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The Big 4 as a springboard for a career on the corporate side

31.01.2023 – The number of vacant positions in finance is continuously increasing. There is a significant shortage of professionals. Hannah Hermann is Manager at Robert Walters and specialises in the recruitment of finance professionals. She explains: ,A career start with the Big 4 is known to be a stepping stone to a successful career in the industry. Professionals looking to move from the Big 4 to the corporate side are in high demand.’

Hannah Hermann, whose career also started in one of the Big 4, tells us about her experience with Big 4 candidates who want to switch or have already switched to industry.

What are the main reasons why finance professionals want to leave the Big 4?

A job at the Big 4 is highly attractive, especially for graduates with a bachelor's or master's degree in economics, and is considered the figurehead par excellence for a later career. However, it is also true that you often go through a tough school at the Big 4. ,The demands and the workload are usually above average. At times, employees work 60 to 70-hour weeks. But of course there is also a good side: talents who go through this 'hard school' bring a certain mindset with them, coupled with an extremely high level of motivation and commitment. The employees learn a lot in a short time and gain insight into different companies and industries.'  

Hermann speaks from her own experience: ,The professionals usually work on a project basis. This requires the ability to respond extremely flexibly and effectively to the respective client requirements and to familiarise oneself quickly with new topics. A certain disadvantage is that you usually only get to know a small section of the company during an assignment at the client and thus cannot gain a profound insight into the entire company process.'  

Out of consulting and then onto the corporate side

In fact, many professionals do not see their future with one of the Big 4 forever. Only a few aspire to long-term partnerships, because the path to this is not an easy one. To become a certified public accountant or tax advisor, you need to pass an exam after about three to four years. Hermann: ,That means - in addition to the already heavy workload - usually attending weekend seminars for at least a year to prepare for the exam.' In the process, failure rates are high and only a few make it to the partnership. Therefore, many quit the Big 4 before the upcoming exam or after failing it.

Where do these Big 4 graduates end up?

,We find that professionals, depending on their life plans and family situation, often decide after about three to four years to either move to the corporate side or take the next career step in a smaller accounting or tax firm.' 

And this seems to be a trend: The so-called Next 10 consultancies, for example, can also boast a top reputation and look after an exciting portfolio of clients. At the same time, the work-life balance and benefits are often more attractive and the workload not quite as high. 

Others find their new field of activity within an international company and take a position in group accounting or financial and business controlling, for example. There, Big 4 graduates can score points with their skills. The demand for financial experts is continuously increasing, so candidates are in high demand and can look forward to significantly better salaries in some cases. The daily work routine in the industry is associated with less pressure to perform and also less time pressure. It’s easier to plan and calculate - also with regard to a suitable work-life balance. There is no more constant travelling and people work in fixed teams.  

'These changes are especially desired by those who value a private life with their family and don't want to dedicate all their time permanently to the job,' Hermann knows. ,At the same time, the work attitude, resilience and approach are not comparable to those in one of the Big 4.' 

How does the work of these professionals change when they start working in the industry?

Whereas at the Big 4 you analyse and audit in a very short time, on the corporate side you take off your auditor's glasses and are responsible for the preparation processes, for example of annual financial statements and corporate reports. The bottom line is that you work less, but usually get paid more. The relationship to the manager is also more intensive here, whereas in the dynamic project business of the Big 4, you are always working in newly mixed teams. 

Hermann: ,At the Big 4, you are among like-minded people. Everyone has the same goal in mind and is willing to work a lot of overtime. Every year you move up in the internal ranking and every two to three years you get a promotion. From junior consultant to senior consultant, after successfully passing the exams to manager and senior manager. After that, the door is open for the director's position and possibly a partnership later on.' 

Despite this clear career path, many find the workload too heavy in the long run. Not only that an above-average willingness to work hard is required, as well as the exam after three to four years. Also, from the level of manager onwards, an associate is responsible for his or her clients as well as for the acquisition of new clients. Aspects such as personality, networking, sales strength and negotiating skills are becoming more and more important. Hermann reports from her experience in this regard: ,Anyone who can present strong results in terms of content and expertise in the annual audit or in tax consultancy does not necessarily have to be a virtuoso in terms of client acquisition, sales and networking.' These skills, along with the necessary willingness to be there for clients in their own free time and in the evenings at the expense of their private lives, are probably one of the reasons why only a small number of Big 4 employees ultimately aspire to the position of partner. 

The situation is different in companies. They often do not provide a clear career path, so professionals have to actively look for positions themselves to get to the next level. Often this means waiting until a position, e.g. team leader or CFO or finance director, becomes vacant or is restructured. This creates the opportunity to move up. For the CFO job, you should also be broadly positioned and ideally already have experience in the areas of accounting, controlling and treasury. 

What advice do you have for Big 4 auditors considering a move into industry?

Those who originally decided on a career in auditing should honestly ask themselves what has changed. Does the workload bother you or is the job no longer fun? If one basically wants to stay in an audit or tax firm, but wants to reduce the workload, one could change to a smaller audit firm or tax consultancy. If you need a breath of fresh air, switching to the corporate side is a good idea. 

,We know from experience that quite a few of the Big 4 leavers experience a kind of culture shock when they switch to the corporate side with sometimes much less dynamism. The esprit and mindset of executives at the Big 4 are usually different from those in companies,' Hermann knows. 

Applicants should be aware that on the free market you no longer operate so much in a team of performance-oriented like-minded people. Instead, you work with very different colleagues with different career goals who may be less motivated and have a different attitude to work. 

Here it can be advisable to enter into an exchange with a recruitment consultancy in order to benefit from their insights. Recruitment experts from Robert Walters have a lot of experience and often have an insight behind the scenes of the companies. Hermann: ,We know what the companies are looking for. But we also learn a lot from professionals we've already placed, so we can answer questions about team composition, perspectives, workload, personal responsibility, upcoming projects, existing system landscapes, office equipment and more.' In addition, Robert Walters has high-quality client and candidate networks. Hermann adds: ,We know the companies and potential future supervisors as well as current vacancies that we can offer to suitable candidates - depending on whether they would rather have a more chilled environment in the future or a position with a lot of 'drive and spirit' again.' 

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Hannah Hermann

Manager Real Estate | Hamburg
Phone: +49 40 377 073 977

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