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

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]