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Personality or Quality - what matters more in the Big 4?

 In your experience how much of "getting on a partner's good side" do you attribute to consistently completing quality work versus getting lucky and happening to connect with someone on a more personal level? Did you feel the people receiving the partner's attention were those who deserved it?
Great question - at the end of the day, the quality of the work will always win. This is what partners are judged on. If they know that you have it taken care of so they can spend time with their kids, work on their book of business,or go golfing, that'll always win out at the end of the day. Now, they may not take you golfing with them, or spend a quality amount of time mentoring you (since they may not have a personal connection with you), but you'll be the first one they go to when they have complicated engagements that they need some top talent on, especially in the PCAOB world

Let's compare a few different individuals-

Alex Smith crushes audits. He is the type who takes ownership of the audit and essentially manages the whole thing himself. The team and the client don't mind him. While he's not shooting the shit with them, it's a quiet but top-quality audit. The partner shows up when Alex wants him to show up, takes the team out to lunch and schmoozes with the client, and then leaves. While Alex doesn't tout his own horn, his team does the touting for him via instant messaging. Word spreads - and his reputation is set.

Jane Stewart is a really bubbly and personable person. Her team absolutely loves her, and she thrives off it. The client is a big fan of Jane too because of her personality, so does the Partner. But the audit itself is average - barely meeting deadlines, lots of holes in the audit, etc. etc. The partner has to spend more time on the audit than he or she likes, but Jane's personality is a good buffer to reduce any additional pain the partner feels.

Robert Johnson is condescending, full of himself, and overdoes audits. The team hates him, so does the client, but the audits are in top shape, and the partner does not have to worry about audit quality.

 Audit 1 -This one is your average private company audit. There is a deadline, but the scheduling of the audit can be flexible. The client is pretty average, and isn't providing a quality accounting product. It's just one of many in the partner's book of business, since the VC funding the Company is an important relationship. The partner puts Jane Stewart on this.

Audit 2 - This is a public company, and one of the partner's most important engagements. The client relationship is sensitive too, but the partner can't afford to screw this up. Alex Smith is put on him, even if he's not someone the partner is close to, because the partner knows he can get the job done over the others.

Audit 3 - This is also a public company, but it's a shitshow. Nobody wants to be on this, but while it's not as important as audit 2, it still carries a certain level of risk, so the partner puts Robert Johnson on this. Only because Alex can only do one audit.

Now - it gets interesting the further up you go. This is when building connections with partners matter a lot. At the end of the day, they're the ones who vote you in to become partner. In the past, when audits were much more lax, personality mattered much more - since it was all about building a book of business and schmoozing with clients to keep them happy. Now, in this fear-based environment where Partners are concerned about internal audit reviews and PCAOB reviews, they are willing to take in more partners with bland personalities to help cover themselves from the inspection boards. It's a different world now. Another approach that the firms try is to take the Alex Johnsons of the world and make them directors instead of partners - well-paid, but without the partner benefits. If the Alex Johnsons accept, that's perfect - but in may instances people know it's essentially a way to tell them they aren't partner material.

In summary, while personality used to matter a lot back in the day, the quality of the audit currently rules. Keep your head down, maybe play some politics here and there when necessary, and you'll be in top shape. (And also keep the clients happy - it's hard to do in the new world, but it's worth a shot).


Anonymous said…
Hi and welcome back! Thank you for posting again, I find this posting really helpful. I will be starting at a Big 4 soon and I want to play my cards right from the beginning.

Would you please give insights and advice/tips on how to play the office politics at a Big 4? Giving examples like you did with this one would be really appreciated.

Thank you very much!

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