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    Why you’re struggling to exit the Big 4 as a Partner, Principal, Managing Director or Director and what to do about it…

      Attach a CV (Accepted file types: pdf, doc, docx, rtf.)

      Why you’re struggling to exit the Big 4 as a Partner, Principal, Managing Director or Director and what to do about it…

      Let’s break it down. You’ve made it to the big leagues of PwC , Deloitte , EY or KPMG and you’re looking to move on, either of your own accord or because you’ve been impacted by layoffs, are at risk of them or your mandatory Big 4 retirement age is coming up. It’s not going to be a walk in the park and the road can be a humbling one, so it’s important to go into this with your eyes wide open.

      In my capacity as a global headhunter, I’ve worked with countless professionals in your shoes and will support countless more and having done this for well over a decade, I know how prospective firms will evaluate you, which groups can extract the most value from a Big 4 background and how you need to prepare for the heavy level of scrutiny any prospective employer will place upon making the commitment of investment involved in hiring you.

      Assuming you’re not going to target the Big 4 merry-go-round i.e. hopping from EY to PwC, these are some market perceptions that you’ll often need to address. You’ll have likely got pretty good at selling the Big 4 brand at this stage to prospective clients – now it’s time to sell yourself, or help a headhunter like me to sell your personal brand and value proposition alongside you.

      I’m focusing this discussion on those looking to move into another consulting firm/professional services firm environment and will write a follow up piece for the Big 4 to in-house track soon (so if this interests you, do subscribe to this newsletter for the next in-series)

      “Success is where your preparation and opportunity meet” – Bobby Unser

      These are your headwinds to move into a consulting firm;

      Prospective employers are unlikely to tell you all of this but here it is – warts and all. These are the questions the consulting firms are going to be asking themselves about you when they are considering your candidacy…

      Can you sell without the brand?

      You can be an absolute rockstar in the Big 4 but whether you can replicate that track record without the brand of Deloitte or PwC behind you – that’s an altogether different question. What does it come down to? Do your clients buy from you, or do they “buy Deloitte”? If you’ve grown up exclusively in a Big 4 track, the chances are you’ll not really know and will have never had to put that question to the test before.

      I’d consider this to be the biggest hesitation from consulting firms to hire senior professionals from Big 4 environments – a worry that you’ll struggle to thrive without having the colossal brand power and existing “audit/assurance” client base behind you that the Big 4 offers. 

      Running and building a practice without a Big 4 brand is an altogether very different form of hustle and other consulting firms are placing a very sizeable bet on whether you’re going to manage to be successful in their platforms if they offer you a role. You need to convince them that you can sell & scale revenues and that clients will buy from you rather than just the firm you work for. If you can’t convince yourself, you won’t convince anyone else, so think about this thoroughly!

      Are your clients/relationships aligned?

      These are generalisations and this is not a one-size fits all – but there is often significant misalignment between the customer base you’ll have worked with in the Big 4 and the core customer base of the set of firms most likely to offer you a job.

      Let’s take “Forensics” as an example – an advisory practice line that I recruit heavily within. In the Big 4, you’ll likely primarily sell services directly into large enterprise firms (Fortune/FTSE businesses) and your client contacts will typically be General Counsel, Chief Compliance Officers and those of similar ilk. There will probably be a fair amount of proactive, “forward looking” work sold.

      Flip things around to the Forensics groups in non-big four firms and they’ll often primarily be targeting attorneys within private practice law firms as their main client base, selling reactive investigations/disputes matters rather than proactive advisory work.

      Do you possess a set of relationships that will be valuable to your prospective new employer or are you misaligned? Note: you can turn this “disadvantage” into an opportunity if you’re talking to a firm that wants to build their corporate-channel revenues.

      The most difficult transition is from Government/Federal/Public sector into Commercial/Corporate. If you work in a Government focused practice today and want to work in a Corporate focused practice next, the appetite from hiring firms to facilitate this is generally very low.

      Do you need a small army of consultants behind you or infrastructure that surpasses what is available?

      As you start looking under the hood of the non Big-4 firms, you’ll notice they are typically far more “top heavy” than the environment you are used to. They are lean operating machines with significantly more Managing Directors and significantly less consultants and staffers.

      What does this mean in practical terms? If you’ve built a sizeable revenue practice/PnL in a Big 4 but that has been contingent upon having a gigantic team of consultants working for you, you aren’t going to be able to build the same model elsewhere. You’ll need to find an environment where you can bring in healthy revenues and manage that business with less resources than you’re used to when it comes to delivering that workstream.

      Sometimes this stops a conversation in its tracks immediately – let’s say you need Data Analytics capabilities and your target employer doesn’t have them, that can be a game-over situation. Often you’ll have to explore a model whereby you will engage independent contractors for delivery, or sign partnerships with vendors or other suppliers to bring forth capabilities that aren’t in-house. The question to answer? “How can I make what I do, successfully work here?”

      Is your fixed compensation too high and are your expectations inflexible?

      The Big 4 compensation model generally offers a high fixed salary or draw married with a far more modest variable remuneration/bonus structure. The reverse is generally true within the “pure play” consulting firms (i.e. non-audit, non-CPA groups), whose compensation models are heavily geared towards variable pay based on originations, utilisation and performance.

      Frankly speaking – you may be seen as a very expensive bet, or you may be expecting compensation guarantees that just aren’t on the table.

      Many Big 4 Partners/MDs are shocked at the reduction in fixed remuneration they can expect when moving to a new environment. A firm is going to taking a bet on you, but chances are you’re going to be taking a big bet on yourself too with a lower fixed pay.

      Are you going to suffer in this culture?

      Suffer? It’s a strong word. I’ve used it purposefully. Being thrust from the Big 4 if it’s all you’ve ever known into an “eat what you kill” environment can be one heck of a culture shock and I don’t want to downplay how difficult this can be for some folks to navigate when they make the transition.

      Don’t get me wrong – you’ll certainly know how to handle “internal politics” in the Big 4 and you’ll have experienced bureaucracy like no other, but non Big 4 groups can be pretty dog-eat-dog.

      Now that’s not a hard and fast rule, there are plenty of collegial groups out there and indeed some firms run global PnLs, but as a rule of thumb you should anticipate a more aggressive culture, less “referral of work” from your peers in other practice groups and more “sharp elbows” than you’ve been used to.

      This can be daunting. Many firms will give you a ramp up period and then it’s sink or swim. You can’t expect others to sustain you with work and your first 12-24 months are usually going to be the challenging as you adjust. Go into this with your eyes wide open and try to get an understanding of the culture of a firm before you commit to joining. Think “is this for me?” and “can I be happy here?”

      Are your non-competes / restrictive covenants onerous, enforceable and likely to be enforced?

      In some parts of the world, you might have a notice-period in the region of 6-12 months and you may have signed non-compete & restrictive covenants covering this period of time or even longer.

      The conundrum: prospective employers may balk at how long they’ll have to foot the bill for your remuneration before than can expect any meaningful attempt from you to solicit business from the relationships you’ve spent a career developing. In short, how long till they can expect a Return-On-Investment (ROI)?

      If it takes too long for you to be able try to win work and scale revenue, the prospective employer will seek out some sort of assurance that they can keep you meaningfully busy during this period or that they can expect some pretty solid results once you’re free of your restrictive covenants.

      Across the US in particular, we’re seeing the enforceability of these restrictions being watered down and there is a movement towards not restricting a professional from being able to practice their trade. I anticipate this being the continued direction of travel and indeed we’re seeing Big 4 firms try to enforce these covenants far less frequently, especially if someone is not moving to another Big 4 competitor when they leave.

      Have you been laid off, are you at risk, have you been invited to take early retirement or have you reached mandatory Big 4 retirement age?

      We need to talk about marketability. This is where folks can become quite defensive. Rightly or wrongly, there is no escaping that the market perception will be that if a firm is laying off 5-10% of their employees in a Reduction-In-Force (RIF) and you’re one of those impacted, that you were paid too much, sold too little, were benched too often, fostered worse relationships with your colleagues or some combination of the above, relative to your peers who kept their seats.

      Yes, firms can retrench from some markets altogether and the decision making behind layoffs and early-retirement offers can be somewhat of a black box situation, but perception is perception and to an outside firm and to those that don’t know you, you’ll be evaluated with with far greater scrutiny than if you were not impacted in layoff decisions. Perhaps you were just unlucky, or perhaps you didn’t hit a performance metric that weighed heavily in a decision making process, but you will have to try harder than others to demonstrate that your potential hiring by another consulting businesses represents a good commercial proposition for them.

      This is a reality that can stir up strong emotions. Being impacted by layoffs can be devastating, knock someone’s confidence and sense of self-esteem, professional identity and worth.

      It’s constructive to focus on the future and try not to dwell on the past. Being affected by a layoff can be a soul crushing experience, particularly if you’ve given a significant amount of your professional career, time and commitment to a firm that has subsequently let you go. My advice? Think about where you can add value to a new firm, don’t try to micro-analyse why you were laid off (or project that thinking onto a prospective employer) and come to interviews with energy and excitement for the next chapter. A Debbie-downer attitude will not get you recruited but a positive outlook will.

      When it comes to mandatory Big 4 retirement (around 60 years of age as an average across the four firms), this throws up a different challenge. Many professionals reach mandatory retirement age but know they’ve got a lot more left in the tank and want to keep working. So why the struggle to get placed?

      It’s simple: when you’ve approached mandatory retirement age, your clients start retiring too. What does that mean in practical terms? The source of revenue potential from those relationships you’ve built over your career starts diminishing too. What do you need to prove? That you have long-lasting, firm-wide relationships with your clients that span age groups and seniority levels and that those relationships will outlive the careers of a single decision maker in each client business.

      OK. That’s what we’re up against. Now here’s what you’re going to do about it…

      Know how to articulate the reasons why non Big 4 consulting teams interest you

      If you know you want to leave the Big 4 but can’t tell me why, that’s a problem. You need to absolutely nail this when you’re talking to any consulting firm or any search firm that might represent you. Get these answers ready to roll off the tongue.

      Please make this personal to your own interests, ambitions and drivers, but here are some obvious ones;


      • Independence & Conflicts: If you’ve worked in an Audit/CPA environment (the Big 4 or other accounting firms) then you’ll know too well the frustrations involved in pitching for consulting work which you end up being “conflicted out of”, often by the firm’s Audit/Assurance arm. Whilst these issues aren’t often fully eradicated in a non Big-4 environment, they are usually drastically improved. If you believe your practice could thrive in an environment that isn’t constantly battling independence & conflict concerns, that’s a pretty good reason to charter an exit from the Big 4. Don’t just tell a prospective new employer this – give them tangible, real-world examples of conflicts you’ve faced and quantify what those opportunties could have meant to your practice.
      • Bureaucracy: Non Big 4 firms are significantly more agile, decisions happen faster and innovation is (usually!) quicker. If you’ve grown frustrated with Big 4 bureaucracy, this in itself can be a driver.
      • Looking for a more entrepreneurial environment: the opportunity to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, to be able to build a practice with greater influence & autonomy over how to go-to-market and run it.
      • Compensation: in the Big 4 your compensation is heavily tied to firm-wide or large practice-wide performance. If you’re a heavy hitting rainmaker, you can often take home a considerably bigger pay packet if your results aren’t being watered down by worse performing peers. If you’re confident you’ve got a book of business, you can make incredible remuneration at firms like Berkeley Research Group , Alvarez & Marsal etc.
      • Personal brand & firm focus: Big 4 firms typically do a pretty poor job at developing the personal brands of their leaders. Simply compare the websites of consulting firms and you’ll see that outside of the Big 4, everyone has their own detailed bio and a great effort is placed in developing their market facing presence. Comparatively, Big 4 seniors often fly under the radar and have no real marketing engine focused on their personal brand i.e. the Big 4 pitch the firm, not the person. Similarly the chance to join a firm well known in your practice area vs. an audit company that has an advisory bolt-on can be an interesting proposition.
      • Moving to a hyper-growth, build-out environment: the advisory practices of Big 4 firms have had a tough time recently. Big 4 teams are often mature, experiencing down-sizing and sort of chugging along rather than aggressively scaling. Joining a consulting firm that is building out their market presence, capturing new clients and investing into developing a practice can be a lot more fun than something that is business-as-usual. This also impacts progression: if you aren’t yet a Partner at a Big 4, the goalposts and timings for that Partner track if you stay are considerably elongated now.
      • Looking to do more client work: Yes – you’ll absolutely be expected to be selling a lot outside of the Big 4, but many consulting groups will have their Partners & MD’s more heavily involved in managing client matters personally (and less focused on “resource management”) than you’ll have experienced in the Big 4.


      Sketch out your business plan

      I cannot emphasise this enough – if you want to get taken seriously by a prospective consulting firm employers, you need to immediately start thinking about your business plan, or the commercial proposition for why a firm should hire you.

      If you’re coming in as a Partner/MD then it’s all but certain you’ll be asked to deliver a plan and then either present on it, go through a panel interview or Q&A session to get into the nitty gritty of what you’ve sketched out. Generally the only exception to this is if a firm is specifically targeting you because of your known market presence, or because a former colleague is pulling you into their new firm to join them too.

      Your business plan is going to need to sell you and specifically sell the opportunity of hiring you into your target prospective employer. At every single point you need to be demonstrating where the Return-on-Investment is. If you can’t articulate a projected ROI and a roadmap to get there, you don’t have a business plan, you have a presentation of why a firm should not hire you, so keep that in mind!

      What do you need to cover?


      • What your practice looks like, the market potential, the service/s you offer and who they are offered to
      • Who your client base is today (including those that will provide a reference for you if requested)
      • What relationships you have that can be leveraged elsewhere and if those relationships can yield revenue opportunity for other areas of the firm
      • Your charge out rates and margins
      • Your resourcing needs (what you need to be successful) in terms of people needs and internal infrastructure (including systems, vendors, databases etc)
      • Whether you feel it’s realistic that you can lift out anyone with you to form part of a team (will any of your colleagues join you?)
      • Anticipated revenue projection over the next 1-4 years, year by year
      • Why your practice can work outside of the Big 4 and specifically why it can translate into the firm that you are targeting by either complementing their existing offerings or helping them to diversify their revenues with a new channel


      Make friends with headhunters, be open with them, genuine and easy to work with

      Headhunters know the pulse of the market and spend their days networking with the firms that might hire you. They know what the decision makers within those businesses are looking for at any given time. Recruiters can evaluate if you are broadly marketable, what your exit prospects look like and who is likely to want to meet you.

      They have a vested interest in helping you achieve your career goals. They only get paid if their client hires you and they get paid a higher success fee from that client if they help you negotiate a higher compensation package. Nobody wants you to get a well paid, outstanding job offer that you want to accept any more than a headhunter does. If the headhunter thinks their clients will want to pursue you, they’ll advocate for you and fight hard for your interests – you want them in your camp and singing your praises, helping you to project your value proposition and navigating the market options that you have and to help you to negotiate when the time comes.

      Headhunters have absolutely no obligation to represent you to their clients and will only do so if they want to put you in front of those firms. Do make an active effort to make sure they want to stake their name and reputation behind representing you. That starts with a level of openness around your motivations, sales track record, current situation and skill set and ensuring you’re easy to work with and don’t evade any tough questions!

      Get used to talking to them and building relationships with them. The Big 4 firms notoriously try to shelter their Partners/MDs from recruiters and try to centralise their recruitment efforts within their internal talent acquisition teams, which mean many of you won’t know us well from your day-to-day hiring endeavours in the Big 4. Take active steps to change that.

      Lastly – don’t use them just to try to enhance your internal prospects at the Big 4. If you have a headhunter spend significant time working on your behalf and the time of their clients interviewing you – don’t embarrass them by taking that offer back to your current employer to try to seek out a counteroffer or as leverage to improve your prospects within the Big 4. That course of action will burn bridges and eradicate trust. Be mindful of the time that has been spent and what others have done on your behalf.

      Work on your resume and don’t send out dross!

      I’m often astounded by the poor quality of the materials Big 4 Partners, Managing Directors and Principals are armed with when they first look to explore external job opportunities.

      I dread receiving the one-slide powerpoint made a decade ago that the EY Partner thinks will garner the right sort of attention to their prospective candidacy.

      You’ve seen enough resumes from prospective candidates over the years to know what good looks like. A search firm isn’t here to write your resume for you and will expect you to have invested the time to put together a 1-2 page resume that helps best pitch you to the market and their clients.

      If you can’t find the time to get a resume together, how will you find the time to commit to an interview processes?

      Your resume doesn’t have to be a work of art but it has to sell you well. It’s purpose is to help get you the interview. Make sure the resume you’re sending out is fit for that purpose and if you feel you need help, enlist the services of a firm that will help you to get a resume ready-for-market for a fee.

      Focus on your firm’s alumni and the paths well-trodden

      You’ve been around long enough to see folks come and go. Have you tracked where they landed when they left the Big 4?

      The easiest exit from the Big 4 is the path already trodden by others with similar backgrounds to your own. If you’ve noticed that your former colleagues at your level of seniority have often joined a particular brand, or know they’ve been interviewing with a particular consulting firm, this is a smart place to start. Have a bunch gone to Charles River Associates , Ankura , FTI Consulting , Kroll , Teneo ?

      Did you used to work with someone who is now at another consulting firm? Don’t be shy to write to them and reach out, even if you’ve not been in touch for a long time. Those who you’ve worked with who have embarked on the same journey are often far more willing to provide free counsel than you may expect. They’ve been in your shoes before and a chat with them can be very helpful!

      This sort of purposeful tracking of and networking with the alumni of your current firm can yield a whole set of ideas that you’d have possibly never thought of and be eye-opening when it comes to potential exits.

      Be a bloody good storyteller!

      There are a lot of Big 4 seniors out there who are looking for opportunities. In a climate with significant Big 4 layoffs, many of your counterparts are competing against you for placement into the same hiring firms. You have to stand out.

      Differentiate yourself by being a good storyteller. You need to be memorable and be able to captivate the attention of those who will often hold the pursestrings in other firms but won’t be a subject matter expert in your area of specialism.

      Practice on those who have absolutely no connection to your job… your spouse, significant other, friends or family. If you can tell them who you are and what you do (the elevator-pitch career snapshot) and some stories from your career (fun cases, highlights) and they aren’t visibly falling asleep on you, that’s a good starting point.

      Remember: if they don’t remember you, they won’t hire you.

      Get yourself out into the market, don’t be closed minded and don’t leave it too late to get things started

      The chances are, you aren’t going to get snapped up by McKinsey & Company , Bain & Company or Boston Consulting Group (BCG) . I mean you might – an exit from the Big 4 into these firms can be possible, but statistically it’s unlikely and even less likely if you didn’t go to a target university or get an MBA from a top business school etc.

      Working in the “Big 4 bubble” you may have a set of firms that you perceive to be prestigious (it usually ends up being the MBB strategy consulting firms, like the above or Oliver Wyman etc.) These aren’t necessarily the best firms to exit to, or even remotely possible (depending on your background and achievements).

      If there is a chance to meet a firm you haven’t heard of before or one you hadn’t thought of, think about taking that meeting. Be open minded to some purposeful networking with groups that weren’t your top targets.

      If you are senior and have only been in the Big 4 for your entire consulting career, your job search is likely to be a marathon not a sprint. The process can take months and at the Partner level up to a year. You’ll have to employ patience and not expect a quick win – this is a process.

      My biggest recommendation is to maximise your opportunity. Don’t cherry pick 2-3 firms and hope they are all interested. The greater the number of possibilities you have, the greater the likelihood of receiving an offer or multiple offers to entertain and the better your negotiating hand. Don’t be afraid to “go out to market” (what’s the worst that could realistically happen?) and to challenge your own perceptions about other firms.

      In Conclusion…

      That’s a wrap – hopefully these insights are valuable. This has been intended as a candid, tell it as it is perspective for those looking to leave the Big 4 to pursue opportunities within other consulting firms.

      Stay tuned for the next newsletter in this series which will address similar considerations for Big 4 professionals looking to exit the Big 4 in pursuit of in-house, client-side opportunities.

      Back to Insights & Knowledge Hub

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