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What does it take to make partner at a Big 4 firm?

The secret skill of partners in Big Four firms

A doctoral thesis published last month by Michael Kinnen for George Fox University gave a rare insight into the mindset and back stories of leaders at the Big 4 professional services firms – defined by Kinnen as partners and MDs.

Kinnen is an assistant professor at Concordia University Irvine, California, and managing director of MindStorm Group, a management consultancy. His research suggests that getting to the top of the Big Four is about far more than mere performance. 

“You have to have a certain level of stamina to endure a lot of things in public accounting,” one partner said. “Public accounting certainly is not a career for everybody.”

Aside from long working hours, the partner stresses that success “requires a lot of sacrifice at times. It requires a lot of mental fortitude to navigate high-stress, highly complex situations, on a relatively frequent basis.”

The ability to keep one’s head down and do the work is secondary. “I don’t consider myself to be a smart person; I think it’s more of the willingness to take a challenge head-on, and to stick with it until you see success come from it,” the partner said.

“I think a big part of it is really that patience,” agreed an MD who was interviewed for the dissertation. “You want to be striving for something in the future, but you also need to be a little bit patient and content where things are.”

It takes around 15 years to make partner at a Big 4 firm, although the number isn’t conclusive, and some people won’t make it at all.

Success also requires bonding with colleagues. They need to have friends, said the MD. It's about having people to "talk to if it’s a tough day."

However, sheer patience is the game changer.  "I don’t consider myself to be a smart person. It’s not how business-savvy you are, certainly. It comes down to those few traits – discipline, determination, stamina, and calmness, that stand out to me,” the anonymous partner said.

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AUTHORZeno Toulon

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