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Working for the Big 4: The all-star mindset

September 7, 2011

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of Working for the Big 4: The First Year All-Star (A Battle Plan to Be #1 In Your Class) from the website

In this chapter you will learn how to mentally prepare yourself for the many challenges that you will face during your time with the Big 4.

Rule 1: Don’t Lose Yourself

When you start working for the Big 4 you will be entering a world that is completely different than the world that you are used to. You will be faced with new pressures and new situations and often you will be pushed out of your comfort zone. It is times like these, in life, when we are most likely to forget who we really are in an effort to “fit the mold” of our surroundings.

If I can stress one thing, more than anything else, it is to remember who you are and where you come from. Working for the Big 4 will change you professionally, but it should not change you personally. If at any point in your career you feel that you are trying to be something you are not, take a step back and reevaluate. There is not a “right way” to succeed with the Big 4.

Rule 2: Be Realistic About Your Firm

Because competition to work for the Big 4 is so fierce and students are inundated with how great the firms are from the outset of their college careers, it is often difficult for First Years to accept that working for the Big 4, at the end of the day, is just a job. Further adding to the mythical status of the firms are the many campus events that lavish expensive dinners on new hires before they even step foot into the office.

On my first day with the Big 4 I honestly expected to walk into a bee-hive of activity, with vibrant, passionate people engaged in stimulating debate. I expected everyone to be as energized and thrilled to be working for the firm as I was. While I found the people to be bright, vibrant and passionate, working for the Big 4 was just their job, not their life. Like every other job, people couldn’t wait for Friday, people had complaints, just like every job, and some people were even (GASP!) thinking about leaving the firm to do something else. Some people were just sitting around browsing the internet, complaining about certain managers, and making their weekend plans. I was shocked to find that not every single person at the firm was on the “partner track,” that is, planning to work with the firm long enough to make partner.

“It is hard to come to terms with the fact that someone could want to leave the firm that you worked so hard to get into”

You should not expect the environment of the firm to be a constant source of motivation. Some people simply do not like working for the firm and often the morale at the firm is low. If you are prepared to witness this then you can use it as a source of strength. The motivation you have as a First Year, the motivation that prompted you to read this book, is something that you must cultivate and maintain from within. As you will see in this book, much of what the Big 4 has to offer is dependent on what you make of it. Don’t be discouraged by the naysayers.

Rule 3: Spend the Majority of Your Time in Someone Else’s Shoes

The essence of being an All-Star First Year is to not think like a First Year at all. While your peers take a self-centered approach to their work, you will take a broader view. Later in the book you will learn techniques you can use and actions you can take to transcend the quality and quantity of work that is typical of a First Year. Imperative to this approach is to also think beyond the horizon of a First Year. The best way to do this is to think of certain situations from the viewpoint of someone else in the firm. We will explore this through a series of examples.

Example 1: Think Like A Senior

Senior Associates, for the most part, will be your “boss” during the first year. Seniors typically have three or four years of experience. While it varies for different engagements, there are typically four of five First Years for every Senior. The Seniors are in charge or managing the day-to-day operations of an engagement, assigning responsibilities to the First Years and Experienced Associates and, most importantly, reviewing the work of the staff below them. Seniors must also complete their own assignments on the engagement and bring the Managers up to speed on how things are going.

It is widely accepted that the Seniors are generally more stressed out and busier than anyone else in the firm. Seniors have been with the firm too plead ignorance when they make a mistake (though even as a First Year you should never do this!). However, they have not been with the firm long enough to step back from the day-to-day annoyances of running an engagement.

Whereas Managers have the ability to deal with a select population of complex issues and worry about client relationships, the Seniors are either doing or reviewing all of the “grunt work” of the engagement. Understanding and empathizing with the Seniors will serve you well in your first year. This is so important, in fact, that Chapter Two is entirely dedicated to building and leveraging your relationships with the Seniors.

Example 2: Think Like a Manager

As discussed above, Managers are one layer removed from the day-to-day audit work. Managers are more concerned with specific and complex areas of the audit. The biggest fear of a Manager is that something big will be missed in the audit work and that, at the last second, the Partner will demand that the team do additional procedures before the audit can be complete. No matter what your level in the firm, you could potentially come across an issue that has huge implications to the audit.

If you do, be sure to notify your Senior and/or Manager with plenty of time to make sure that the issue can be resolved. Use your professional judgment. If something does not seem correct, even though you’ve performed audit procedures on it, articulate this to your team quickly. One of the privileges that Managers have is that they do not need to know about every single detail of the audit. That is for you and your Senior to worry about. Nevertheless, there are times when the Manager may ask you what you’re up to or how things are going. To be prepared for this, keep a running list of the more important things that you are working on. Have this fresh in your mind so, if asked for a status update, you will be able to provide a well thought out response.

Example 3: Think Like a Partner

It is never too early to start thinking like a Partner. While the full reach of what the Partners deal with could fill a book in itself, there are certain items you can focus on as a First Year that will bring your thinking in line with the partners. The first of these is complex accounting issues. Each quarter and each year, your clients will inevitably enter a transaction or dealing that creates a complex accounting scenario.

Examples of these include issuing convertible debt, entering agreements that contain imbedded derivatives, issuing a new stock compensation plan or completing a merger or acquisition. While it is likely that you, as a First Year, will not be assigned a role in dealing with these transactions, you can take it upon yourself to get acquainted with the issue and the appropriate accounting guidance. All of the Big 4 firms have tools (e.g. PwC Comperio, EY GAAIT) that make it very easy to get a general understanding of complex topics.

By researching these issues, you will be able to not only better understand the issues that your client is facing, but you will be potentially able to add a point or two to the dialogue between the Mangers and Partner, should the opportunity present itself. All it takes is one or two well timed comments to put yourself on the Partner’s radar.

Rule 4: Don’t let Down Your Guard…Too Much

When you’re spending most of your waking hours every day with the same people, things tend to get a little…shall we say…”casual.” Friendships build, walls come down, and suddenly you and your boss are telling “This one time in college…” stories. More than other work environments, the line between what is appropriate and what is inappropriate is completely blurred at the Big 4.

Due to the fact that Seniors are only three or four years older than First years, and Managers are not that much older than that, the whole team is relatively close in age. If you think about it, is a 28 year old Manager really that different than a 22 year old First Year when you’ve had a few drinks after an 80 hour work week? Not really. This bonding and sharing contributes to team morale and fosters some of the best friendships in the Big 4. It is definitely OK to relax, have fun and treat your coworkers as friends.

However, do not forget that the Seniors and Managers hold the power to control your destiny with the firm in the palm of their hands. You must be ever aware of when to draw the line. If a joke or prank feels like “too much” or if someone is getting picked on that is not part of the joke, then you should not be involved. Needless to say, if you’re aware of any behavior that violates the firm’s ethics or harassment policies they should be handled accordingly. In short, while you will have some fun at work, be smart with your choices. Even your closest friend with the firm may someday turn out to be against you in some way (e.g. you get promoted ahead of one of your peers). The less ammunition they have on you the better!

Rule 5: Trust Yourself

Warning, what you’re about to read is going to sound like a cliché. Acknowledge that and then read it again. OK, here goes. If you cannot trust yourself you will not succeed. Trust myself, you may be asking? Of course I trust myself. But do you really?

When you uncover an error during the audit, do you trust that yourself to do what it takes to get it resolved even when it will entail many hard conversations and additional work?

When your work is reviewed by the Senior and you feel that you are right and he is wrong, do you trust that you will speak up and make your point known?

When your work is reviewed by the Senior and you realize that you were wrong, do you trust that you will be humble and learn from your mistake?

The answers to these questions has to be yes. In the long road to success with the Big 4 the only constant will be you. Colleagues will come and go, the project that you hate will eventually end and the project you love will eventually end. In the end it is you, the body of work that you’ve done and the difficult decisions you’ve made.

For more information on Working for the Big 4: The First Year All-Star (A Battle Plan to Be #1 In Your Class) visit here.


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