A career in accounting firms was perhaps a path less travelled for many management accountants, who have traditionally served as in-house finance advisers. But with the growth of consulting divisions in global accounting firms, management accountants trained in interdisciplinary skills in finance, management, and strategy are poised to step into these roles. Part of the attraction comes from the prestige, acknowledgement of technical expertise, and a share in a firm’s profits.
So what specific skills do firms look for in future partners?
Research by professors from Singapore Management University found a set of essential attributes of Big Four partners: technical expertise, strong sense of integrity and ethics, strong business sense, entrepreneurial acumen, client management skill, communication skill, and leadership and team management skills.
In another study led by Crawford Spence, professor of accounting at King’s College London, interviews with partners of large accounting firms in Japan and China showed differences in firms’ expectations. In Japan, partners are motivated to ensure firm survival where stable revenues are valued over growth. Their primary drive is to perform an honourable role and leave a legacy behind at retirement inculcating a firm culture that emphasises being a team player rather than being a superstar.
In China, money speaks louder. Partners’ abilities to generate revenue and grow the business are the most highly valued attributes, reflecting a closer similarity to firms in the West, the researchers note. Unsurprisingly, sales and marketing skills and having a wide network are highly prized.
We asked five CGMA designation holders based in Asia to talk about what it takes to make partner in large accounting firms:
Hugo Walkinshaw, FCMA, CGMA, is the life sciences partner at EY Asia-Pacific based in Singapore, and formerly a partner at Deloitte South-East Asia.
Sammy Lai, CPA/ABV, CGMA, is a deals partner at PwC China. He was recruited directly as partner in 2016 after spending a significant part of his career in consulting firms.
Hazem Al-Agez, CPA, CGMA, is a business risk and tax advisory partner at Grant Thornton Al Qatami, Al Aiban & Partners Kuwait with consulting experience in Canada earlier in his career.
Kamaya Perera, CPA (Australia), ACMA, CGMA, is an advisory partner at KPMG Sri Lanka and one of four female partners in the firm.
Gavin Leake, FCMA, CGMA, who was made partner at age 28 at EY South Africa, had been senior partner at Deloitte New Zealand, Croatia, and Saudi Arabia before his current role as a senior consultant at the Saudi Investment Bank.
Edited excerpts follow.
What skills are partners expected to have?
Leake: I have a book that’s sort of my bible called We’re All Self-Employed. That does not mean that we have a little shop around the corner, but what it means is that you have skills. And those skills are valuable to somebody, and if somebody offers you a transaction price and you accept it, then there’s an employment contract.
The concept of a trusted business adviser, it’s not only talking to the CEO about reconciliations, or deadlines on publications of reports. If you broaden your skill base, you can transcend organisations because CEOs are sitting at the top and not at the function. He has to be able to play the orchestra. A lot of people only have the mentality: “I’m only audit. I’m not going to be anything else.” That’s when skills start diminishing in value, and problems might arise in terms of your upward mobility, promotions, and your success. To be a successful business adviser, you need to be skilled.
Al-Agez: Being a part of the most senior management of any place, the area of the C-suite, is a club, and there are membership requirements. If a person qualifies, then they’re granted access to it.
You need to achieve one of the [accounting] certifications; that’s the starting point. Then comes other skills that you would need to grow over time, and I think the two most important skills are the ability to solve problems and the ability to sell.
Solving problems includes solving client problems and solving internal team problems. Selling means being able to sell to clients and sell to all stakeholders within the organisation. There’s a book, Selling the Invisible, that says that the relationship between me and my team members, me and my superior, and me and my clients, we’re all trying to promote ideas and solutions. I need to show them the benefit to committing to something. That’s the “invisible”. It’s different from selling a tangible product where they can see it, feel it, and try it out.
Also, as a trusted adviser, there is a big difference between perceiving a prospect as a “client” versus a “customer”. By default a customer is someone who buys your product and may or may not return, while a client is someone who is under your protection and care, which requires a different mindset as a service provider.
Lai: Interpersonal skills. You need to work as a team member. You need to be approachable, such that people will want to work with you and to play with you. With clients, chemistry is very important. You need to attract clients to work with you and to enjoy having your help. Of course, you need to have the skillsets to assist clients and to solve their problems.
Apart from direct experiences, I think it’s very helpful to have professional qualifications — they save a thousand words — and clients are more willing to talk to you when they know the kind of knowledge you have through the qualifications.
In your own path to partnership, what was helpful?
Perera: Of all the soft skills that helped me progress, integrity is number one. If you don’t have integrity, people will not see you as someone who really walks the talk, as someone who can be trusted. If you don’t have the integrity or strength to do what is right, it will all come crumbling down.
I also had a really supportive boss and encouragement from the rest of the partners. I had both my kids while at KPMG, and there were a lot of moments when I wanted to leave to take care of my kids full time. The partners gave me the flexibility to attend to my family’s needs and encouraged me that I can do both. The lady partners were living examples that it could be done.
Walkinshaw: I had modern history for a degree — imperial history, Asian history, Africa history. My Asian history background has given me significant advantages in that I understand several hundred years of history of every market I’ve ever worked in in Asia. I can understand which cultures fit, how do you engage with people, how do you offend people, which cultures do not mix in markets, how do you get things done, when a yes means yes, a no means no. All of that has come from my history background, not to do with sciences or maths.
If you have strong communication skills, strong emotional intelligence, and cultural and social awareness of whatever market you’re working in, that is way more powerful than multiple degrees and firsts in technical subjects.
The big differentiator looking at people who get through early, the people who build better careers, were those with strong emotional intelligence and communication skills. It’s a people business, and we have 222,000 colleagues worldwide. It’s about being able to navigate and network a very large ecosystem in a professional services firm. It’s not a place with a strict black-and-white line of control. It’s lots of dotted lines, lots of practice areas, with lots of people. Being clear about the space you operate in, the adjacent spaces like service lines and industries where there may be something for you to learn or for your client. Having your head up and looking the full 360 around what’s going on in the firm can only accelerate you through.
Al-Agez: There’s something that I practice on a daily basis and it’s also the title of a book called It’s Not the Big That Eat the Small … It’s the Fast That Eat the Slow. This skill translates to being prompt in addressing client emails, phone calls, concerns, deadlines. If you get a phone call for an engagement and you wait to take the appointment next week, and send the proposal the week after, there is a high chance you’re going to lose it. It’s not the size of the company that will guarantee success; it’s how fast you can move and adapt your ideas and move your assets and resources.
How is the panel interview for potential partners?
Perera: There’s a presentation and it’s all about yourself. Promoting yourself could be the most difficult thing to do — maybe it’s because of the culture in Asia — but you have to do that. The questions were about what I’ve done and on my future plans. They really drilled me down to figure out my go-to market strategy and whether my plans were overambitious.
Leake: I always ask this question at Deloitte: “What do you do to make people want to work for you?” Not have to work for you. “Have to” means I’m the boss and you work for me, and that doesn’t mean they want to work for you. Many of them struggled to answer it.
Some of them said they would mention on-the-job training. They’ll share their knowledge with the people. They’ll show empathy. It is a question relating to how good your people skills are and how do you listen. We all have one mouth and two ears. You should be listening twice as much as you’re talking.
Can young graduates today do what you did to become partner?
Perera: When I joined, the technical skills, at least in the division that I worked in, were looking at more corporate finance, transaction services, treasury management-related skills. Later, business planning, cost, and management reporting became important.
Over the years I realised, technical skills become a given. What gives you the added edge is probably soft skills coupled with how well you’re versed with dynamic environments that you’re working in today. Now we’re talking about cybersecurity, AI, industry 4.0. Everything has really changed, so you have to keep abreast with the environment even though you’re a management accountant. You really need to know how those external factors link toward the key subject areas you have learnt and how that affects businesses, especially if you’re in consulting.
Walkinshaw: It’s probably harder because the industry is much more mature. There’s a lot more competition. I think the two points to focus on for those coming through now is if you’re a foreigner — it doesn’t matter if you’re somebody from Singapore going to the UK, or somebody from the UK coming to Singapore — to move early in your career, put your roots down, and build your career in a nontraditional culture. Get out, do something different, go somewhere different and build. I still think that’s possible.
Social mobility is much easier now. But still there are so many people doing that at a young age, and many people succumb to expat assignments and go for short two- to three-year stints. But that’s not how you make partner at a Big Four firm. You need to get into practice, drop anchor. You need to be part of the fabric and grow with the firm. Getting posted across the globe is great from a social perspective and great from a developmental perspective, but it almost becomes a barrier as you start trying to make that final push to being a partner because you haven’t dropped roots anywhere. You haven’t built that client base and showed your colleagues what you can do.
I think you need a minimum of three years in a market if you’re trying to make partner. If somebody wants to come out and go to China, somebody wants to come out and go to Japan, come to Singapore, or go to Hong Kong — it’s tough getting in. But if you can get there, I think there’s a real opportunity for somebody who’s got a Western-based education to come across to Asia and to thrive in this part of the world because you’re providing a different perspective.
Equally, I think there are huge opportunities for someone coming out of Asia and going to the US or Europe. It’s the different culture and the different background that is valuable. It’s also because of clients. The brand around “being from Asia” has grown immensely.
What would you say to someone considering to be a partner?
Lai: Becoming a partner is the ultimate goal for many junior staff in professional services firms. The financial rewards, prestige, and the authority of being a partner could be tempting. When you’re at a different stage in your career path, you will be faced with different choices. Rewards, stability, work/life balance, and whether the platform provides opportunities to demonstrate your capabilities are some factors you have to consider.
Before deciding to become a partner, you need to think through your interests in life and in work. The life of a partner in accounting or consulting firms can be very different from being in senior management in a nonconsulting company. It’s a known fact that in accounting or consulting firms, you will have to spend long hours at work and meet tight deadlines from time to time. You will have to travel regularly and serve different clients in different industries. You have to keep learning to stay abreast with the changing world. So think about how you want to live your life in five, ten, or 15 years.
Are you good in dealing with people? Will you be interested in serving different clients and dealing with different kinds of people? Will you enjoy learning new things and facing new challenges? Can you work under pressure? If your answer to most of these questions is a “yes”, then welcome aboard.
Walkinshaw: Start embracing the kind of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and maths] background, looking at technology, digital, analytics, cybersecurity, and those are really big hot topics if you want to be successful in the Big Four on the advisory side. Pick up one of those new areas, and invest heavily in them either through your education or your passion outside of work. I think those are big, white spaces, and the opportunity to have a career and build a career in an undeveloped or less developed part of the professional services world is really huge.
If you’re not passionate about them and don’t want to do that, it’s fine. But a lot of the traditional consulting is getting harder; it’s becoming more utility and commoditised. Embracing digital analytics and the technology space is the other way to accelerate a career at this point.
Typically, if you come in all the way through the firm from university, I would say it takes 15 years to make partner. I would expect someone about 35 to be nudging at the door. I think if you moved firms but stayed within professional services, it could be the same. In some places you’ll see people coming in a bit more quickly, and that’s normally because of hot skills in a new area or someone who’s just come into an emerging markets practice and knock it out of the park.
— Alexis See Tho (Alexis.SeeTho@aicpa-cima.com) is an FM magazine associate editor.