The 7 things I wish I had known when I started my Big Four Career

Working at PWC, EY, KPMG or Deloitte is a career path many people choose to follow. Here’s some insight from someone who’s been there and done it, and lived to tell the tale.

  1. The most important factor in your Big Four career progression is the general economic environment rather than your individual performance

My stint in the Big Four spanned a short period pre the 2008 Financial Crash and the years of recovery afterwards. Whilst the Big Four are more resilient than other firms in bearing fluctuating markets, I noticed it was much easier to get promoted before 2008. As a rule of thumb, people who saw quick promotions in the boom years were of an inferior professional quality as to those who had to climb the ladder in more uncertain times.

Problems start emerging when you have colleagues of dubious quality fast tracked in the good times, who then sit in position when the economy turns less favourable. It becomes difficult for hard working juniors to climb the ladder below these legacy colleagues, who act as a bottleneck in the hierarchy.

2. Technical teams have better working hours than the non-technical teams

There are a lot of very smart industry experts employed in the Big Four. Whether that is Tax Policy, Technical Accounting, Regulatory Investigations, Competition Law etc. some of the country’s experts will be working with you. If you’re the only person with the expertise to advise on the correct answer to a client question, project plans bend toward your availability.

If you’re in wider project-based team (for example Advisory, Corporate Finance or Audit) then the working hours are likely to be more temperamental and anti-social. Clients can also be more demanding when they know your service is more generic than that offered by technical experts in their field.

3. The opportunity to travel is unparalleled

Most teams within a Big Four firm will require their employees to travel for client work. How glamorous the locations you might be sent to will be luck of the draw (I spent an equal amount of time in big city sky scrappers as I did in soulless industrial parks). But having a firm that has a meaningful presence in almost every country in the world is unique. If your only objective was to use your career to travel the world, few companies can give as much opportunity as the Big Four.

4. Firm wide and global initiatives can, on the whole, be ignored

When a new Partner gets a position in the senior leadership of the firm (e.g. Head of Service line, Head of Country or Global Chair), they want to make their mark. Even if things are not broken, they will redesign some of the corporate structure. These visions are normally planned over 10-year horizons, but the Senior responsible will normally be shifted out of post after about 5 years, and then a new plan emerges. This redesign will probably come with a new catch phrase, values and associated buzz words.

Fundamentally, the Big Four work as an oligopoly and the strategies of the Leadership should be seen intrinsically defensive. Anything above that is mostly just branding, marketing hype, platitides and hot air that should be paid lip service by the employees, but perhaps otherwise ignored.

5. The professional qualification and exams are hard work, but worth it

If you are joining as a graduate or junior, then balancing a tough workload and studying for a professional qualification can be hard. Whilst your friends may be out partying on evenings and weekends, you might be trawling through large folders of rather dense technical material. This time spent, however, is a great investment in your career and the qualifications will give you many more opportunities going forward.

It is rare to have a corporate environment that is so supportive of professional study. It does make the Big Four, as well as smaller accounting firms, unique.

6. Think about who you want to impress

If your sole goal in your Big Four career is to make the Partnership, then you must focus a lot of energy on impressing those above you in the food chain. You see many employees who spend a large amount of their time strategizing to try and impress the Partnership and senior management. And if you cannot master upwards management, your progression will be limited. 

But for every ambitious Big Four pole climber, there will be another employee who takes a more balanced approach. They will focus more on building good relationships with people equal to and below them in the hierarchy. Remember, when you reach the pinnacle of your career those previously above you will have long retired and your network will be formed by those younger or in inferior positions than you.

7. Everyone, on the whole, is really smart

All the teams that I worked in had a balance between extroverts and introverts, book worms and party animals, optimists and pessimists, meticulous planners and unorganised chaos…

But everyone I worked with was logical, analytical, intellectually curious and clever. If you’re an analytical person, of which most professionals tend to be, it can be a great place to work and learn.

David worked in the Corporate Finance team of a Big Four company in London, before moving into Private Equity