The best time to leave public accounting is after the three- to six-year mark, recommends a new report that relies on advice from alumni of the Big Four firms and Minneapolis-area CFOs.

The Coenen Brothers’ Insider Report contends that the best time to leave public accounting is after three to six years.

“The three- to six-year mark is when the majority of my learning took place,” said Andy Dahl, a former senior manager at a Big Four firm. “After the six-year mark, most of what I did was refinement of the things I had already learned.”

Research in the report indicates that it is best to leave when an accountant becomes a first- or second-year senior, prior to receiving the title of manager. From the recruitment and hiring perspective, Coenen Bros., a recruiting firm in the Minneapolis area headed by Ken and Thomas Coenen, has found that the three- to five-year mark offers the most opportunities outside of public accounting, though there is some variability in the two- to six-year range.  At this stage, a public accountant has maximized and leveraged his or her current position but is still pliable and moldable, according to Terry Schwagel of General Mills. 

Schwagel reported that General Mills typically hires three to four seniors from the public accounting profession each year, compared to hiring just one at the manager level every three years.  Other Minneapolis firms have reported the same hiring trend, according to Dahl, validating the findings that once senior manager status is obtained, a public accountant has passed his or her ideal marketability outside the public accounting arena.

The report notes that it is important to consider and prepare for leaving the public sector at the right time, because “…as time goes on, you get diminishing returns, and you become less marketable as you pass the sweet spot of the Big Four,” according to an unnamed source for the report. 

Establishing a relationship with a recruiting firm early on, even prior to reaching that experience “sweet spot,” is a proactive way to achieve the best position for career growth, according to Coenen Bros.