The Dilemma Of Coming From Audit At A Non Big 4 Firm
Are the recruiters and job descriptions you come across consistently stating that only those with Big 4 experience will be considered for the role? Is it making you contemplate spending more time in Audit at one of the Big 4 to boost your accounting CV and potentially “open up” more career options? Well, stop.
I’ll break down this dilemma into 4 parts:
- Why is Big 4 experience valued so much by recruiters / some employers?
- Should you join the Big 4 after qualifying elsewhere?
- How you can make up for not having Big 4 experience
- Alternative (Non-Big 4) moves you can make if you’re still not getting traction
Firstly, why do recruiters highly value Big 4 experience in the first place?
Simple. It makes their life MUCH easier.
Think about it. Accountancy recruiters have 1000’s of applications and CV/Resume’s to sieve through day after day and this is their first line of defence. Think of it as their “Auditor” firewall.
Recruiters can be much more certain their client will receive what is considered a “high-calibre” candidate if they come from one of the Big 4. It would mean that the hard part of their job has already been done for them. It would mean that you would:
- have already been vetted by Big 4 Human Resource teams,
- have received Big 4 training,
- have developed an ability to work long hours; and
- have racked up an impressive list of prestigious Audit clients.
You can’t blame them…
OK, so if you’re exploring audit exit options, you’re probably wondering…
Should I join the Big 4 after qualifying at a non-Big 4 firm?
Do you feel like you need:
- to open up a few more doors with recruiters for the FIRST move out of Audit?
- to get “bigger names” on your client / project experience
- exposure to corporate culture (this might be especially useful if you’re coming from a small accountancy practice / SME and want to jump into a large corporate)
- help in demanding a slightly higher salary in the FIRST role out of Audit? (And, of course, which could subsequently provide leverage for future salary negotiations)
…then you might want to consider it.
But is it necessary to do join the Big 4 in Audit (or a different role) after qualifying at a smaller Accountancy firm?
Of course not.
Often times working in a smaller firm can work in your favour, as we’ll discuss in a moment.
But let’s assume for a second you did feel a need for Big 4 experience, how many extra years would you need to spend there post-qualifying?
I’ve seen many recently qualified accountants join the Big 4 for “CV/Resume development” reasons, but who have then left within 12 months onto greener pastures.
My time at the Big 4 was slightly under 3 years before moving on to a more commercial role.
Personally, I wanted (No. NEEDED…) out of Audit at the Big 4 ASAP. I left a few months before being qualified / the end of the 3-year term (my new company signed this off for me). Similarly for you, the thought of doing extra time in Audit for you might be displeasing.
Therefore, anytime at the Big 4 wouldn’t need to be long.
It can be a quick stepping stone and nothing more if that’s what you’re looking for.
You are probably looking at 6 months as a minimum length of time in order to have meaningful experience e.g. working on a prestigious Big 4 client project and/or benefitting from any Big 4 training programmes.
So, how hard is it to get into the Big 4 from a smaller firm?
Firstly, let’s take a step back and think about the Big 4 Audit recruitment model.
There is no denying that graduate roles are heavily over subscribed (often 1000 applicants per vacancy, if not more!) and we all know that the Big 4 tend to have a very bottom-heavy hierarchal structure full of cheap graduates to crank out the chargeable work to clients.
But there are only so many opportunities for growth / promotion beyond the graduate programme.
Therefore the Big 4 are actually happy to have a huge churn of graduates leave the firm. There are huge waves of people leaving throughout the grad scheme due to:
- Getting fired for failing exams;
- Getting fed up of exams and leaving the firm before getting qualified; and
- Wanting to run as far and as fast as possible away from Audit after getting qualified (think: moving to Transaction Services, M&A, etc.).
By the time it comes to needing qualified Auditors beyond the graduate programme, the pickings are actually pretty slim for the Big 4 HR team.
Hence, they start to look externally for other candidates who can get up to speed with Auditing pretty fast (preferably as a full-time candidate, but also working Contract / on a day rate).
But what if I don’t join one of the Big 4 – how can I compete with the competition after qualifying?
We know there are heaps of Auditors qualifying at the Big 4 every year wanting to jump ship and this makes the competition very stiff (hey, that’s why you’re on this site!). Especially if you’re wanting to move into other industries and you’ve hit the recruiter Auditor firewall, you’re your non-big 4 experience.
Your competition might have the Big 4 brand on their CV/Resume, yet coming from a smaller, less-establshed firm, you may have a very different (hugely competitive) skillset that the Big 4 grads won’t be able to compete on.
For example, you might have the advantage if:
- You are having a broad, holistic exposure & are taking on more responsibility across a project (as opposed to being more pigeon-holed in a larger firm)
- Your clients are well-known corporates/government departments
- You have more regular exposure to senior management & decision-making
- You actually performed accounting tasks for clients (most Big 4 Auditors have never worked on “real” accounting before given how the Big 4 departments are organised)
- You have experience with various accounting systems (e.g. SAP, Xero, etc.)
- You are building a niche, but high-quality network in a particular industry
- You were able to take on juniors and gain management experience
We can help you hone in on those types of experience you have coming from a non-Big 4 background and use them to your advantage.
I’m still struggling, what are some other moves I can make?
Depending on the size of your current firm, moving internally could be a key stepping stone towards a role outside the firm.
If you find yourself working within the Internal Audit / Accounting department of a corporate, it is often much easier to ask to take the conversation straight to your boss…
Simply ask for more commercial responsibility.
If you’re currently working in the Finance team, it’s hard to suddenly move into other specialist teams such as marketing, IT or HR.
Asking for more commercial responsibility could mean working on more interesting, prestigious projects, gaining client exposure or senior leadership exposure.
At first, this might mean retaining your existing audit responsibilities in the short-term (whilst simultaneously supporting on newer more exciting commercial projects), but in your Monthly/Annual Review it should definitely be worth noting your pathway to moving into a primarily commercial role over the year ahead.
If you find yourself working at an Accountancy firm and have the internal network and/or have built a reputation of learning fast and being trustworthy, moving out of Audit into another internal (finance-related) department or business unit could be an option.
The most frequent moves within Accounting firms are going from Audit to Transaction Services or Audit to Advisory. It can certainly be an easier and shorter job application process than getting jobs externally.
Pick a department that gives you a wider and more relevant skillset which leverages your position with recruiters for those external roles you want to lock down. Be sure to properly research the different areas within that department and the role you might specifically go for as they can often be split up into very specific tasks or niche areas, which may or may not be what you were looking for.
I’ll shortly be writing another article covering the potential pitfalls to watch out for when making an internal move.
Other than moving internally, another option might be to go slightly off-piste (e.g. switch up your location, company, role – or all three!). This will help you reduce your competition when you finally apply to a more commercial role vs. Big 4 candidates and other Auditors.
Not only can you reduce your competition, but doing something a bit different can also be much more rewarding.
It can often get very tiring hearing about all your peers talk about the same old Accounting / Auditor exit options. Why not use this as an opportunity to step away from the beaten track?
We have absolutely no affiliation with this organisation, but we just really like the way they sum up this off-piste mantra up by helping city workers find “alternative” careers. Check out https://www.escapethecity.org/ for a few off-piste ideas.
When you’re applying for these off-piste roles (in fact when applying to any role outside of traditional Accounting / Audit), it’s absolutely necessary to find the link between your current experience and this new one.
You do not need to have had direct experience or be able to do 100% of the role you are applying to, but you need to demonstrate that you can learn and pick up new skills quickly, alongside emphasizing your “passion” or interest in the space.
Perhaps we’ll write more on that another time!
For now, I can only recommend you keep progressing a number of options. Do not take “no” for an answer from a recruiter. Find another route in!
The more options you pursue, the more feedback you’ll get, the more you’ll know your worth, the more bargaining power you have and the more likely you are to find something that’s going to make you happy.
Start applying and meeting recruiters/employers early, including those internally. I’d recommend getting your foot in the door at least 6 months before you qualify to have your best shot at keeping ahead of the competition. Proactivity will pay dividends now and in the long run.
Hopefully, this article gives you a few thoughts to weigh up when deciding whether pursuing post-qualified Big 4 experience is for you, but don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any specific questions.
Exit Options | Mapping the post-accounting & audit landscape
A lot of the clients we coach ask about moving into more strategic & commercial roles after spending time in traditional accounting & audit, but don’t know where to start or even what opportunities exist …so-much-so that we’ve put together a map of the , which I encourage you to check out!
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Spice up your CV/Resume for the post-accounting & audit world
We’ve created a 50+ page digital guide specifically to help those of you applying for more commercial & strategic roles. Our straight-talking CV/Resume advice for Accountants/Auditors is the only guide that is highly-specific to the traditional accounting & audit background: we give you real-life good & bad examples for showcasing your experience for strategic roles, the best structure & content to win over recruiters, a strategy for distributing your CV/Resume, interview advice, and more!