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Close to Partner, But Having Second Thoughts

PwC announced its new partner class last week and it's a reminder that becoming partner in accounting firm is an impressive career milestone. Yes, despite a ton of opportunities to find meaningful, less soul-sucking work elsewhere, a few of you reading these words right now will become partners and live to tell about it (at least for awhile).

But most of you won't. Many will burn out fast, 1-2 years tops. Many will nearly make it into their 30s. And a small group will tredge on, held captive by the money or the guilt or the inability to get themselves fired. These people will one day find themselves as senior managers, a step away from joining the exclusive group of men and women (but mostly men) who are accounting firm partners. They'll get thisclose and then start having doubts about their life choices. Today, we have one of those:

Here's my story.  I'm in my 13th year in public at a large national firm.  I made senior associate, manager and now senior manager about as fast as anyone can make it these days.  Now that I've been a senior manager for a few years, I am looking to become a partner in the next 1-2 years.  I've been told by key decision makers that my time is coming and to just keep doing what I am doing and it will be here in no time. Things are looking up for me with more money and flexibility, but as someone in their mid 30's, I'm starting to feel burnt out in public just when I am at the final leg of my journey to partner.

It's worth noting that the path to partner in a national firm (this person wanted to keep their name and location confidential) is 14-15 years. It will vary by market, obviously, but most people do not stay with the same company that long anymore. Not by a long shot. To make it this far with one firm will become increasingly rare.

The money today is good, but it's never enough.  The outlook for first year partner is higher, but still not enough to keep me from questioning whether I should pull the plug on this journey now and get out to have a better work life balance.  Every morning I wake up with a high level of stress and a feeling in my stomach like the day is going to suck.  On Sunday nights, I dread the idea of being in the office to deal with the upcoming week, which is never as bad as it seems, but still a constant grind.

Wake-up stress? Sunday night dread? This is not good.

The hardest part for me has become the work-life balance.  I'm married, with young children and I truly enjoy spending time with my family.  I want to be home to eat dinner with my wife and to read to my children before they go to bed, but my career always seems to come first and my family second.  As the money has got better, I'm afraid to even put a resume together because public accounting has provided me with a good income and I've convinced myself that I would have to take a pay cut to go into private, even though I could be wrong.  Since we've built a lifestyle based on my salary, if I switched jobs for less money it would have a negative impact. That is a deal breaker for me.  I refuse to go backwards even for a minute (it's a pride thing).

Liking money is a common plight, yes. Public accounting firms depend on this for, what, 90% of their current managers and senior managers?

I've got into a catch 22 (which may all be in my head) that if I leave public then my financial lifestyle changes, but if I stay in public I'm never going to get the work life balance I am looking for.  I'm curious if you have other readers who may either be in the same position I am in now or have lived through this before. It basically goes to the age old question, do I leave the firm I've been at since I graduated college in hopes that grass is greener on the other side or do I stick with the devil I know?

I used to chide people motivated by money, but I've softened on that stance, if only a little bit. For this chap (and anyone else in a similar situation), the thing to remember is that wounds to your pride can be healed. Wounds inflicted on your family (i.e. spending years away from them at the office) cannot. To assume that your financial well-being and lifestyle will take a permanent setback if you leave public accounting is simply wrong. There's no shortage of jobs out there that will pay someone with 25+ years left in his career a good salary and let him go home to eat dinner with his family.

Who's been in this situation? How did you ultimately decide it was time to jump ship? Or did you stay and make partner? Share your experiences and bestow wisdom to your comrade.

Image: iStock/Bernd Neeser