Big 4 Culture: The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This French proverb originally created to describe 19th century French culture, might equally apply to 20th-21st century Big 4 audit culture.
I’ve got more experience than I’m comfortable admitting-three years of Big 4, six years of Fortune 100 accounting and audit, then 25 or so years as a serial entrepreneur in the financial staffing industry. So, I’ve been all around the Big 4 for 35 or so years as an employee, a client, a vendor, an advisor and now a blogger. So I think I’m probably somewhat of an expert on manifestations of change in the Big 4 culture.
One thing most everyone agrees on is the dramatic impact of technology, regulation and litigation on the public accounting profession. The up or out culture that exists within Big 4 firms also applies in the business environment where those firms operate. Big 4 staff members cannot be faulted for believing they face unprecedented challenges in their daily work. The push to be better and faster, but price competitive, creates a culture of constant change. Not all the change has been positive. I recently read a Wall Street Journal article that severely criticized the accounting profession’s current culture.
“Over the last five years, the staid accounting profession has been transformed into a Darwinian jungle. The major accounting firms are reeling from a sharp rise in competition, shrinking audit business in the wake of client mergers, waves of litigation from disgruntled clients, and unprecedented layoffs and partner defections. Those who remain are finding that the law of survival of the fittest prevails over generally accepted behavioral principles.”
The accounting profession, especially the Big 4, has certainly had its share of tumultuous change during the past couple of decades. After a relatively quiet half century as the Big 8, then #4 Ernst & Young and #5 Arthur Young merged in 1989. This was quickly followed by the merger of Deloitte and Touche Ross to form the Big 6. This combined with the real estate driven recession of the late 80s – early 90s, which produced a blizzard of bank failures and mergers, created a very volatile period for CPAs.
In 1997, KPMG and Ernst & Young announced a merger that would create the largest accounting firm ever. But, it was never realized as regulators tied it up too long. In 1998 though, a Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand merger was quickly approved forming the Big 5.
Storm clouds were gathering as the 1990’s came to a close. As the Big 5’s consulting practices grew (sometimes consulting fees were exceeding audit fees) ethical issues started to arise as auditors sometimes found themselves reviewing their
own firm’s work. Arthur Anderson created a separate consulting division in 1989 then completely divested the business creating Accenture in 2000. Then a series of accounting scandals in the early 2000s culminated in Arthur Anderson
going out of business. This sent thousands of AA employees scurrying to secure employment. Whole practice groups and offices were quickly gobbled up by other large firms leaving AA an empty shell and creating the Big 4.
In response to accounting scandals, the 2002 Sarbanes Oxley Act (SOX), sometimes called the accountant’s full employment act, required a significant overhaul of audit methodology. SOX required management and external auditors to report on the adequacy of the company’s internal control system for financial reporting. SOX implementation was very costly as documenting and testing financial controls to the extent necessary to issue opinions on internal control required enormous additional
The great recession of 2008-2009 brought more pressure on the profession as scapegoats were sought for Wall Street failures, investment scandals and burst real estate bubbles. CPA firms and their partners were being held ever more liable for public
While life in the Big 4 in the 2010s may seem more challenging than ever, it’s good to study history for perspective. The recessions of 1974, 1982, 1990, 2000 and 2008 all created challenging work environments for Big 4 staffers. CPAs in all of these eras had good reason to believe they were being asked to do more work in less time than their predecessors. I remember living through each of these and thinking “the accounting world has changed and will never be the same again.”
The WSJ article referenced earlier would lead one to believe the profession is on the verge of calamity. That article was in the July 24,1991 WSJ edition. The article went on to state “the profession’s crisis is playing havoc with accountants’ lives…who have become so anxiety ridden their health is in peril.” Little did the author know of the mergers, scandals and regulatory crises that lie ahead.
In Honor Of March Madness, Accounting Schools Of The ACC
The 2011 Edition of Candidate Performance on the Uniform CPA Exam (published by NASBA) lists an overall ranking of institutions by pass rate of students without advanced degrees who were taking parts for the first time. I thought it would be interesting to see how the accounting departments of ACC schools ranked against each other.
1 Wake Forest 96%
2 Virginia 89%
3 North Carolina 77%
4 Boston College 76%
5 Duke 71%
6 Maryland 67%
6 Virginia Tech 67%
8 Clemson 66%
9 Florida State 65%
10 NC State 62%
11 Miami 58%
12 Georgia Tech 56%
National Average 53%
Every school in the conference was above national average.
Wake Forest was ranked #1 nationally, Virginia #2, North Carolina #12,Boston College #17.
Great showing by the ACC.
Resume’ Red Flags
Some warning signs to look for when reviewing resumes:
If you advertise a position in today’s tight job market, you may get more that you expect. Many employers report that more people than ever are responding to ads. But more resumes don’t necessarily add up to more qualified candidates. Look out for these red flags, which could mean trouble.
- Gaps in employment – once the most obvious warning sign, today’s slow economy is making gaps in employment more common and more acceptable. However, they still warrant explanation. A long period of unemployment could mean that the candidate was fired and couldn’t find a job. Some candidates attempt to camouflage employment gaps by indicating only the year and not the months they were employed in previous positions or not including dates at all.
- Too many lateral moves – while the recession has cut off opportunities for advancement at some companies, a succession of job changes with little or no increase in responsibility may be a bad sign. There could be a reason the candidate was never selected for promotion. If you’re looking for someone with potential, it may be a good idea to keep looking
- Too long or too short – In addition to giving a candidate’s work history, a resume says a lot about his or her communication skills. A good resume is concise but descriptive. It should give enough information to adequately support the candidate’s qualifications for the position. But it should (almost) never take more than a couple of pages to do so.
- Too much irrelevant information – No matter how impressive an applicant’s educational background or how unique his or her personal interests, overly long descriptions of either are inappropriate. The candidate’s focus should be on his or her qualifications for the job.
- Inconsistent or unprofessional format – An organized, uncluttered resume is easy to read and usually indicates that the candidate is organized. Tense should be consistent – past tense for previous jobs, present tense for current employment. Colored paper, photos, and other gimmicks are not only unprofessional, but also distract from the important information about the candidate’s experience.
- Grammar or spelling mistakes – An indisputable sign of carelessness, resumes containing grammar or spelling mistakes are filed by most managers in the circular file.
Got other red flags you look for? Comment and add them to the list for everyon’s benefit.
How do North Carolina Schools of Accounting Stack Up ON CPA Exam Pass Rates?
According to the 2011 edition of Candidate Performance On the Uniform CPA Exam published by the NASBA, the top 10 North Carolina schools ranked by pass rate for first time candidates without an advanced degree were:
1. Wake Forest ( also #1 nationally!! )
2. Davidson College
3. UNC Chapel Hill
4. UNC Asheville
6. UNC Pembroke
7. (tie) Appalachian State
7. (tie) Western Carolina
9. NC State
10. UNC Charlotte
Got a question about how how your school ranks in-state or nationally? Wonder about success rate on particular parts? Interested in other states? Ask and I’ll research and provide results here.
How Do Virginia Schools Rank On CPA Exam Pass Rates
According to the 2011 edition of Candidate Performance On the Uniform CPA Exam published by the NASBA, the top 10 Virginia schools ranked by pass rate for first time candidates without an advanced degreee were:
2. William & Mary
3. James Madison
4. Washington & Lee
5. Virginia Tech
7. Old Dominion
8. Roanoke College
9. Christopher Newport
10. George Mason
The Second 10 Ranked By Pass Rate
12. North Carolina (Chapel Hill)
13. New Hampshire
16. Michigan (Ann Arbor)
17. Boston College
20. Michigan State
Best Schools for CPA Exam Preparation
The 2011 edition of Candidate Performance on the Uniform CPA Examination, covering testing information collected for the calendar year 2010 has been published by the NASBA.
For 2010, the schools with the top overall pass rates for first-time candidates without an advanced degree were:
- Wake Forest University
- University of Virginia
- University of Wisconsin – Madison
- Cornell University
- Trinity University
- University of Missouri – Columbia
- Kansas State University
- Western Washington University
- Texas Christian University
- University of Notre Dame.
The schools with the top overall pass rates for first-time candidates with an advanced degree were:
- James Madison University
- Brigham Young University
- University of Georgia
- University of Kentucky
- New York University
- Baylor University
- University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
- University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
- University of Wisconsin – Madison
- State University of New York – Buffalo
Keys to Interview Success
Communication skills are the most critical factor to interview success. That’s what we hear from hiring manager as they evaluate candidates for positions in their organizations. While many other characteristics are important, the candidate’s ability to explain, in a concise manner, what they do well and how that applies to the hiring firm’s needs will likely determine whether they are given serious consideration.
Several other interviewing characteristics are given high priority by Virginia firms. Demonstrating these in an interview setting will greatly improve your chances of interview success.
Technical proficiency is an obvious requirement for most positions. While most firms expect to provide training to help a new hire get up to speed with the organization, candidates must have knowledge of the skills required to perform a job.
Teamwork abilities are also important. Everyone seems to be concerned that positions are filled with people who can contribute to a group effort and are willing to work as a part of a team.
Problem-solving skills are important to accounting and financial managers. People who are flexible, can work in less structured environments, and don’t need to rely on a bureaucracy to solve problems are preferred.
Finally, employers seem to highly value an intangible characteristic loosely identified as impact. The handshake, energy level, demeanor, and preparedness to interview all give the interviewer insight into a candidate’s business intelligence and leadership potential.
What does it take to succeed in accounting?
What words of advice would successful accounting professionals offer to someone starting their accounting career? Consider the value of answers to this question from a Big Four tax partner, a Big Four audit partner, the owner of a local public accounting firm, a General Auditor from a major bank, and the Chief Audit Officer of a state government agency.
There is a saying: “experience is the best teacher.” However, the power of learning through experience can be multiplied many times if the benefit is obtained by learning from other people’s experiences. By listening to successful accounting and auditing professionals and applying the lessons learned, you may be able to position yourself to achieve similar success as you pursue your career.
So, what does it take to succeed in accounting? I recently asked several accounting professionals for their thoughts on this subject.
According to an audit partner with PriceWaterhouseCoopers, “To exceed or achieve professional expectations, I believe you must excel in four broad skills. The first, professional expertise, encompasses technical competence and leadership with the ability to apply it to industry and general business issues. Secondly, the professional must demonstrate outstanding human resource development skills, including both self-development and staff-development skills.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to manage the relationship profitably, and the leadership skills to integrate and provide creative teamwork solutions to client issues. Finally, the successful professional must be able to develop business for his firm through growth in services with existing clients, generating new business prospects, and demonstrating market leadership skills.”
A Senior Vice President and General Auditor at a major national bank, believes communication skills are critical to success in accounting.
“Over the years I have hired a number of very successful college graduates who have “easily” passed the CPA exam. However, in auditing your final product must be effectively delivered to the auditee in order to elicit a positive action. In addition, you must succinctly and concisely deliver, in written form, your message to executive management and the board.”
A tax partner in the tax department of Ernst & Young, believes: “Technical proficiency and a strong work ethic are obviously important to academic success and professional success as well. However, your success will ultimately depend on your ability to provide quality service to your clients. Quality service goes beyond your knowledge of the “rules” or your ability to work hard, and requires a broad business perspective, an understanding of your client’s business and culture, responsiveness to clients needs, and a proactive (not reactive) attitude. To me, this is the greatest challenge of our profession and the true measure of success.”
According to the owner of a sole proprietorship in Richmond, “students entering the profession need to learn to challenge all of the work they see and do. They must ask questions and not accept anything for its face value.
They should develop strong people skills. This will help them grow into relationships with clients and contacts and pay big dividends in the long term.
They should work and learn in all areas of the profession, but should set their sights on an area of specialization.
They should give time and energy back to the community after finding a worthy cause with which they have a personal interest.
The General Audit Officer of a large state government agency, has some thoughts for those considering careers in internal auditing that seem relevant to all accountants and auditors.
“Individuals entering the field of internal auditing need to be adaptable and have the ability to look at global issues and not “get lost in the trees and not see the forest.” Since the nature of internal auditing is to assist members of the organization in the effective discharge of their responsibilities, individuals must have the ability to communicate their thoughts to all organizational levels effectively. They must also demonstrate their technical skills through professional certification. Lastly, they must be open-minded and add value to the organization through their work.”
The common thread in all these responses seems to be communication skills. Whether it’s called client service, relationship management, people skills, or just oral and written communications, all the professionals in my survey saw effective communication as critical to the development of a successful accounting career.
There may be something here to consider as you are selecting classes for your final semester. The technical background is clearly essential. However, the ability to deal effectively with others will probably be the crux of your climb toward success.
Tips for New Accountants
It’s your first job, you’re ready to work hard, make a good impression and jump on the fast track. But you see a lot of others just like you. In the staff room is a collection of shining stars all burning with ambition and determination. Rumors are flying about one person’s family ties to a vice president, another’s great grades at an Ivy League school, a third’s incredible work as an intern … and then there is you, an unknown, who is presently very unsure about your chances for success.
Whether you’re an unknown or any of the others described above, there are ways to improve your chances. The first is to forget about things you cannot control. If you’re going to have less success because of some factor you have no control over, so be it. But do everything you can to enhance your abilities, overcome any disadvantages, and provide your very best effort. Then you can be satisfied that you performed your best and thus maximized your achievement. Sure, happenstance plays a factor in all careers, but being prepared to accept and take advantage of the breaks that come your way is far more important than luck.
Other ways you can improve your chances for success include:
Listen carefully to everything your boss says. Create an image that you are eager to learn.
Work hard. Always give 100 percent effort. You will be noted for your effort and be better prepared than your peers who like to coast when not under pressure and provide maximum effort only when it really counts.
Develop a professional attitude. Don’t second guess and never participate in gripe or gossip sessions. If you don’t understand something, ask for a fuller explanation when the time is right.
Never criticize peers. You may make yourself look better in the short run, but others will assume you must not be measuring up if you need to hide behind criticism. Know and follow the rules, customs and traditions of your organization. Failure to do so will make others question your commitment and seriousness and place you behind others of equal ability who appear more diligent.
Be visible. If you are too passive or reserved, you may not be noticed as much as those who express themselves. But be careful how you are seen. Cockiness or arrogance are not the best ways to get yourself noticed. One good way to attract positive attention is through honest enthusiasm. By being one who contributes to a fast-paced environment, you’ll distinguish yourself as not only a contributor, but a leader.
Most important of all, be a producer. This is the best method for getting ahead. A good producer cannot go unnoticed for long. But recognize the difference between effort and production. At the end of the day it’s not how hard or long you worked but only what you produced that matters.
Welcome to “By the Numbers…”. Together we will work through career advancement issues in accounting. This blog will serve as a career-mentoring site for you, the professional accountant/CPA.
When I started my career, I had very limited access to career advice for a new accounting graduate/CPA. So many of the decisions and choices I made were based on instinct rather than the best long term interests of my career.
I began as a po’ boy from Southside Virginia, stumbled into a degree in accounting and earned my CPA certificate upon graduation. I was recruited to join a prestigious ”Big 4″public accounting firm (actually it was called “Big 8″ then) for their DC office even though I had little idea what I would be doing and less understanding of where this was going to lead.
I went to a small high school in a small town where career planning was deciding which mill you would work for upon graduation and how much of a car loan could one get. Being the first in my family to go to college and all that goes along with that, I just knew I wanted to do something different. My parents (though neither of them ever thought about college for themselves) felt education was the way out and always expected I would be a college grad.
At Virginia Tech, I knew that two things about a career selection really mattered to me: qualifying for a job where I could make $ upon graduation and doing something involving math and numbers. Accounting!!!
I worked for that Big 8 firm for about 3 years beginning a career odyssey of travel, long hours, hard work and risk taking that has provided great opportunities to learn and develop many professional connections that I have leveraged throughout my career. I have worked for Fortune 100 firms and entrepreneurial start ups. I’ve been staff accountant, senior accountant, manager, CFO and CEO. And I have bet the ranch a couple of times that I could leverage my contacts and skills to build successful businesses.
Along the way, I found mentors. Some have shared information I wasn’t ready to hear. Others didn’t quite give me what I needed. But, a few gave me just what I needed, when I needed it, to make a break-through to a new level. They made a difference in my career and perhaps I can make a difference in yours.
Hello Accounting World!
Welcome to “By the Numbers…” – a blog that will help you navigate through your accounting career decisions regardless of your level of work experience. Join me as we traverse the accounting career pathway together. Post your questions and let’s begin this journey.
If you are curious about current positions in the accounting/finance market, check out my site (http://www.cpastaffing.com).