16 Jul 2014 11:28am

Planning your accountancy career

When planning your accountancy career, whether to go long term or short stay is a crucial decision. Rachel Fielding weighs up the pros and cons of parking it

W hen accountancy trainee Simon Michaels joined BDO in 1987 after completing his A-levels, it was the start of a 17-year career at the mid-tier firm that took him all the way to managing partner. As a long-termer, Michaels is in good company: PwC chairman and senior partner Ian Powell joined the UK firm as a graduate trainee in 1977 and former KPMG chairman John Griffith-Jones enjoyed a career spanning 37 years there.

The so-called job for life may have all but disappeared in the corporate world – analyst Mintel found that younger workers in particular are more likely to have had several employers over the past five years – but across the accountancy sector, examples of successful individuals who worked their way up the corporate ladder in one firm are well documented.

For those planning their career onslaught – including those from Generation Y perhaps unfairly criticised for their inability to stick things out – the question is, have the rules of engagement changed since Michaels’s rise to the top? What are the benefits and disadvantages of staying with a firm long-term over moving around to gain experience; and does one approach give ambitious accountants the edge over the other when it comes to achieving success?

Perhaps in contrast to the industry side of the fence, where those staying put may be labelled unambitious, remaining with a practice isn’t coloured with the same preconceptions. “If anything, people are seen as being more ambitious if they stay to get promoted to partner,” says Heather Townsend, executive coach and author of How to make partner and still have a life.


Forging a successful career appears far more dependent on EQ – emotional intelligence – than IQ. Getting the right work exposure is critical, so remaining to exploit the power of a strong internal network is not to be sniffed at. “Within practice, sponsors and mentors are absolutely critical because they dictate the right exposure to the right clients,” says Mark Freebairn, head of the financial management practice at search firm Odgers Berndtson. “Trading your network to move to a firm where no one knows you from Adam is a brave career step.”

But sometimes a move outside the company makes absolute sense. Despite their scale and breadth, those who start their careers in the Big Four may find that it is actually quite difficult to satisfy a desire for a broad range of business experiences within one firm. This is in part due to the narrow and deep training that has increasingly become the norm at the largest firms, not to mention the politics of internal moves (see box).

“You see a lot of CVs of Big Four people circulating around and then dropping to the mid tier because they’ve exhausted their Big Four options,” Townsend explains. Skills not as in demand at the Big Four are desirable in the mid tier and could be enough to put candidates on the partnership track. “They’re looking at what business development currency you’d bring with you, whether it’s clients, technical speciality or networks you’ve built up that they can exploit quickly,” Townsend adds.

If it’s specific business expertise you’re after, an industry placement may be preferable to a move to a smaller firm in order to tick the box. While emulating the success of Margaret Ewing, who returned to Deloitte following board-level positions at BAA and Trinity Mirror, may be an unrealistic objective, the opportunities for six- to nine-month secondments are plentiful, Freebairn maintains.

Even though firms are in the middle of a war for talent, becoming partner is not an automatic rite of passage. “One of the disadvantages of staying in a firm is that there may not be an opening for partner. It took one person I know eight years at director level before she made it to partner,” explains Townsend.


Not everyone is convinced that being a lifer in a firm is the best strategy for career development. “I don’t think it’s possible to stay in the same firm to develop the skills you need to be a successful partner,” says Stephen Quest, an independent tax advisor and former Grant Thornton partner who sat on GT’s partner appointment panel.

Sticking it out in one firm, Quest argues, doesn’t give you enough opportunity to develop the broad skills you need to be a successful partner, such as an entrepreneurial approach and the ability to communicate effectively with clients.

At the same time, employment patterns across the profession are shifting, says Robert Holland, managing partner, who is responsible for HR at regional firm James Cowper: “There are far fewer lifers than there ever were,” he says. Of James Cowper’s 14 partners, just one has been with the firm all the way through. “A serial career is much more normal than it was when I started.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Hazel Garvey, director of business development at ICAEW. “For a lot of students coming through now, there’s not a natural feeling that they’ll stay anywhere for a long time. It’s difficult to get them to think long term.”

Ask the partners which divorce they’re on – it’s a good gauge of stress levels at the firm

Moving around from employer to employer when you’ve qualified isn’t going to hold your career back, as long as the choices you make allow you to gain the right experiences to meet your ultimate career objectives, Garvey says. Devising a roadmap and planning your strategy involves a fair amount of soul searching. And yet career management is often neglected. “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” may be the ultimate career cliché, but for ambitious accountants it’s an essential question to ask of yourself.


“The benefit of switching employer is you can move at the pace of your career rather than the pace of the firm’s growth,” Townsend says. You need to make sure the firm you go to is the right cultural fit, or that could hamper your career development.

“A high-stress, long-hours culture isn’t necessarily a problem as long as you can cope with it but it’s best to be forewarned. Are people smiling? Ask the partners which divorce they’re on. It’s a good gauge of stress levels at the firm.”

A couple of strategic lateral moves to other firms can certainly be beneficial, particularly early in your career. “There’s a lot of grunt work in the early stages of an accountancy career. So leaving behind a reputation, good or bad, and starting with a clean sheet of paper in a new firm can be a good thing,” Townsend says.

Natalie Greenway, who is development manager at Baker Tilly, admits that changing firms can help fast-track a promotion by bypassing the often onerous internal assessment and development processes.
“It’s easier to go in direct as a partner rather than being promoted internally.” But she makes no excuses for the firm’s rigorous approach to development. “A lot of people put pressure on the time it takes to get a promotion rather than focusing on whether they are properly equipped for the role.”

But Freebairn warns that a decision to move from the Big Four to a mid-tier firm should not be taken lightly. “You can step down in size to get the promotion, but you have to be comfortable that it’s a long-term move,” he says.

In football terms, if you’re Wayne Rooney and leave Manchester United to join Cambridge United for two years, and then want to play with a big team again, you could find Barcelona won’t touch you with a barge pole.

Despite a 28-year career with the firm, Liz Bingham, EY’s managing partner, talent, admits there isn’t a model route. “I stuck it out because I was given lots of opportunities to do lots of different things under the banner of one employer. Others will have to look outside for the opportunities.”

The good news is that if you do decide to leave, you won’t be left with a black mark by your name, particularly among the Big Four, which boasts the highest number of ‘boomerangs’ – staff who leave and then return to the firm – across the profession. EY’s global chairman and CEO, Mark Weinberger, has left and come back four times.

Nonetheless Bingham urges individuals to stay put until they have exhausted all opportunities for progression within a firm. And if you do leave, it’s important not to burn any bridges. “Be very clear to yourself and others about why you’re leaving and how it will benefit you. Don’t assume that everyone understands your ambitions.”

All of this could be academic, if research into the future of work is anything to go by. Changes in technology and communications are predicted to result in an elite of “gold collar” workers boasting deep technical specialisms and broader business skills. “Career progression won’t be the norm. It will be about more flexible working and different roles. Already there’s a lot less linear expectation,” explains accountant Carol McLachlan, an 18-year veteran of EY and now a business coach.

Whether you stay or go, McLachlan says it’s about having a strong supporting case, owning your career and making it work for you. “The correlation with success will come from emotional intelligence. Have a clear strategy and play to your strengths.”


The increasing complexity of the UK’s tax system has led to individuals forging narrow and deep specialisms across niche areas of accounting, particularly in the largest firms. The flip side is that it can prevent them from gaining the breadth of experiences that so many desire.

Liz Bingham, managing partner, talent, at EY admits that recruits at the firm “get trained to within an inch of their lives within a deep technical area”. But despite the huge breadth of potential opportunities offered by Big Four firms, the politics of moving from one department to another can be extremely, if surprisingly, problematic.

In response to this, EY is launching its Talent Centre, offering careers advice to newly qualified staff at the firm. “Our objective is to harness the power of the firm to enable individuals to broaden their experiences. We would like to retain more people through this exercise,” Bingham admits.

And while she says that cultural fit could be a reason for moving to a competitor, Bingham adds: “I would be surprised if it would be common advice to suggest they move to a rival Big Four firm.”

Rachel Fielding


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