When I started in public accounting, one of the audit partners I worked with shared the elevator metaphor: working in public accounting is like riding an elevator—the longer you stay on, the higher up you will go.
When should you leave?
The go-to response from all partners at every firm (stay until manager) is probably the biggest load of horseshit they will ever try to sell you—although “one year here is the same as two or three in industry” and “I had to do that, so you should, too” are close competitors. The real answer (and the favorite answer of all accountants everywhere): it depends.
Take the elevator metaphor—the elevator may be going up, but where does it really take you? Are you even in the right building? Think about auditing. The audit building is pretty big, but what will you find on the upper floors? Audit partners? Absolutely. BUT beware of the PCAOB inspectors, internal inspectors, and the peer review inspectors who surround the ever-growing mounds of FASB, SEC, PCAOB, and firm “guidance” haunting those floors. This makes the ride to the top of the building less and less appealing each year.
How about leaving for industry somewhere at or after the manager floor? Chief accounting officer is probably the pinnacle here. Controllership, financial reporting, technical accounting, internal audit, revenue accounting, and some specific types of consulting will all still be available along the way, but with each floor you go up, you need to know what you are choosing to leave behind.
You wanted financial planning and analysis? Sorry, you should have exited the elevator on the second floor and used the skybridge to walk to the FP&A building next door. Treasury? Same thing. Private equity? Ditto. Mergers and acquisitions? You should have transferred into transaction advisory at or before you made it to audit senior. You wanted lots of experience working on business strategy and IPOs? You should have hit the down button on the elevator, left the building, and walked to the consulting firm down the street. You want to be a fund manager or a private wealth advisor? You need to be in a different part of town (aka “Finance MBA”). You wanted to be a CFO? These days, your chances of becoming a CFO at a global 5,000 company get exponentially worse the longer you stay in core accounting—you only needed two to three years max at an accounting firm and then you should have moved on to more of a finance, advisory, or private equity role.
As you consider these facts, the big-firm adage of “just make it to manager and then explore your options” is no longer a good one-size-fits-all answer (in reality, it never was). The truth hurts (and then it makes you free). In a world full of specialization, the need to make career path choices comes earlier than ever before.
The time to start thinking about your future is the day you sign an offer to start in public accounting (or perhaps even before that), not the day you make manager. The catch? The goal of every big firm (and most mid-size firms, too) seems to be to keep you so busy as staff and seniors that you have no time to step back and reflect on what you want. A couple years fly right by if all you do is move from one fire drill to another. This is something the pandemic inadvertently tampered with and is part of the staffing problem in public accounting today—working from home while the media screamed “the sky is falling” gave people time to pause and reflect on their current choices and their future (i.e., the Great Resignation and the real reason I believe many companies are pushing to force a return to the office, but that is a topic for another day).
So, what do you do now? What if you are on the elevator and you realize you never wanted to be? Or worse, what if you are only on the elevator because you haven’t figured out what you want? Inaction is still a choice because by doing nothing, you are still moving up in the elevator. (Side note: this is how about half the partners in public accounting became partners.)
Start figuring out where you are headed TODAY! Talk to people in any area you MIGHT be interested in. Learn about their experiences and the path they took (or currently recommend) to get there. A name on your resume and the professional network you develop while in public accounting are the two biggest assets your firm gives you in exchange for perma-busy season. Use that network, figure out what you really want, and live your dreams! That might mean staying at the firm another year, two, five, or the rest of your career. Alternatively, it might mean you should have left last year or never started in the first place. No matter what, you deserve to figure it out and you are the only person keeping yourself from it—whatever “it” is.
About the author:
C.P. Aiden is a former Big 4 assurance senior manager who bounced between public accounting and industry three times during the past 15-plus years. After leaving public accounting for good, he wrote and self-published an office comedy series, “Waive Further Review,” about a first-year audit engagement and subsequent financial statement restatement that pokes fun at the work, life, and culture inside today’s largest public accounting firms.