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Playing To Win in the Big Four

Illustration by Faridah Faiz

Congratulations! You're about to join one of the Big Four accounting firms. Like any endeavour worth pursuing, one does not simply walk into the Big Four without a game plan. Why settle for being good when you could be the best?

In this article, I've compiled some tips on how you can get a head start to kick off your career with a bang.

Disclaimer: Most of these observations arose in the context of my work in audit, which is the core part of the business. I cannot comment on the dynamics of other specialisations within the Big Four.


Before you join

In an ideal world, you would be reading this article before you join one of the Big Four. Unlike your already-employed counterparts, you have the gift of time to learn things that you may not have time to learn once you start work. If not, don't worry! There are other ways for you to get ahead.

  1. If progression in your role requires a professional qualification (e.g. ICAEW, ACCA, CIPFA, ICAS), then clear as many papers as possible before you start work. 'Front-loading' your papers, i.e. studying and passing your professional exams before gaining relevant work experience, is a polarising topic. Some qualified accountants abhor the idea because the whole point of the training contract arrangement is to do both together. That way, the things you learn at work help you contextualise what you learn in class and vice versa. However, I have personally worked with a number of colleagues that have either finished the first 12 of 15 ICAEW papers prior to starting work or been granted exemptions from certain papers since they have Accounting & Finance degrees. Front-loading gives you a major competitive advantage because you'll be able to direct all your energy to studying first to master the basics. Then, once you have started working, you'll be able to direct all your energy to learning on the job. Trust me, there's a lot to learn. The reality for most of us is that we'll work Mondays to Fridays and then attend classes on the weekends. As you get closer to exam time, you'll need to fit in some studying during lunchtime or after work. Best case scenario is that you are on engagements where you can leave early to study in the evenings. Worst case scenario is that work takes up all of your time and energy during the day. Do not underestimate how tired you'll be once you start working. Of course, many qualified professionals before you have somehow survived this whole ordeal. So finishing your professional papers while working is doable. But why make your life more miserable than it needs to be? The work is already demanding enough as it is. There are other advantages to front-loading of course, like: i. Taking less time away from work to study. You'll be able to rake up relevant work experience faster than colleagues that need to take more time off work. ii. Impressing your team as a new hire since you already know the theory underlying your assigned tasks. iii. You increase your chances of getting first time passes, i.e. passing all your papers on the first attempt, and a world prize. No one will be able to tell on your CV and qualification transcript if you front-loaded your papers or not. What they will see is if you achieved first time passes or a prize. Ultimately, this strategy depends on the study leave policy of your firm of choice and whether you can afford this option. Block leave is the norm in the UK firms but the same cannot be said for firms based in other countries. Do your research and decide what works best for you.

  2. If you have little to no data analytics skills, you are at a disadvantage before you even start. The audit side of the Big Four generally has two large pain points: audit quality and audit efficiency. Solve these two problems and you will definitely be seen as a superstar in any partner's eyes. Contrary to popular belief, audits can be a loss-making endeavour as some jobs end up costing more than originally budgeted. This creates a catch-22 situation. On one hand, you need to do a good job (no firm wants to be associated with scandals like Wirecard or Patisserie Valerie); on the other hand, you somehow need to be profitable or risk going out of business. So where do your data analytics skills come in? A big trend in audit now is doing away with sampling. For larger jobs, it's virtually impossible to test every transaction in detail - firms just don't have the time or resources to do so. So auditors will either randomly select samples or choose samples based on certain risk criteria from a pool of transactions and project that to the whole population. The problem with this approach is that it creates more opportunities for companies to game the audit. What if there had been a vital clue in the samples we did not test? Having the ability to manipulate and analyse big datasets efficiently would be a plus here. Another huge headache is Microsoft Excel. Love it or hate it, you will need to master Advanced Excel (Power Query, Pivot Tables, knowing the difference between INDEX MATCH and Vlookup, etc.) and VBA at some point in your career. Cleaning and analysing data in Excel eats up so much valuable time that could frankly be used elsewhere. Big Four firms are working on solutions to the issues above but upskilling the workforce takes time. We're accountants, not data scientists. Or are we? A former colleague of mine gained an upper hand over the other associates because he knew how to use Alteryx and develop web scraping tools with Python and Django to make some parts of the audit more efficient. In another life, he would have probably blended in amongst all the other data scientists out there. But transplant his skills in an audit setting and you have yourself an auditor that exceeds expectations on every metric. These are definitely skills you need to master if you want to get ahead and make your life much easier!

Once you are in

  1. Find your niche. The Big Four is a meritocracy of sorts and rewards technical experts that can communicate well, both verbally and in writing. Clients hire the Big Four to solve complex problems. They pay you (or rather, the firm) to know your stuff. As a result, thought leadership is definitely something to focus on once you're in. During promotion rounds, one of the things managers look for is whether you are the 'go to' person for something. You could make yourself an expert of a particular complex standard like IFRS 9 or a complex set of regulations like MiFID II. Trust that if you spend the time to become an expert in an area that other people in the firm find complex, you'll increase your chances of being put on more interesting assignments. It may take you some time to figure out what your specific niche is but sometimes it boils down to luck. Perhaps you came across X on one engagement and started volunteering for more engagements or training to learn about X. Or perhaps it is just something you are naturally interested in like biotechnology. Whatever it is, make sure to make yourself so good that they can't ignore you.

  2. Make yourself known (in a good way). It's all well and good to work hard and be a technical expert, but no one is going to promote you or ask you to work on their engagements if they have no idea who you are. A huge mistake you can make early on is working hard and expecting people to take notice. Join your team for lunch. Join after-work events. Remember people's birthdays. Organise socials at work. Be nice to the typist pool. Befriend partner's secretaries. Join CSR events or Toastmasters. Basically, mingle. Another easy way to make yourself known is to impress your manager. However, do note that 'kissing ass' and 'impressing' are two very different things. Your managers were once like you and can detect if you're trying to suck up to them for the sake of sucking up. Sucking up is praising them all the time and fanning their egos, whereas impressing them has more to do with being respectful yet showing them how good you really are. Show, don't tell. Remember that managers are busy people with a lot on their plate - the more efficient you are at work and the more technically competent you are, the higher the likelihood of you making your manager sit up and take notice. Make their lives easier by updating them regularly so they don't have to chase you. Offer ideas to improve the audit or any other project you're working with them on. When it comes to dealing with managers, it's important to know the benchmarks you're working with. Managers have worked with hundreds of associates so they have unspoken biases about what they consider as 'good'. One option is to talk to them and set clear expectations early on in the engagement. Another is to talk to other people that have worked with them directly to get an idea about their working style. A little due diligence goes a long way. Impressing your manager is especially important because you need someone that is going to fight for you at promotion meetings. In the long-term, you want to associate yourselves with managers on the rise. As they move up the ladder, so will you.

  3. Volunteer for the harder engagements. It won't take you long to find out which client engagements are the harder ones once you're in. It's almost always large, complex clients or a first-time audit. Why would you need to do this at some point in your career? As one partner I worked with bluntly put it, "I learned more from the messy jobs than the easier jobs". Bigger audit clients often have unique issues that you would not face with smaller clients simply because of the sheer size and complexity of their operations. Even if you merely met expectations on these jobs, you being able to handle these issues will win you brownie points among managers and directors. However, as important as these types of engagements are to making you a more well-rounded professional, one word of warning is to know when to take a break. Getting ahead is important, but make sure it's not at the expense of your mental health. Auditors in these engagements that stay on for years are usually good at taking block leave to rest and recharge. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

  4. Be the person in your team that makes everyone's days brighter. There's an important distinction between merely being known and being everyone's favourite person to work with. Part of this has to do with your personality but part of it can also be learned. For instance, one former colleague used to always walk in every morning with a big smile. Another would send us motivational memes during the busy season to help us power through a long day. Some colleagues would take turns to volunteer for coffee rounds. One director I loved working with always made it a point to remember everyone's birthdays. These are all small things but they can really make someone's day.

Go all in

If I had a dollar for every intern that said that they wanted to be a Big Four partner...

Becoming a Big Four partner is not for everyone. You'll have to endure years of hard work without any guarantee of adequate financial compensation. In other words, you are not paid as well as your contemporaries in more lucrative industries for the same amount of work. Only once you're a partner will you be sharing the profits with other partners of the firm, but bear in mind that it can also be very stressful. It isn't unusual for Big Four partners to suffer from health conditions associated with high-stress environments. So remember to contextualise this when considering your larger life goals and be mindful of what you value in life.

Partners arguably have the hardest job of everyone in the firm because they need to impress clients and win work on a regular basis. They also bear the most risk and are ultimately responsible for whatever happens in their jobs. Keep this in mind if you're aiming for the top job. This is why you need to make sure that you're technically competent and likeable - again, clients are paying you to solve their complex problems. They need to have faith in you, as the partner, to deliver the solution they seek. The hunt for new partners begins much earlier than you think. If a partner likes you, they'll start grooming you by putting you on certain assignments or seconding you to a Big Four abroad or sending you to more speaking events on behalf of the firm. They lay on the pressure early on when you're a manager or senior manager to constantly test you and promote you fairly quickly if you succeed. This is why you need to impress your managers and hitch onto managers on the rise. If these managers end up as partners, and they like you enough to mentor you, then you already have one foot in the door.

It's naive to think that the automatic next step from director level is to be promoted to partner. Unless you have a demonstrated ability to bring in business, it's unfortunately not a done deal. Make the partnership need you more than you need them.



Do you play to win, or to not lose? Thrive, or survive?

Sometimes, through no fault of your own, you could be the most talented person in the room but overlooked by the firm because you didn't know the unspoken rules of the game. Whatever your reasons for joining the Big Four, go in with your eyes wide open.

It takes a lot more than just hard work to succeed.


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