Oliver Griffin 27 Jul 2017 11:00am

How to make partner

For many accountants, achieving the position of partner is the culmination of a life’s work. However, getting there is no easy task and it is never too early to think about your route to the top. Oliver Griffin looks at what it takes to make it

Caption: Illustration: Thomas Pullin

A dream for many, an achievement for few, reaching partner – or in the case of limited companies, director – is no small feat. Climbing the rungs takes grit, determination, sound technical knowledge and, of ever increasing importance, the ability to take a hands-on approach with the firm’s clients.

“People focus on technical skills, but they’re almost a given now,” says Sharon Spice, ICAEW’s director of global student recruitment. “It’s about underlying skills. People underestimate how important they are.

“As you get more senior, it becomes about your ability to demonstrate emotional intelligence, to engage with people, and certainly business development skills. They are paramount when you get to partner level. I travel around the world and I hear the same things again and again, from the public and the private sector. This is not a UK-centric thing – this is global reality.”

ICAEW recognises that many members will want to make partner. So much so that the ACA Skills Project was designed to coach accountants on topics such as professional scepticism, resilience, communication and many more things besides.

“If they don’t see the importance [of these skills] it will be made quite clear that, in order to go up the ladder, they will have to be able to manage teams of people,” Spice continues. “They need to be able to understand how to apply their technical experience in a work environment.”

The focus on skills that help would-be partners relate to clients and co-workers will only increase as traditional – perhaps more mundane – work is replaced by automation and technology. As attention shifts to provide accountants with the means to work alongside technology, leadership attributes rather than technical ability will gain increasing importance.

Getting there

Not to be too poetic but, like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two accountants are the same.

As such, it’s not about taking a specific route, but instead choosing the best path for the individual. It will come as no surprise that those hoping to become partner in a small local firm will face different challenges to those who want to scale the rungs at one of the Big Four.

Of course, one of the fastest routes to becoming partner is starting a new firm entirely, something that Paula Tomlinson, managing director of On The Spot Accountants, decided to do. “It has its stresses because ultimately it is just you,” Tomlinson explains. “You aren’t part of a massive organisation, which is a bit daunting at times. The flip side is that, when things are going well, you get to pat yourself on the back. If you are the sort of person who can deal with the highs and lows, you’d do well [leading your own] practice.”

For Tomlinson, determination is key to becoming a partner under your own flag, something that seems to have worked in her favour. Less than 10 years after opening her first branch, Tomlinson now has eight franchisees and a growing network. This, she explains, allows her to have more control over her vision and build an accountancy practice aimed at small businesses.

“I had a lot of family and friends who ran small businesses who weren’t very happy with their accountants,” she says. “I thought, ‘why don’t I set up my own practice to have a real tax focus?’. That’s what SMEs are most interested in. They want to know what the accountant is thinking. I went with a different emphasis, I saw it needed to be a bit different.”

Being a partner of your own firm means understanding what clients are coming to the firm for and, Tomlinson says, requires a broader approach to accounting than the depth that aspiring partners generally pursue in Big Four firms. “Your job is to marry your knowledge with what they want,” Tomlinson continues. “You have got to be persuasive and explain why; that gets you through problems [with clients].”

This sense of taking ownership is important for any accountant hoping to become partner, regardless of whether or not they founded the firm they work for. Mandy Janes, an audit partner at HW Fisher & Company, who has a PhD in endocrinology, swapped a career in research for a job that would let her take more control of her future through hard work, rather than relying on research grants. After qualifying in 2009, it didn’t take her long to ascend the ranks at the firm.

“The partners could see that I would be a good fit,” Janes says, “[and] that I would take a keen interest in the firm as a whole, including the recruitment and development of the staff. And they could see that my views could make a difference in running the firm in the future.”

Using her own journey as an example, Janes adds that for anyone who is thinking of or who has started a new career in accountancy after making a career swap should not shy away from aiming high on their new path. In fact, she says, it can even serve as an advantage.

“For many graduates coming in to accountancy, this is often their first experience of the workplace and a serious job,” she explains. “Those that make the career swap are therefore at a bit of an advantage as they are more experienced in life and attitude and can really focus on their goals having made the jump.”

In some cases, of course, young accountants prove their mettle and make the leap to partner in record time. Neil Calvert, the managing director of Rushtons, an accountancy firm that has practices in Blackpool and Preston, was made a partner of the firm at just 25. While he acknowledges that accountants “have got to be in the right place at the right time”, he stresses that demonstrating skills such as adaptability and analysis is always going to be vital for those who are in a hurry to get to the top.

“Come up with ideas,” Calvert, now 60, says. “In many ways I pestered the then partners by saying ‘we should do this’, ‘we should do that’. I told them to put the company name on every window and we were one of the first firms to put reasonably large adverts in Yellow Pages. We laugh about it now but I pushed us to introduce computers into the practice.”

If accountants do make the dizzying heights in their 20s – and not by launching their own business – Calvert warns to not rub older clients, or older colleagues, up the wrong way. “Working with colleagues takes careful handling,” he says. “You have to earn that respect, but it is difficult. Older clients perceive that you haven’t got the experience. But, really, younger partners are more up to date with rules and legislation than anyone else.”

Of course, for some, the bright lights of working in a top firm, particularly one of the Big Four, are more attractive. Yet while the path to partner can seem more fraught for those in these larger organisations, Samantha Day, a tax partner at KPMG, and a former partner at Grant Thornton, claims this isn’t the case.

“Some people think that large firms are too big to care [about people] and a bit too big to get their hands around,” Day explains, “but the reality is that the best partners act like it is their business. They treat it like a small firm, even though it’s big.”

Day acknowledges that specialisation is important to success in a big firm, attributing her decision to focus on research and development tax reliefs as the reason for her success.

“Knowing what you want is much harder than getting there,” she continues. “But if you know what you want, you’re in a really good position. Stating clearly what you want is imperative. Not hinting at it, not alluding to it, but clearly stating ‘this is what I would like to achieve’.

“It’s really important that you think about how you talk about it. It’s better to talk about how you want to help, how you want to build the organisation. It’s about what you’re willing to contribute,” she adds.

Taking ownership of your career path and place is central to becoming partner, regardless of the size of firm. It’s not about working for the company, it’s about working on the company; a subtle change in philosophy, but one that could make all the difference when it comes to having a suitable approach to work.