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You don’t rise to the top of a big accountancy firm by accident, it takes determination, vision, strategic thinking, strong core skills, and the respect of your peers – and that’s just for starters, says Lesley Meall

When you begin your finance career, you may have no idea where your ACCA studies will lead, but that does not have to stop you dreaming. You may be a part-qualified accountant today, but 20 years from now you could be the millionaire managing partner of one of the Big Four firms; and the only thing standing between you and your dream is work, work, work.

‘We have a clearly defined set of skills and behaviour for every level in the firm,’ says Lisa Geerlings, national HR manager, learning and development, KPMG Australia, and these are demonstrated on the firm’s intranet so that employees can get a good idea of what they need to do if they want to rise through the ranks. In the US, the firm has decided to make its ‘Employee Career Architecture’ (ECA) available online, so that ambitious finance students outside KPMG can also benefit. The ECA includes a range of interactive tools; these can help you clarify your aims and plan how to achieve them, and explore a variety of possible ‘next steps’ on your career path.

How many of you eventually make partner or senior partner in a big firm remains to be seen, but even in the early stages of your career you can make choices that will help to improve your chances of success. Good technical skills are absolutely essential as they will underpin everything else you do, although on their own they are not enough. ‘The people who progress more rapidly than their peers are those who are driven and self-motivated,’ says Geerlings, so they often get through their allocated work more quickly than others, and actively seek out new challenges, trying to shape their own future, rather than simply being reactive.

Taking the lead

‘If you want to lead a team there are certain things that you should do, certain things that you should know, and certain things that you should be,’ suggests Corinne Dauncey of Being a conscientious, determined, resilient, self-assured, and well-adjusted individual is a start, but you will also need to be able to motivate your team members and inspire trust. Although some of you may be blessed with these strengths, those who aren’t should not feel disheartened. ‘People are born with leadership traits, but it is possible to develop leadership skills,’ she says, and if you want to take the lead later in your finance career, it’s never too soon to start preparing.

‘Take any opportunity you get for self-improvement,’ suggests Ian Mills, the senior partner who leads the top-10 UK firm PKF. Identify your strengths and weaknesses then focus on developing the latter, because, ‘partners need to be good all-rounders’, he adds. In common with KPMG, and all other large firms, PKF knows what it is looking for in those who progress from senior manager to partner level – and beyond. ‘We have identified certain areas that are key to driving the business forward, and we judge candidates for partner on this basis,’ Mills says.

Producing good quality work, growing fees, leading and enabling people, delivering an excellent service, and demonstrating a strong commercial awareness are all on Mills’ list. ‘We are all different, and I don’t think anyone ever scores perfectly in all of these areas,’ he comments, but those who want to become partner material need to identify their weaknesses and make an effort to develop them – and help others to do the same. Good leaders know their own strengths and weaknesses and those of their team members, and understand how to make them work effectively for the greater good.

More than a partner

While many of you may be thinking no further than becoming a partner, some of you will rise beyond this to take on other roles; but if you are trying to plan ahead, the structure at the top of the big firms can be rather confusing. Terms such as senior partner, managing partner, executive director, chairman, head of professional practices, and chief executive mean different things to different people, and areas of responsibility frequently overlap. In some cases, they refer to a functional area, such as audit or tax; sometimes they reflect national responsibilities; and they can also relate to a particular national or international region, such as the Midwest of the United States or Asia Pacific.

Take the leadership at Deloitte. In the Ukraine and Belarus, the firm is led by Vladimir Vakt FCCA, managing partner, along with a number of partners responsible for specialist areas. In Japan, Deloitte has an office managing partner, chief operating officer, plus a number of ‘business unit leaders’ – partners who oversee specialist areas such as audit and advisory, consulting, enterprise risk services, and tax. In the US, Deloitte has a Board with a chairman, a chief executive officer, a senior partner, an executive group comprising functional managing partners, and a number of regional managing partners. This is because despite sharing the same name, each national firm is an autonomous and independent unit: international leadership is provided through the Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu (DTT) Global Executive Committee and the DTT Global Board of Directors.

Room at the top

The relationships between the national offices of the big international firms operate in much the same way. So if you look at their top-level management structures you will find a similarly mind-boggling series of national and international boards, business units, and committees, plus myriad job titles. But when it comes to selecting the partners who will populate this stratosphere, all of the firms seem to be looking for similar qualities, skills, and expertise.

‘To become a territory senior partner you require a solid track record serving our clients, our people, and the communities we operate in, have a vision for the future, strong leadership skills, and a strategic orientation,’ says Zoran Nedeljkovic, a manager with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Hong Kong. ‘You also need to be a strong communicator and demonstrate a passion and commitment for our clients and our people,’ he adds. This is a very similar list to that given by Mills (at PKF), and is echoed by other big accountancy firms, but it doesn’t really tell you what life at the top is like.

Despite the collegiate atmosphere that draws so many accountants into professional services, as chairman or CEO you are literally where the buck stops, so in addition to the stress of this responsibility, you also have to deal with the relative isolation. ‘You’ve got to have the ability to detach yourself from your management team,’ says Nick Land, who was chairman of Ernst & Young UK and a member of Ernst & Young’s Global Executive Board for more than a decade before retiring in 2006. Although you will be working very closely with the people in your team, you have to be dispassionate about their performance. Get too close to senior management and it could affect your judgement about what is right for the firm, so as Land reflects: ‘These are lonely jobs.’

This article was first published in April 2008 in Student Accountant.

Lesley Meall is a writer on business an technology issues 

Last updated: 11 Aug 2015