The Partner Track

Do Swinging Singles Have Any Chance At Making Partner in Public Accounting?

Do you, Grunt, take this crappy life to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, from this day forward until death do you part? That's great and all but maybe you need a little pre-marital counseling. We're not licensed professionals but […]

Are You a Loser If You Don’t Make Partner at a Big 4 Firm?

Good morning capital market servants. Presumably, none of you were on the Brooklyn Bridge yesterday which also probably means you’ve still got a job, a career to think about, etc. etc.

How’s that going by the way? Are you on the partner track or do you have partner tracks on your back? Haven’t given it much thought lately but hey, this is what you’re doing and sure, making partner seems like a sweet gig, amiright?

Well an interesting statement from the Grumpy Old Accountants today got me to thinking about all of you hoping for a seat at the big table:

In fact, in the Big Four accounting firms today, if you don’t make partner, you often are considered a loser.


Now this little snippet comes out of a much larger discussion about why some many accountants are cheaters (it’s because everyone wants to be perceived as a “winner”). That’s a fine discussion as well, and the GOA post is worth a read, but we’ll focus on the notion that “no parter = loser.”

I certainly had my own partner aspirations for a brief point in time and many of you out there in Big 4 land have them right now. For me, my attitude changed when I observed a few partners, saw what their workload and lives were like and thought, “JESUS H. CHRIST, BEING A PARTNER SUCKS.”

The problem is, if you’re appear to be making a career for yourself at a Big 4 firm (I was quite the nomad which doesn’t really work), what is the ultimate goal? No one says to themselves, “I’d be fine with making Senior Manager in 8-10 years and then spending THE NEXT 30 in that same position.” As such, partner is a goal for many of you. However, we all know that Senior Manager is a parking lot in most service lines, so it may not be 30 years at SM but it’ll sure seem like 30. Having said that, if you like your firm, are reasonably good to FUCKING AWESOME at your job, then why wouldn’t you want to make partner? Not all Big 4 partners are created equal but if you’re on the fast track at PwC, would doing anything less than being admitted to the partnership satisfy your professional ambitions? And if you give up on career goals because…well, just because…does that not make you a L-O-S-E-R?

The answer is no. Personally, I’ve seen plenty of people with partner-level talent, hot on the partner track give it up because 1) something better comes along; 2) They want their life back; 3) SOMETHING BETTER COMES ALONG. In fact, many new partners are working harder than ever (i.e. “like a 2nd Year Senior Associate” has been overheard). Does that sound like a “winner” to you? GOA might have it exactly bassackwards. The last thing most Big 4 alums will tell you is that they feel like losers because they didn’t make partner. Quite the opposite in fact. It’s probably more accurate to say you’re a loser if you think you’ve got a shot at making partner at a Big 4 firm.

UDPATE:
Professor Ketz clarifies below (seen via Twitter) that they the GOAs were talking about the culture within the Big 4 firms rather than you individual losers:

As we said, “… IN THE BIG FOUR ACCOUNTING FIRMS TODAY, if you don’t make partner, you often are considered a loser” (emphasis added). We were discussing the culture of the large accounting firms–we were not discussing our evaluations of those who are not partners. After all, we aren’t partners and we hope we aren’t losers!!

I’ll continue my contrary narrative here and argue that this not the case either. As we know, Big 4 firms sell themselves as great places to start careers but they don’t regularly make the case that this is where you want to spend 15-20 years of your professional life. The culture inside has evolved to accept attrition as part of the formula and that younger professionals are anxious when it comes to getting ahead. In fact, things have changed so much that convincing the talented professionals to stay is part of the culture. Hearing “You’ve got a bright future here,” from a pair of partners over lunch is standard these days because they know the “winners” will leave and the “losers” don’t know when to get out.

How Bad Are the Odds of Making Partner at a Big 4 Firm?

If you’re a (senior) manager at one of the Final Four horsemen of the accounting firm apocalypse, you may have asked yourself this very question. A reader recently dropped some quantitative analysis on us, writing, “I tried to step past anecdote and see how bad things really were.” This is specifically for the audit practice and is fairly large office, so adjust your expectations accordingly.

Using commonly available data from my firm, I decided to create a quasi-statistical analysis of the likelihood of senior managers making partner in the near future.

There were, as of the date I pulled this data, 843 senior managers in our audit practice. It’s too time consuming to divide these among starting classes, so I’ve made the following simplified assumptions:

Tenure:
9 year – 30% of the population, or 253 senior managers
10 year – 25%, or 211
11 year – 20%, or 169
12 year – 15%, or 126
13 year – 10% or 84

Let’s consider half of year 11 and all of year 12 and 13+ to be “in the pipeline”. That’s 295 senior managers competing for a given number of partner/principal/director (“partner”) spots.

Our tipster used a sample of approximately 200 partners (out of an assumed total of ~1,000) to conclude that approximately 14% of them would retire in the next five years (assuming 30+ years with the firm, mandatory retirement at 62) and assumed a 6% growth rate (which he/she admits, is on the aggressive side).

Here’s an extrapolation of open spots based on turnover and growth:

1,000 partners x 14% turnover = 140 partners turn over due to attrition, or 28 partners per year
1,000 partners x 6% growth = 60 partners per year, ignoring compounding

84 new partners sounds like a lot of partners. That’s because it is. Those in the know put our planned crop of partners at ~50 for 2011. At best, you’re looking at 1 in 4 of those high performing senior managers making partner, based on our assumptions. More realistically, it means that 1 in 6 can make partner.

Maybe you’ll take those odds, maybe you won’t but like we said, if you’re working in an office that is a fraction of the size in our tipster’s pattern, your odds could be worse depending on the situation in your office. Our tipster continues:

These odds are much worse than anyone is willing to admit, and simply making promotion a war of attrition by extending the partner track to 15 years isn’t going to do much to clear up the pipeline, since very few senior managers are going to find an opportunity that presents the chance of making $300k plus within 2 or 3 years. The situation gets even more grim for senior managers in their 9th and 10th year, who have a huge backlog in front of them and a glut of peers who were hired in the SarBox days of senior managers leaving for 30-40% raises and expect the same in their own careers.

Experienced seniors and new managers should very carefully consider the extended consequences of this data, and what it’s going to look like in 7-9 years when they are trying to make partner. The days of 15% growth in our industry are over and aren’t coming back, and the reality is that many Big 4 senior managers simply are not employable in industry at their current salary levels. Think through your career decisions in the coming 18 months very carefully.

As we’ve discussed, the firms know full well that not everyone has the goal of becoming a partner but if you do have partner ambitions, you’re in a pretty select group. The problem is, the odds still seem to be against you. Now with busy season winding down and three of the four firms closing in on fiscal year-ends, this year’s performance (and prospects outside the firm, depending on how promotions fall out) will be weighing heavy on the minds of many.

How Long Does It Take to Climb the Ladder at Ernst & Young?

Welcome to the where-the-hell-is-Bahrain? edition of Accounting Career Emergencies. In today’s edition, a future E&Y tax associate wants the lowdown on the black and yellow ladder. How high are these rungs, anyway?

Caught in a career conundrum? Have a co-worker that keeps swiping your red Swingline? Want to put the moves on a fellow auditor in the copy room? Email us at advice@goingconcern.com and we’ll help you avoid anything that involves in a knuckle.

Back to our girl on the partner track:

Hi,

I will be starting in the tax dept of a Big Four soon.

How long would it take to move up the tax ladder? (Yes, yes I know your response will be to start first before I start thinking about promotions… But I am thinking ahead…)

What is the minimum number of years typically required at each level? Are exceptions ever made? What goes into promotion decisions? How long would it take to get to the partner/director level? Is the promotion criteria generally standard across all Big Four or is there some variation?

Thanks,
Ms. Thinking Ahead

Dear Ms TA,

You’re quite the eager….errr, go-getter aren’t you? That’s good, I like my accountants ambitious. We’re not intimately familiar with the ladder at E&Y but we’ll give it a go and let the bean gallery fill in the gaps.

Typically, you can expect to be an associate two to three years before being promoted to senior. Depending on the needs of your practice group and your performance, this could be shorter or longer. In order to get the bump to manager, you can expect another three years at a minimum, again, subject to the needs of your group and whether or not you’re impressing the pants off the brass. From there, you can expect at least two years at manager, another two to three as a senior manager and then, if you’re lucky and you have a good business case, TPTB might start looking at your for admittance to the partnership. Altogether, you’re looking at a bare minimum of nine years before you can even get a whiff of partner and twelve to fifteen is probably a more realistic time frame. There are exceptions of course but that’s more or less the timeline.

Because tax doesn’t have the same fee pressure as their audit counterparts the wait might not be as long but don’t forget, not just anyone gets into the partnership. You need to be a performer and be able to win new clients. The benefit of tax is that it has more diverse career paths available, so if you find discover that you’re a wizard at transfer pricing or M&A, you might see a quicker ascension.

This presupposes the fact that you obtain your CPA in a timely fashion as most tax practices will not promote you to manager without a CPA, a JD or EA. How about it black and yellow tax troops? Dispel with the gory details as necessary.

A Partner Hopeful Can’t Decide Between KPMG and a Mid-Tier Firm

Welcome to the light-the-menorah edition of Accounting Career Emergency. In today’s edition, a lucky co-ed who is convinced she wants a career in public accounting has internship offers from KPMG and GT and maybe another from BDO. Multiple choice study skills won’t really help her so she turned us for our sage advice.

Is your career on life support? Worried that the long hours during the upcoming busy season might finally cause you to crack? Does your family remind you of Arrested Development? Email us at advice@goingconcern.com and we’ll have no problem crushing your brother-in-law’s dreams of playing with the Blue Man Group.

Back to the multiple choice exercise:

I recently received an internship offer from both Grant Thornton and KPMG in Chicago. I more than likely will be getting an offer from BDO as well. Unlike many who go Big 4 then jump ship to industry, I want to make a long term career out of public accounting (i.e., hopefully make partner some day).

I liked the supposed “culture” and the people at all of the firms, but now I can’t decide which one I want to go with. I don’t know if going midsized will mean quicker promotions, and somewhat better hours (relatively speaking), or if the Big 4 prestige is even relevant long term within the public accounting field. Please help me make sense of this…

Dear Partner Hopeful,

Pardon us but we’ll briefly delve into semantics for a second – “midsized” isn’t really representative of GT or BDO (we’re not crazy about mid-tier either but we’re open to suggestions) as they both have vast international networks. It is also true that the Big 4 dwarf GT and BDO combined so a moniker for the non-Big 4 firms (because that also sucks) could be the most important debate to come out of your question. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Now, then. We’re impressed that you have your mind made up that you want a long-term career in public accounting. That was our initial aspirations as well and look how that turned out. All we’re saying is, don’t get ahead of yourself and the culture will wane, trust us.

As for the Big 4 vs. GT/BDO question – for starters, the promotion pace will be similar no matter where you go. Besides, do you really want to get to senior manager in 5-6 years just to sit there for 10 more before you make partner? Our guess is, nofuckingway.

Secondly, don’t ask about hours. They will be long no matter where you go. Get over it.

The most provocative part of your question is related to prestige. GT and BDO rank #5 and #6 in Vault’s latest ranking, so it’s not like you’re working for complete schlubs. Plus, Chicago, as you’re well aware, is where Grant Thornton and BDO are headquartered. Conventional wisdom may tell you that KPMG is a more prestigious firm regardless of location and that very well may be true. But if you’re working in the HQ city of GT or BDO, you’re likely to hobnob with some of the most high-ranking professionals within those two firms. Not taking anything away from KPMG Chicago, but you simply won’t get the same exposure to the firm’s national leadership as you would at Grant Thornton or BDO.

Bottom line is that all the firms are solid and if you’re sold on the people and culture, you’ll have no problem fitting in at any of them. But if you’re concerned with prestige and building your network, it’s worth considering the opportunity of getting exposure to the bigwigs at GT and BDO.

Former Big 4 Employee Has Some Thoughts on the Motivation Behind Becoming a Partner

For many of you in public accounting, the idea of becoming a partner in your firm is either a career aspiration or a thought that borders on lunacy. A few might fall in between those two spectrums but if you ask most people, they’ve got a pretty definitive answer on the “do you want to be a partner?” question.

Awhile back we received a message from a former Big 4 rank and file who had some thoughts on the matter:

When you enter Big 4 as an associate, the assumed goal is to make Partner. This seemed like a great goal at first, kind of like making it to the 12th grade in high school, or getting a degree (or two) from a good college. Or maybe even being voted in as the President of your sorority or fraternity. Take your pick. It’s the culminatied work, dedication, a little luck and a dash of favoritism from the Powers on High. However, the more I worked in B4, and the more I saw the “pyramid” continue to rear its ugly shape, I became appalled that anyone could WANT to be Partner.


We’ll just briefly chime in here to say that equating high school graduation to making partner is a bit of stretch (and we let a lot of things go). We know lots of people that graduated high school that could barely operate velcro sneakers.

Back to the rant:

The obvious reasons why someone would want to make Partner? Money, fame, money, power, money. Let’s be honest, it’s pretty much just for the money. But at the cost of what? More often than not: a tough family life (perhaps divorced, an affair or five, missed family dinners), working on the weekends, hardly seeing your kids due to work (e.g. weekend working, wining and dining clients, etc), and – the part that disturbed me the most – the fact that you are making your money from the “blood, sweat, and tears” of the miserable little minions working til all hours of the day and night for YOUR profit. I honestly don’t think that I could ever, in good conscious, become a partner, knowing the levels of stress I (directly or indirectly) put on my little “worker bees.”

Okay, time to jump in – to insinuate that partners (and aspiring partners) are simply motivated by money is silly. For starters, most partners will never pull down the salaries that the Jim Turleys and T Fly of the world are pulling down. Secondly, there are plenty of people working in public accounting – believe it or not – that really enjoy the auditing/tax/advisory work they do. If this is something an individual is aspiring to do long-term, having some skin in the game (“your profit”) is a worthwhile goal.

As for as personal lives go – more than 50% of human beings that get married end up getting divorced, so that’s weak and most partners (at least in our experience ) are not the lady-killer/man-eaters that you describe.

Continuing on:

Perhaps it is this mentality alone that makes me wholly unfit to ever be a partner or even a C-suite bigwig. Perhaps being a female I see the dog-eat-dog corporate world at a level that is far too emotional and compassionate.

But then again, who knows? Perhaps, hypothetically, by the time I finished the long uphill journey to Partner, clawing my way to the top, I would be so engrossed by the money and power that I wouldn’t have the time or space in my thoughts to think of the “little people” that were making my money-making factory churn. I would be immune to their complaints, responding with, “Stop your whining. We’ve ALL been there before. Just keep putting in your time, and everything will turn out okay.”

“Engrossed by money and power”? Now we’re getting ridiculous. This is public accounting, not an über-competitive hedge fund or the hallowed walls of the U.S. Capitol.

Once you make partner, the struggle is just beginning. Being at the top of the totem pole for an individual team might seem like a powerful spot but it’s anything but. The politics reach a whole new level when you make partner that most of us can’t even imagine. So, while you may think that partners consider staff and managers “little people” many of them probably feel like little people as well. Plus, they have significant (and sometimes grossly unrealistic) expectations placed on them, so any pressure you’re feeling, they’re likely feeling it as well.

Partners are still human and they have to make hard decisions that affect people directly and most of them are consciously aware of this. How each of them handles that responsibility is obviously different but you make them sound like soulless robots and that’s simply not the case.

So what’s the motivation, partners? If our reader is right, then proceed to tell us your stories of fame and fortune (yachts, trips to Monaco, et al.). But if you want to set the record straight then we invite you to level with the haters out there.

Earlier:
The Partner Track: Open Thread

The Partner Track: Open Thread

aspirations.jpgA friend of GC recently brought up the holy grail of public accounting: admission to the partnership. We were informed that in one Big 4 office in the west, the timeline for making partner had recently increased from 12 – 13 years to 15 – 16 years.

Maybe three additional years after a dozen is NBD but it might cause some to jump ship.

We would assume that this trend would be more likely in smaller markets but we’re opening this to you to discuss what you’re hearing about your office and firm.

Vote in our poll below about your partner aspirations and discuss further in the comments (and anything else partner-related for that matter). For the current partners kindly give your future partners some perspective on the journey. The good, the bad, whatever.