What makes a Big 4 partner? Chris Carter, Crawford Spence and Claire Dambrin (academics, natch) set out to find that answer, looking specifically at partners in Canada, France and the UK. You will not be surprised by the results.
First, they discovered that only about 2-3% of those who start out at Big 4 make it to partner level. While these "elite" of the profession are rare, they are remarkably unremarkable. The researchers wrote:
We talked to over 50 partners, ex-partners and people who didn’t make partner in Britain and Canada. The similarities far overshadowed any differences. Partners were very much “self-made men” and, save for a few exceptions, were drawn from modest social backgrounds. This meritocratic quality was deeply infused within the firms we visited, with a notable ‘can do’ ethos. The driven quality of the partners often extended to their leisure pursuits. Whereas the stereotype is of a partner playing a good deal of golf, they were much more likely to be competing in endurance cycle races or long distance running events. The participation in endurance sports is a fitting metaphor. Partners are driven, high energy people who exude self-confidence.
The actual path to partner — which we have written about plenty over here ourselves — is a fairly straightforward one. Put in your time, have someone within the firm to look up to a BAM, one day you wake up a member of the accounting elite:
We started by looking at British and Canadian partners. What we found was remarkably similar: it takes most partners 15-17 years to become a partner after joining; 60 to 70 hour weeks are the norm; partners are more likely to be white and male; the process of becoming a partner has become far more formalised than it was in the past; most people who make partnership highlight the importance of “having a good mentor” to help them navigate the complex, Byzantine politics of a Big Four firm.
Not at all surprisingly, the researchers also discovered that the key to making partner is two-fold: fitting in and bringing in the money. This would explain, then, why so many partners tend to be of similar backgrounds — who better to schmooze with the white male clients than white male partners?
In every case, the accountant “proved themselves” through completing a difficult piece of work that gained praise from the firm. This demonstrated that the accountant had ability and could be trusted by the organisation. This building of reputation brought the accountant into new networks in the firm where more opportunities arose. Proving oneself as being very good at a complex job is generally enough to get a promotion to director. Beyond that, wannabe partners need to demonstrate that they can move effortlessly with senior executives in client firms and that they can generate revenue. It’s a cliché, but cash is king. The Big Four are packed full of extremely competent technical specialists – what makes someone stand out is their ability to generate fee income. Entrepreneurialism is a prime quality.
The entire article is worth a read, especially when they get in to the difference between French partners and those in Britain and Canada. The Brits and the Canadians tend to be closer in background, career path, and social standing as our partners here at home (read: fairly average white guys who are good at making money for their firm) while in France, it's a completely different story. But in France, emphasis is placed on educational background far more than it is in Britain, Canada, and even here. Any lower middle class kid who can afford an accounting degree from Cal State Northridge can become a partner with the right drive; not so much in France. “We are worried when we don’t have enough ‘parisiennes’ [graduates of top Grandes Ecoles]," one French partner said. "I find that daft but in this firm we always have the illusion that if you haven’t been to a ‘parisienne’ then you can’t be a partner. That said, given that the clients of tomorrow will have studied at the same place, it is better to have them.”
This leads us to wonder out loud how that mentality might interfere with the profession's spoken desire to recruit more diverse hires, who often do not have the socioeconomic means to attend top schools but are just as worthy as their connected, financially stable counterparts.
All in all, good read either way.