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To Partner or Not to Partner: That Is the Senior Manager’s Question

big 4 promotion senior manager partner

A while back, a Big 4 senior manager reached out to share his plight. In short, this person told us making partner in a big firm is nothing but a game; in this person’s words, “[There’s a] Game of Thrones-esque BS that goes on in the firm as people try to jockey to be promoted in the coming year.”

This statement in and of itself was not news to us, but the complainant went into a level of detail we hadn’t seen in quite some time, if ever, from a person living the professional back-and-forth that many senior managers experience within accounting firms, most often Big 4 firms.

First and foremost, this person told us, the technical chops you bring to the table are mere table stakes. Once you’ve accepted that and worked toward accomplishments in other areas of the firm, it may still not be enough to give you the boost you need to make partner.

Aside from the professional expectations, the other problem facing senior managers is whether an individual fully understands and desires the ownership aspect of being partner. Our source told us that as time goes on, “I question whether I want to be a part-owner of a business like this.” Our source is cynical about intermediate positions like managing directors, non-equity partners, and the like, seeing them as appeasements for those seemingly parked at senior manager.

The goal of becoming a partner is something many people start their careers with but with experience the desire erodes, especially within the Big 4, for a variety of reasons. Our source’s list of grievances is long, but here are some highlights that this person shared with us:

  • “The promotion (any promotion—not just the partner one) process is political—it doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve done, where you did it, or how much it was worth, it only matters who knows.”
  • “The process is never about your accumulated contributions, but rather […] ‘what have you done for me lately?’”
  • “The firm almost always looks to the external business need (i.e., revenue) when making decisions, and even then it is usually for the short-term. But if we don’t solve our internal problems, we won’t have a business for much longer and these needs are decidedly not revenue-generating.”
  • “Let’s be honest, the reason we do things this way is because we’ve always done them this way.”
  • “At first glance, the promotion process in public accounting seems to be merit-based.  But in actuality, what we have is a system based on tenure (i.e., you’ve been here long enough and not become fed up with said system and left) and cronyism (i.e., who do you know).”
  • “This is all in addition to the performance management process being inherently subjective and therefore flawed to its core.”

For those who’ve already become partners, these complaints might seem resentful or cynical. We reached out to many current, recently promoted partners, however, most didn’t respond, or declined to comment. Based on conversations Going Concern had with former partners, as well as current and former senior managers who’ve experienced the process first-hand, we’ve gotten plenty of confirmation that many hurdles to the partner track expressed by our frustrated senior manager are more than accurate and represent typical sentiment at this level.

One former PwC partner told us that there are many paths to partner but “[it] is often more a case of being in the right place at the right time.” This includes “getting on the right job, being part of a winning proposal, getting the favor of a powerful partner,” but most importantly “getting proposed [as a partner candidate] in a year where the business case is easy—the firm is growing fast and you are not simply waiting to replace a retiring partner.”

Even those senior managers who might have a clear path to partner are unsure. One senior manager at a national firm told Going Concern that he had been encouraged by many to pursue a promotion to partner. This person’s firm has a formal process for senior managers that teach about the role of a partner and allow for networking internally and externally. This process, our source said, provides the opportunity to hear a lot of different perspectives, dealing with the lifestyle, and what the professional responsibilities are like. This person estimated that 20% of senior managers are confident that they want to make partner; 20% are unsure; and 60% are uncertain about risk, lifestyle, and whether or not they want to stay at the firm.

Ultimately, this senior manager felt that the responsibilities of business development did not align with his preferred activities of technical knowledge, mentoring, and training. This person said that it’s “very difficult to decide what you want to be when you grow up. [I’m] still trying to figure out whether this is the thing for me.“

Then there are those senior managers who were certain about NOT pursuing partner. A KPMG director who opted for a non-partner career in his firm’s assurance practice told Going Concern that he was “really happy to not pursue the partner track” because “mistakes are scrutinized” and that it doesn’t seem worth it “to have one bad audit derail your career.” This person felt that in the short-term, there were still many senior managers interested in making partner but in the next 10-15 years that could change. “Accounting, in general, pulls people who are more ‘old school.’” The rising generations may not be as interested in such linear careers, this person said. This observation aligns data we’ve seen over the years from profession leaders concerned about the younger generation’s disinterest in the partner track and with the accounting profession’s pipeline problem, this could lead to a critical shortage of accounting firm partners in a matter of years.

Despite the indistinct chaos of busy season, thinking about the next step is never out of the minds of Big 4 professionals. Third- or fourth-year senior managers, especially, have to wonder how long their patience will last. And given the increasing number of lucrative and more flexible career paths, the appeal of the partner track is slipping.