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When to Leave the Big 4

When to Leave the Big 4

By David Liebman, Director, Executive Search

Congratulations! You’re wrapping up your second or third busy season. All of your audit hours are complete, CPA exams nearly finished and your license number will be in the mail soon. The calls from recruiters are so frequent they’ve morphed into a staccato background noise you’ve learned to tune out. Your experience in Big 4 public accounting has awarded you the accounting equivalent of a top-school graduate degree. But are you ready to graduate?

The Senior Managers and Partners at your firm tow the party line. They tell you what they tell everyone else: That you’re special. That you have a great chance of making Partner if you stick with it — that you want to advance to manager before leaving the firm.

To give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are only saying what they believe to be true, know this: They don’t know what they are talking about.

What they don’t know — and what you need to understand before it’s too late — is that when leaving Big 4 public accounting, you are most marketable just after two or three busy seasons. And, you’ll be even more marketable to potential employers than your peers who stayed in public accounting to make Manager.

The Managers and Senior Managers who tell you otherwise didn’t know any better (perhaps, they still don’t). Many of them are now working with recruiters who are struggling to get interviews for them. And when they do get interviews, they are passed up for another — more marketable — candidate.

THINK ABOUT IT FROM A HIRING MANAGER’S PERSPECTIVE

If you are the Controller hiring for a Manager or a Senior Manager position, which of the following candidates would you hire:

  • Candidate A – This person is currently a Manager in Big 4 public accounting. For the last six years, he’s become better and better at conducting audits. Mentoring and managing staff who conduct audits. Creating audit plans, reviewing audit working papers and presenting audit results to clients. If you hire this person, he will need time to learn the job and your systems. And he will never be a hands-on manager without first learning all of the roles and responsibilities he will oversee.
  • Candidate B – This person left Big 4 public accounting after two busy seasons. She completed her CPA and has spent the last two years in a hands-on role learning financial reporting, month-end close and all of the other tasks that you are looking for your Manager to supervise. She’s used her Big 4 experience to become a mentor in the company, and is recognized as a top performer.

Is there any doubt the safe hire is Candidate B? No one has ever gotten into trouble for making the safe hire.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The longer you stay in Big 4 after the Manager level, the more you price yourself out of the market for a move into industry. At the Senior level, expect a pay increase in a move to industry. At the Manager level, expect a small increase in salary — and, perhaps, be willing to accept a lateral for an opportunity with advancement potential. By the time you are promoted to Senior Manager, virtually any transition to industry will involve a pay cut. If you transitioned into industry sooner, you wouldn’t have to worry about how much of a pay cut to accept.

Every individual’s situation is different. There are various career paths, types of companies and personal goals to take into consideration. But the most important thing to understand is that staying in Big 4 public accounting will make you no more marketable once you have hit the three-year mark. The earlier you understand that vital piece of information, the earlier you can explore your next career opportunity on your terms. And the more leverage you have to secure the best offer at a break-out position.

Are you an accounting and finance professional looking to explore new career opportunities? The placement experts at Century Group are here to help. Click here to find your next career move.

dani villalobosWhen to Leave the Big 4