someone else). 

            An finance analyst is a bitch to the finance manager, the finance manger is a bitch to the director, the direct is a bitch to the VP, the VP is a bitch to the CFO, the CFO is a bitch to the CEO, the CEO is a bitch to the board, the board is a bitch to the shareholders…. and on and on….

            • guest

               yeah but those jobs don’t suck as bad as public accounting

      • Guest

        It took you til after you made Senior Manager at a Big 4 to decide you didn’t like auditing? Sounds like you are trying to rationalize the fact that it finally hit you that you weren’t partner material and thus would never become partner.

        • Jcom

          Erroneous assertion Guest, but nice try.  I WAS partner material (I say that confidently), and I LIKED auditing, but realized I didn’t LOVE it enough to want to do it the rest of my life (you have limited opportunities leaving Big 4 as an audit partner especially outside of a major city)

    • Joe398s3

      After three or four years in public you need to take a very honest look at yourself and determine if you have the ability to make partner, regardless of whether you want it or not.  I want to play outfield for the Dodgers, but I’m not wasting time pursing that.

    • DogTreats

      The very rare good post on GC.  Good info.

      • I can’t count

        Shut up, Caleb.

        • Guest

           Who is Caleb?

          • James32

            click back, open the EY intern conference post, Caleb is the guy in the gorilla suit.

    • GR3

      If its a Crowe partner, I would definitely say Mini Van, Arm Pit Stained Dress Shirt, Pound of Hair gel parted down the side, ability to spend 50 hours reviewing a 100 dollar variance on a prepaid reconciliation, and the keen ability to stare at someone 45 degrees and state “How do you know X is accurate”?

      • Redpengreenpen

        Excellent description, and you would know because your are a Crowe partner. 

        • MrsCostanza

          What’s a Crowe?  I’ve never heard of it, did they just invent it?

    • Local Lackey

      I would say the #1 thing is business development.  If you aren’t the type to bring in new business, then you at least need to be able to a) close the deal with prospects others bring you and b) broaden the range of services you add to existing clients.  

    • Art Vandelay

      Great link.  Honestly you can just link the article next time though. Your accompanying book report was brutal.

    • BKGreed

      Hope for partner retirements at the right time in your career.

      Have little technical skills but the ability to delegate all the technical work on your engagements, limited knowledge of your client’s operations or industry, plus have the ability to blow hot air about how you have a huge network that may or may not actually bring in new business….

      Finally, sit on small Boards or Organizations, and be on so many that you never truly get anything accomplished, both on the Boards or within your work life…

      I think that about sums up what it takes…

    • GT Alum

      No reason to go through all that shit. Why the hell anyone would want to be a partner or how anyone can love this job enough to want to be a partner is beyond me. There is some kind of a**hole gene that emerges from hibernation as soon as you make partner I think and, quite frankly, there is no partner that I’ve ever looked at and said “wow, I want to be like him/her”.

      • BKGreed

        Agreed. It absolutely has to do with how much money is being made by partners and how much they probably hate their jobs.

        They seem to lose all sense of understanding of what is important to their staff and will treat staff like garbage just to make a buck. (see the circus that EY has to do for their interns each year).

        If you think about it, other than specialist tax individuals and small firm CPAs the B4 and large firm audit partners have never really brought any value to anyone or have never actually done something worthwhile in their professional careers, other than make themselves a lot of money.

        • Jcom

          Harsh, but not too far from the truth

      • Jcom

        I was until fairly recently a firebreathing Big 4 manager who aspired to make partner, until I realized there isn’t a single partner that I looked at and said “wow, I want to be like him/her”. That’s a key question folks should ask themselves. I left once I made SM, making significantly more money and overall have a better life. 

    • Paulpuzig

      Basically, if you are not playing their game and making the firm money, you fail. Lol! Yeah, it is was it is.

    • CPAs are Cool

      I love Going Concern!!!  Substantially all posts are from angry unhappy moderately unsuccessful people who have deep seeded unresolved issues with their current and/or former supervisors in public accounting.  The have-nots are often uncomfortable and agry with the haves.  And the posts on going concern are simply a highly entertaining outlet for these angry and bitter rants.

      Yes, of course there is sometimes good commentary.  But mnore often there is great entertainment.  And it keep me coming back.

      Why so much bitterness about partners and all of those who have been successful in public accounting.  Public accounting is a great profession for many people.  There are clearly many people who love this profession.   Why spend so much energy being a hater?  Your back must hurt carrying that chip around all day.  If you haters put your energy, passion, drive and skill into your job, you just might be a happy partner!

      Thankfully, the hating will continue and thus the great emotionally charged posts will continue too.

      • Underthebus

        TL;DR – I want to be a partner and you’re a bunch of meanies.

        By the way, was this rant outsourced?

      • BKGreed

        When 9 of 10 people share a common viewpoint there is something there. You seem to be the exception rather than the norm.

        Your haves and have nots comment is a perfect comment of the mentality of most partners I knew. Tons of people work very hard in their jobs only to get screwed over by partners “coaching” them along to stick out one more year, so they can squeeze another 2600 hours a year out of you, when they don’t intend to allow you to share in the profits of the firm.

        • Local Lackey

          It must be terrible working for a large firm.  I am a senior at a small firm and definitely aspire to be like our partners, who are all successful, level-headed people.  (Though I admit they probably do not make as much as a Big4/ major national partner.)  Oh, and even as a senior I get to share in the profits of the firm through various bonus programs.   

          • BKGreed

            As an auditor in a large firm your work makes absolutely no difference. 

            Even with large regional firms who claim that when the time is right they can help middle market companies be prepared for a future transaction or to go public. 

            That is B-S since the first thing that typically happens in a sale transaction or when a middle market company prepares to go public, they have to hire a B4 firm so that their financials will be accepted by analysts.  Essentially the assurance work of a large regional firm means absolutely nothing.

            I completely agree that CPAs at small firms and within specialized tax niches actually do make an impact and can provide valued guidance to their clients.

            The best part about working at BKGreed is that there are absolutely no bonuses for non-partner individuals.  The partners claim that it is because this just becomes part of your salary — although if you compare BKGreed’s non-partner salaries / compensation package to actual market resources they are WAY under market.

            • Auditor

              I am not sure if i agree with this – i have had quite a number of my clients acquired over the years – in 2012 alone companies i have audited (7 companies so far) have sold for over $1 Billion dollars in aggregate and our work was accepted by the big 4 on every occasion with no adjustments – these were all acquisitions made by public companies who used the big 4 for diligence on the company – we work with our clients to make sure they are well prepared and the numbers are accurate when the offer that is too good to refuse comes in – Our fees are generally less than the Big 4, we are regional firm and i would say everyone from staff through partner make well above average salaries for the industry.

          • Guest

            unfortunately for you, chances are someone from a B4 who cannot make partner will jump to your firm to become partner over you

            • Squirrel

              SM’s from the big four usually come into our medium sized firm at the staff level after you consider the nature of their work experience compared to what we deal with on smaller clients. B4 Kool Aid anyone?

        • CPAs are Cool

          I don’t know you true exposure to pubblic accounting, but if your sphere of exposure is primarily BKD, then I understand your cynacal take on things.  Not all firm are like that.  There are many many non Big 4 firms where partners are great people and place a priority on the development and success of younger staff.  And while I agree not all Big 4 partners are like that, every Big 4 does have many partners who are great the same way.

    • BigDumbOsterich

      I remember the 10 or so years before making partner being passionate about public accounting and wanting to be partner.  Eight years after that promotion, frustration and bitterness has set it.  Tired of the same bullshit; time entry, billable hours, expense reports, my contact list is bigger than your contact list, pounding chests about new business, inflated egos, billable hours, oh and billable hours, blah blah blah, the list goes on.  Being a partner is just a game.

      • Jimmy67

        How are the opportunities for you if you were to leave? I am always curious about partner level job opportunities.

        • Squirrel

          If you’re a partner, you should know how to make your own opportunities…

    • Guest

      From the earlier referenced article, “CPA firms need leaders, but they don’t want leaders.  They say they want leaders, but they are afraid where real leaders will take them.”  Very true! 

      Q: What should we set compensation at? A: What are other firms paying this year? 

      Follow the herd sheeple, and don’t rock the boat.

    • Guest

      How typical Big four, create a euphemism and pretend that everyone else does it.  That’s just like spending a bunch of money coming up with “best practices,” or throwing money away on technology developing systems that nobody understands and don’t work for every instance.  This makes the partners very proud of their “investments in technology.” 
      The partners take fee cuts because other B4 or second tier firms without the cost structure submit lower bids.  Then it becomes mandatory to use these championed systems and practices, and you spend your time at a high billing rate “cleaning up trial balances for import.”  The managers don’t understand them either, can’t give you direct feedback, and in the end you “lose money on the client.”

      Let the vicious cycle begin.

    • TaxHater

      I always like how the “partners” at BKGreed call themselves owners.  They are kidding themselves.  How many “owners” still have seven more levels of corporate heirarchy to go through before they can make a decision.  How many “owners” have to answer to thirty more bosses before they can wipe their ass.  They are glorified employees with profit sharing.

    • Curious Analyst

      What about starting your own firm or working in a small firm (e.g. 100 professionals or less)? GC seems to be overwhelmingly focused on the Big 4; why not some discussion of other paths?

      • Big Tex

         currently at a small firm.  going to a larger one this fall.  would NEVER work for a small firm again.

      • NOBODY

        work in a small firm?  Well, the pay sucks.  I am trying to get into a Big4 so I can at least get a decent paycheck.

        • Squirrel

          I work in mid size and make more than my Big 4 friends at the same level…

      • Guest

        We talk about the Big 4 because the Big 4 are all basically alike, and so many more people are in their meat grinder now, or remember it like a vivid nightmare.  Smaller firms all vary in different ways, and not as many readers will have had the same experiences.
        The national firms (which are considered small by the Big 4) are fairly different from each other in the ways they managed to look like dolts.  McGladery and GT and BKD actually manager to differ from each other, but not always in a good way.
        Regional firms are just boring, unless there’s an embezzlement and/or adultery scandal.
        No one cares about local firms but the people working for them and a handful of their clients.
        And then there’s the person working out of their den, because they couldn’t hack a bigger firm, were really really optimistic about their skills, or had a hefty bank balance thanks a well-paid spouse/a long successful career and they wanted to get off the hamster wheel.

        • Boomshakalaka

          Working for yourself at 1/2 the pay of a B4 partner minus the hamster wheel = winning

    • phraXe

      If I have everything else, but I’m a rule-breaker I guess that I just have to open my own shop.